Methodological individualism

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The methodological individualism is a term coined by Joseph Schumpeter was introduced. According to him, the description and explanation of social processes ( macro level ) find their causal justification in the actions of the individual people involved ( micro level ). As a result, "social phenomena such as institutions, norms, social structures, etc. [...] can also be explained through individual action". Methodological collectivism forms a contrast to methodological individualism ; Mediating approaches such as sociological network theory are critical of it.

Basic idea

The core idea of ​​methodological individualism is to consider social phenomena from the perspective of the intentional action of individual individuals . The individuals are within a system of interaction relationships with other individuals. Methodological individualism is thus opposed to methods of social science analysis that use “aggregates” such as social classes , population groups or nations as elementary units of analysis.

Often in the empirical-analytic working Sciences assisted by a model of rational , his own interests pursued and its benefit -maximizing human ( homo economicus ) gone out, sometimes in the modified version of the so-called RREEMM .

The designation as methodological individualism is intended to mark the strict demarcation from philosophical individualism (also: ontological individualism), which makes statements about real people. In contrast, methodological individualism is not about the "true essence of man". His anthropological assumptions ( conditio humana ) are to be understood purely instrumentally or analytically . The assumptions help to explain social phenomena, which - for example from the perspective of critical rationalism  - can be used to generate empirically falsifiable hypotheses about these phenomena.

Occasionally, a distinction is made between a strong and a weak version of methodological individualism. While the strong variant asserts that all social phenomena should be explained by individuals and their interactions , the weak variant also assigns an important role in social science explanations to social institutions (e.g. schools) and other social structures (meso level).

Macro-micro-macro scheme

Coleman's bathtub

An important example of the application of methodological individualism is the macro-micro-macro scheme. This approach goes back to James Samuel Coleman (also: Coleman bathtub ) and states that a connection is initially assumed between two observed social phenomena ( 1, 4 ) ( collective hypothesis ). In order to examine the collective hypothesis, it is necessary to examine the behavior and actions at the individual level ( 2, 3 ). For this purpose, a bridge hypothesis ( a ) is formulated, which constitutes the actors' characteristic (s) as a boundary condition ( 2 ). The individual action ( 3 ) is determined by the individual action theory ( b ). In order to clarify the initial question and to arrive at the collective action ( 4 ), an aggregation rule ( c ) is required , which converts the individual actions into collective action results.

Coleman bath using the example of the CoR

Let's look at an example. In order to explain the decision-making behavior ( aggregate characteristic ) of the members of the Committee of the Regions (CoR) depending on its composition ( collective characteristic ), the interests ( individual characteristic ) of the actors represented in the CoR are considered. The bridge hypothesis here is: actors have interests. Actor interests (e.g. nation, party, territory) are converted into individual actions ( individual characteristics ). This requires a verifiable individual theory of action ( individual hypothesis ). For example, interests could arise along cleavages . In order to explain the decision-making behavior in the CoR ( aggregate characteristic ), a suitable aggregation rule is required . In the CoR, the existing institutional rules, for example majority rules, and individual power optimization or the implementation of desired policy content could be considered.

The composition of the CoR thus explains the decision-making behavior of this institution through the actions of individuals.


Methodological individualism is criticized from two different directions:

  1. methodological collectivism (also: methodological holism , which proceeds from social collectives as "wholes", e.g. sociological system theories ).
  2. from directions that consider both individualism and holism to be one-sided and try to combine these two perspectives (e.g. Pierre Bourdieu , Norbert Elias , Ulrich Beck ). Charles Cooley regards the opposition between the individual and society as an artificial, pure conceptual dogmatics that the human individual is essentially social.

See also


  • Hans Lenk : Methodological individualism is (only?) A heuristic postulate . In: Klaus Eichner, Werner Habermehl, (ed.): Problems of explaining social behavior . Anton Hain, Meisenheim 1977. ISBN 3-445-01428-0 . Pp. 46-84
  • Jens Greve: Reductive Individualism. The program and the justification of a basic social-theoretical position. Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2015. ISBN 978-3-658-06556-0
  • Lars Udehn: The Changing Face of Methodological Individualism . In: Annual Review of Sociology , Vol. 28 (2002), pp. 479-507. ( PDF )

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Joseph Schumpeter: The essence and the main content of theoretical economics. 2nd edition Berlin 1970, pp. 90f.
  2. Büschges, Abraham, Funk (1996): Grundzüge der Soziologie p. 85
  3. cf. Raymond Boudon: La logique du social. Introduction à l'analyse sociologique. Hachette Litterature. 1979. p. 61 ff.