LECTURE WEEK 17 - The social ontologies of Methodological Individualism and Methodological Collectivism

Last week we looked at the debate between Miliband and Poulantzas as an illustration of how their different social ontologies affected how they even approached the question `Is there still a Ruling class?'

This week, we'll look at the debate (and what underlies it) between those advancing the ontology of Methodological Individualism (MI), namely that the ultimate constituents of society are individual people, versus those supporting the ontology of Methodological Collectivism (MC), to whom societal facts are just as ultimate as fact about individuals.

1. Starting with MI, we have to scrutinse exactly what is meant by an `individual' - who is the sole real constituent of social reality.

(a) Yet this does not render the "individual" unproblematic, because facts about individuals are not necessarily more observable nor easier to understand than facts about social organization (the motives of the criminal versus the proceedings of the criminal court). Sense-data only secure the "individual" as a visible organism, yet it is precisely the non-observable things about people (their dispositions) which constitute the basis of the Individualist account.

(b) Moreover, the identification of many dispositions is only possible if the social context is invoked to make sense of them (the most diffuse disposition to vote pre-supposes some notion of an election; the intention to "vote Conservative" is predicated upon there actually being a Conservative Party for which to vote).

(c) However, the Individualist is committed to the claim that the important things about people can indeed be identified independently of their social context. Here is the real difficulty of this procedure, for both description and explanation, namely that it presumes it is possible to isolate more elementary dispositions "as they are prior to their manifestations in a social context. The real oddity of the reductionist case is that it seems to preclude a priori the possibility of human dispositions being the dependent variable in an historical explanation - when in fact they often or always are" (Gellner)

(d) To rebut this objection the only way out that could simultaneously, (i) allow the inclusion of contextual influences which cannot be kept out, whilst, (ii) remaining faithful to individualism, is by construing the social context as itself made up of nothing but "other people". In that case it can then enter descriptions and explanations innocently as interpersonal influences such as socialization.

This is the path followed and what has to be queried is the resulting social ontology - one in which the ultimate constituents of social reality are held to be "socialized individuals" (the Individualist concept of "agency") and the only other element to exist socially is "interpersonal relations" (the Individualist concept of "social structure").

It must follow that if the crucial facts about people are their dispositions, then statements about things other than individuals are excluded as are statements which are not about dispositions

(e) Yet the Methodological Individualist immediately breaks with both these requirements of their position, since the facts about people which are allowed to figure in "rock-bottom explanations" are neither solely individual nor solely dispositional. Instead the acceptable predicates can include "statements about the dispositions, beliefs, resources and inter-relations of individuals" as well as their "situations... physical resources and environment" (Watkins p. 270-1)

Firstly, inspection of this list reveals that some of its constituents logically cannot be construed as facts about individual people (the environment, physical resources, situations and inter-relations - since definitionally a relationship is a fact about at least two people). Very arguably none of them should be, for my belief in the theory of relativity is only individual in the sense of my believing it, but its existence does not depend upon my holding it.

Secondly, some of the elements on the list are obviously not about dispositions (the environment, physical resources, situations) and again, arguably, none are, for beliefs are independent of the disposition to believe just as many of our interrelations are non-voluntaristic and autonomous from whatever dispositions we bring to them.

Thirdly, it can then be contended that none of these aspects of social reality are about either individuals or their dispositions and thus cannot be construed as facts about individual people.

(f) Because social reality cannot be confined to individuals and their dispositions, then those aspects of the social context which are indispensable for both identification and explanation are themselves incorporated into individual terms. As Lukes puts it, "the relevant features of the social context are, so to speak, built into the individual".

There are two serious ontological objections to this procedure:-

(i) In what recognizable sense are we still talking about 'the individual' when he and she has now been burdened with so many inalienable features of both social and natural reality (cultural systems, socio-cultural relations, physical resources and the environment)?

(ii) Can the social context (let alone the natural world) really be disaggregated in this way, such that role relations are purely interpersonal matters, belief systems are only what certain people hold and reject, and resources are just what you or I have laid our hands on?

(g) Making it work entials demonstrating that every reference to `society' in our explanations (and no-one wishes to deny that we are influenced by our social environment) actually refers to "other people" (under the 'inflated' description particular to Individualists).

The Challenge of Methogological Collectivism

(1) Tf autonomy is to be witheld from the social context and it is to be denied any independence from people, this means the Individualist must vindicate the claim that it can be treated as nothing other than an aggregate of individuals - therefore our social environment is constituted by "interpersonal relations". It also follows that if the "social structure" is only an aggregate, then "the group" becomes synonymous with "the social" to the Individualist.

(ii) Yet the Individualist argues that "no social tendency exists which could not be altered if the individuals concerned both wanted to alter it and possessed the appropriate information' (Watkins, p. 271).

(iii) Only if the persistence of such properties can be attributed to the sustaining behaviour of "other people" may they be denied causal powers.

(h) The inability of MI to withstand claims that the social context has autonomy and independence from people, is pre-existent to them, and causally influential of them, means that we should entertain the case that a "social structure" which has these properties also has a claim to existence - as was hinted at by MI and is fully developed in Social Realism.