Notes on methodological individualism, ontology, and social science theorizing

From Sugden’s JEL review of Epstein’s The Ant Trap (.html):

The current “consensus view” [in philosophy] recognizes a distinction, first proposed by Lukes (1968), between explanatory individualism and ontological individualism. Explanatory individualism maintains that social facts are best explained in terms of facts about individuals and their interactions, while ontological individualism maintains that social facts are exhaustively determined by facts about individuals and their interactions. The consensus view is that explanatory individualism is a contestable claim about the most useful methodology for social science; it might be true that many social facts are best explained individualistically, but there are no good grounds for treating nonindividualistic explanations as unacceptable in principle. In contrast, the consensus view takes ontological individualism to be true—indeed, trivially true, a set of what Lukes (1968, p. 20) called “banal propositions.”

You could take the ontological point further to propose that facts about individuals are exhaustively determined by their finer moving parts (cells, all the way down to atoms), but this does not affect judgments of explanatory individualism. So don’t confuse the ontological point with evaluations of explanatory power.

Epstein thinks that these (and other) considerations do indeed support a ‘maybe, maybe not’ position towards explanatory individualism…. But he challenges the second part of the consensus view, that social properties are nothing over and above the properties of individuals.

Hmmm…so Epstein takes issue with social scientists’ emphasis on methodological individualism.

[Epstein’s] new way of thinking [“social ontology”] begins with the recognition that the actions of groups do not necessarily supervene on [that is, reduce immediately to,] the actions of group members. That allows us to understand that particular kinds of groups (legislatures being an example) can be set up to achieve particular purposes, and that thousands of years of sociality have endowed human beings with strategies for “improving the design of groups, helping to ensure that they accomplish their purposes” (pp. 234–35). In the case of a legislature, the [group-level] factors that can be manipulated [while keeping the individuals constant] include its rules for aggregating votes and the rules by which its members are elected.

Sugden is not convinced, at least not convinced that social scientists’ emphasis on methodological individualism has caused them to overlook such possibilities:

Of course, Epstein is right about this. But if these are new ideas for social ontology, they are not new for social science.

So even if social scientists’ principles are not stated in a complete fashion, it is not clear that there has been an important consequence to that. This leads Sugden to wonder, does progress in social science really require that ontological questions like this are sorted out?

If [a] counterfeit dollar is not detectably different from the real thing, both types of bills will serve interchangeably as a common medium of exchange. A natural way of modeling this scenario—say, as part of an explanation of changes in the general price level in an economy with forgery—would be to use a model in which paper money is a homogeneous commodity, produced both by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and by the Mafia. In a model of this kind, the concept of “money” does not correspond with…ontological accounts of what money really is [emph. added]. But in deciding to use this modeling strategy, the modeler does not need to engage in ontological analysis of the true nature of money. The rationale for amalgamating the two types of bills into a common category comes from economic reasoning about the properties of trade and from an understanding of what the model is designed to do.
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