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Unfortunately, the version of methodological individualism that Popper bequeathed to his student Watkins was considerably more difficult to defend than the one he inherited from Hayek. Since the beginning, the precepts of methodological individualism were thought to have been imposed by the special requirements of the social sciences. For both Weber and Hayek, it was the reflection of a key difference between the Geisteswissenschaften and the Naturwissenschaften. Popper, however, denies that there are any significant methodological differences between the two. The problem that this creates for the doctrine of methodological individualism is readily apparent.

A social science that aims at interpretation, or that uses interpretation as part of the centerpiece of its explanatory strategy, has a very clear methodological reason for privileging explanations that refer to individual actions — since it is precisely the underlying intentional states that serve as the object of interpretation. But if social scientists are merely in the business of providing causal explanations, just like natural scientists, then what is the rationale for privileging individual actions in these explanations?

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There no longer appears to be any methodological reason for doing so. Thus critics like Leon Goldstein , and later Steven Lukes , would argue that methodological individualism was actually just an oblique way of asserting a commitment to metaphysical or ontological individualism. Yet in so doing, he grants that these half-way explanations the example he gives is the relationship between inflation and the unemployment rate , while they may not tell us everything we would like to know, need not be meaningless or false.

Nevertheless, in Popper's formulation, methodological individualism does appear equivalent to at least some form of psychological reductionism. At very least, his formulation — and later Watkins's — left many commentators confused about how one could affirm the former without committing to the latter Udehn , Hegel and Karl Marx.

Yet as time wore on, and the dangers of creeping totalitarianism in Western societies became increasingly remote, the fear of collectivism that underlay the debates over methodological individualism became increasingly attenuated. The reason for this can be summed up in two words and an article : the prisoner's dilemma. Social scientists had always been aware that individuals in groups are capable of getting stuck in patterns of collectively self-defeating behavior.

What the story of the prisoner's dilemma — and more importantly, the accompanying game matrix — provided was a simple yet powerful model that could be used to represent the structure of all these interactions see R. Hardin This in turn gave renewed impetus to methodological individualism, because it allowed theorists to diagnose with unparalleled precision the errors that social theorists could be and often were led into if they ignored the action-theoretic level of analysis. Olson's major contribution was to have driven home the point that the existence of such a common interest just as often generates a free-rider incentive.

Individuals would benefit from acting to promote that interest, but they would benefit even more by sitting back while the other members of the group acted to promote it. As a result, no one may act to promote it. However, Olson confined this observation to large groups. The prisoner's dilemma, on the other hand, demonstrated the ubiquity of this incentive structure.

7.2 Understanding Social Action

Jon Elster's contribution to the history of methodological individualism must be understood against this background. In itself, there is very little new in this criticism. This means that individual capitalists must stop hiring new workers at a point where marginal benefits still exceed the marginal costs.

What is their incentive for doing so? They have an obvious free-rider incentive to keep hiring, since the benefits stemming from depressed wages would largely be enjoyed by rival firms, whereas the benefits of further hiring would flow to the bottom line. Fomenting revolution can be dangerous business, and so absent some other incentive such as class solidarity , even workers who were convinced that a communist economic order would offer them a superior quality of life might still fail to show up at the barricades.


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Yet these possibilities were largely overlooked, Elster suggests, because the failure to respect the precepts of methodological individualism, along with the promiscuous use of functional explanation, had led generations of Marxian theorists simply to ignore the actual incentives that individuals face in concrete social interactions. Beyond the critique of functional explanations, Elster does not advance any original argument in support of methodological individualism.

For example, he goes on to claim at various points that methodological individualism commits him to psychologistic reductionism with respect to sociology although he does not offer an argument for this claim. Elster does not draw as sharp a distinction as he might have between the commitment to methodological individualism and the commitment to rational choice theory. Indeed, he also assumes that the latter flows directly from the former.

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He claims that this conception of rationality is implied by the fact that decision theorists are able to represent the rational actions of any agent possessing a well-behaved preference ordering as the maximization of a utility function. Yet whether utility-maximization implies instrumentalism depends upon the version of expected utility theory that one subscribes to.

Thus Elster's move from methodological individualism to the instrumental conception of rationality is based upon a non sequitur. Nevertheless, as a result of Elster's arguments, methodological individualism became synonymous in many quarters with the commitment to rational choice theory. Such an equation generally fails to distinguish what were for Weber two distinct methodological issues: the commitment to providing explanations at an action-theoretic level, and the specific model of rational action that one proposes to use at that level i.

