Posted by: HAT | January 6, 2010

Methodological Individualism

Methodological individualism, loosely, is the approach to social theory that privileges society’s individual human subjects. When a methodological individualist looks at society, she sees “something made up of a bunch of individuals.” The explanations constructed by a methodological individualist come to rest in the decisions and actions of however many individual human subjects.

George Herbert Mead is a good example of a methodological individualist.

The Mead example illustrates in particular that one doesn’t have to have a naïve faith in a pre-experiential, pre-social, pre-discursive subject to be a methodological individualist. Methodological individualism doesn’t entail a commitment to any form of subjective tabula rasa. It doesn’t entail a denial of structural forces, like Marxian relations of production or Foucauldian fields of force or Althusserian/Butlerian interpellations and normative readings. It does insist that a full account of how those forces operate requires an account of their mediation in the lives of their individual carriers and those individuals’ interactions with people and things.

Methodological individualism is the approach most consistent with identifying possibilities for social systemic change. It is the approach that permits the realization of the possibilities latent in noncompliance. Because it is micrological, it can notice the existence and significance of fissures that other — more macrological — perspectives miss.

A cliché example of a missed fissure and its possibilities is the image of the daffodil blooming in the middle of the driveway. More likely, along the margin of the driveway, but busting up the concrete. A little less cliché would be the example of the saboteur, or the détourniste.

Theodor Adorno, who was also a sociologist, and an appreciator of John Dewey, a colleague and admirer of Mead’s, writes:

It is evident that the abstract concept of the transcendental subject — its thought forms, their unity, and the original productivity of consciousness — presupposes what it promises to bring about: actual, live individuals. . . . Yet for all that, . . . in a sense (although idealism would be the last to admit this) the transcendental subject is more real — that is to say, more determinant for the real conduct of men [sic] and for the resulting society — than those psychological individuals from which the transcendental one was abstracted. They have little to say in the world, having on their part turned into appendages of the social apparatus and ultimately into ideology. the living human individual, as he is forced to act in the role for which he has been marked internally as well, is the homo oeconomicus incarnate, closer to the transcendental subject than to the living individual for which he immediately cannot but take himself. . . . the supposedly most evident of things, the empirical subject, would really have to be viewed as not yet in existence . . .

(Theodor W. Adorno, “Subject and Object,” in The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O’Connor (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 138-151, 140-142.)

Methodological individualism cannot do without the macrological view. It works even with pod people. If it treats pod people as if they are the individual subjects of autonomous reason, it turns into ideology. Nevertheless, it is what holds out hope, even for pod people. “A living dog is better than a dead lion.”

It never goes out of style.


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