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Week 17 Lecture Notes

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.

    We have already seen Watkins stating that "According to this principle, the ultimate constituents of the social world are individual people who act more or less appropriately in the light of their dispositions and understanding of their situation" (in Brodbeck p. 270).

    The cornerstone of the entire enterprise is the "individual" as such, and the confidence that this secures it on firm foundations is itself earthed in the empiricist assumption that talk about "individuals" is unproblematic because their existence is incontestable, and that by confining serious conversation (concepts, theories and laws) to them, the dangers of reification can never threaten, unlike loose talk about groups, institutions and society.

(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?

    This social ontology has only been made to work descriptively by bundling complex social relations into the individual as predicates of people.

(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).

    Specifically this means showing that, in relation to people, social structure is not: (i) autonomous or independent, (ii) pre-existent, (iii) causally efficacious. Collectivists have argued that they fail on all three counts and their arguments are persuasive.

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.

    Here the Collectivist queries whether in studying society we are, can, and should be confined to the study of "groups". When we examine kinship structure, for example, we are not just investigating how that 'group' does intermarry, transmit property, have particular obligations towards specific others and so on, but what rules govern their inter-marriage etc. Comparison of kinship structures is to compare different rules not different groups, for the rules regulate what the members do. Certainly, the continued salience of any rule depends on people continuing to adhere to it (this is merely a statement of activity-dependence) but their adherence is not what makes the rule, otherwise rules just become descriptions of what people do and have no regulatory or constitutive function.

    The same Collectivist argument serves to show the defects entailed in viewing environmental influences as nothing but "interpersonal relations". It highlights the fact that in dealing with the social context we are not paradigmatically concerned with groups at all.

    Roles, as Collectivists have often pointed out, are more important for understanding what is going on between landlords and tenants or bank cashiers and customers than their relations as persons.

    Moreover the role has to be granted some autonomy from its occupant or how else do we explain the similar actions of a succession of encumbents, or that when promoted to bank manager our original cashier now acts quite differently?

    In social analysis we often are and have to be less concerned with interpersonal relations than with the endurance of impersonal role relationships.

(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).

    Thus the social context has become the effect of contemporary other people. For it follows that whatever makes up our environment (such as enduring roles, positions and distributions) are all things that the "people concerned" now do not want to change/do not know how to change or do not think about changing.

    In other words, whatever the origins of the social tendencies and features we observe, their present existence is due in some way to the people present. Therefore, explanation of the social structure is always in the present tense and responsibility for everything present lies firmly on the shoulders of those here present.

    Now pre-existence, the fact that we are all born into an on-going social context, constrained to speak its language, take up our places in a prior distribution of resources, be sanctioned by its laws and confront its organizations is a powerful argument from the Collectivist for the existence of properties and powers of society itself.

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

    If we take the example of a demographic structure (which should be agreeable to Individualists since it is made up of N people of different ages), then the relevant population, that is those of child-bearing age who could change it, cannot significantly modify it for several years nor eliminate all its effects for many more. yet more significantly, they themselves are constantly influenced by it since it has determined the size of this initial "relevant population" to which they belong.

    Moreover, desires for persistence or transformation (and knowledge of how to effect them) are not randomly distributed, but shaped by the advantages and disadvantages which the pre-existent property distributes differentially throughout the population - and cannot be understood independently of them. In short, we are neither dealing with "present tense" phenomena nor with epiphenomenal.

    Although many structures may eventually be changed by human action, nevertheless while such environmental factors endure, they can constrain and facilitate different activities and may have consequences which are not trivial for future social change - e.g. a demographic structure which makes it impossible to raise a stong army.

    MI, however, makes the opposite assumption. In effect it argues that because such social tendencies are ultimately reversible, nothing of importance will happen before they are reversed. Matters of this kind cannot be decided by theoretical fiat.

(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.