There are multiple permutations. For instance, there is no reason that one cannot be a methodological individualist while choosing to employ Habermas's theory of communicative action rather than rational choice theory as the model of rational action. In fact, this would make greater sense, since game theory, strictly construed, has never purported to offer a general theory of rational action.

The Nash solution concept, which provides the standard definition of a game-theoretic equilibrium, specifically excluded all forms of communication between the players and the solution does not work in cases where communication does intrude [Heath ]. Thus much of the furor over rational choice imperialism has been based upon a failure to appreciate the limitations of that model in many cases both by its defenders and its critics.

It is important to emphasize that Fodor's use of the term has nothing in common with its traditional use in the philosophy of social science. The question is whether an individual with a belief about water on earth, where water is made up of H 2 O, has the same belief as an individual with a belief about water in a parallel universe, where water has the same appearance and behavior, but happens to be made up of XYZ. The issue comes down to one concerning the individuation of mental states.

This implies, among other things, that if one psychological state is incapable of causing anything different to happen than some other psychological state, then the two must be the same.

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As Fodor goes on to point out, the semantic evaluation of a mental state will typically be relational, e. There is considerable infelicity in Fodor's choice of terms. He is able to offer a cogent account of why methodological individualism counts as a methodological constraint. Thus it is a methodological precept. Although one can see clearly here the stark contrast between Fodor's use of the term and that of Weber or Hayek, for whom the ability of the social scientist to provide something beyond merely causal explanation was what imposed the methodological commitment to the action-theoretic level of analysis.

It is simply unclear why Fodor chooses to call it individualism. With methodological solipsism, on the other hand, one can see why he calls it solipsism, but it is unclear what makes it methodological. In general, there is no question that, given any particular half-way explanation of a social phenomenon, it would always be nice to know what agents are thinking, when they perform the actions that are involved in the production of that phenomenon. The question is whether the explanation is somehow deficient , or unscientific, in the absence of this information.

The answer to that question will depend upon one's broader commitments concerning the status and role of the social sciences. Nevertheless, it is worth noting two very common types of social-scientific inquiry that fall short of providing the sort of rock-bottom explanations that methodological individualism demands:. Consider the following example of a social-scientific debate: During the s, there was a precipitous decline in violent crime in the United States.

Many social scientists naturally began to apply themselves to the question of why this had occurred, i. A number of different hypotheses were advanced: the hiring of more police, changes in community policing practices, more severe sentencing guidelines for offenders, decreased tolerance for minor infractions, an increase in religiosity, a decline in the popularity of crack, changes in the demographic profile of the population, etc.

Since the decline in crime occurred in many different jurisdictions, each using some different combination of strategies under different circumstances, it is possible to build support for different hypotheses through purely statistical analysis. For example, the idea that policing strategies play an important role is contradicted by the fact that New York City and San Francisco adopted very different approaches to policing, and yet experienced a similar decline in the crime rate.

Thus a very sophisticated debate broke out, with different social scientists producing different data sets, and crunching the numbers in different ways, in support of their rival hypotheses. This debate, like almost every debate in criminology, lacks microfoundations.


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  4. It would certainly be nice to know what is going through people's mind when they commit crimes, and thus how likely various measures are to change their behavior, but the fact is we do not know. Nevertheless, we can easily imagine criminologists deciding that one particular factor, such as a demographic shift in the population i. In many cases it will even be derived from it. Suppose that we discovered, through statistical analysis, that the crime rate varied as a function of the severity of punishment multiplied by the probability of apprehension.

    We would then infer from this that criminals were rational utility-maximizers.

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    On the other hand, if studies showed that crime rates were completely unaffected by changes in the severity of punishments or the probability of apprehension, we would infer that something else must be going on at the action-theoretic level. Results at the action-theoretic level might also prove to be random or uninteresting, from the standpoint of the explanatory variables. Sale runs through Dec. Preview this Book. Add to Wish List. Close Preview. Toggle navigation Additional Book Information. Description Table of Contents. The book outlines key tennets of Weber's sociology and points to the valuable legacy of Weber's thought in contemporary intellectual debate, particularly with regard to secularization and rationalization of global cultures, the crisis of Marxism, the rise of the New Right and the emergence of post-modernism.

    Table of Contents 1.