How Adopting Methodological Individualism Makes It Harder to Understand the Social World

A friend of mine had mentioned on social media how puzzling the geopolitical events of the past year were for him. I could explain his perplexity with a single phrase: "methodological individualism."

The idea(s) behind methodological individualism, however they are put, turn out to be false or vacuous. It is just not true that the only good explanation of social events individual, or that the only "final" explanation is individual, and so on for any exclusionary version of methodological individualism. Turn out to be not individualism at all: the fact that individuals mean something in social explanations is not particularly controversial, and doesn't really distinguish any methodological anythingism from any other one, except perhaps extreme holism.

And it is not simply false but innocuous: It is actively harmful to to anyone trying to understand human social affairs. As Pierre Manent puts it:

"As I've said, our political regime and our way of life invite us to reduce all spiritual masses to the individuals that constitute them. Finally, however, however much we may desire to see everywhere only rights-bearing subjects and individuals seeking their own interests, we run into a number of great collective facts that are decisive for world affairs." -- Beyond Radical Secularism, p. 40


  1. Could you give some more context on what events puzzled your friend?

    1. Basically, the persistence of group identities in a world where everyone ought to have become a good Western consumer by now, interested only in maximizing utility.

    2. Hmmm...

      You know a lot of people are puzzled by how many ISIS members are of Western origin, wondering how people in France, UK, or the US would leave the comforts of their life and migrate to Syria to fight in the desert.

      It never occurred to them that joining ISIS meant them joining something bigger than them and that they found their message to be a compelling one. It is not something you can answer with utility maximization.

    3. Yes, that's what I'm talking about.

  2. Tribal identity runs deep. As our current power structure understands all too well...