David R. Henderson  

Sen on "Methodological Individualism"

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I'm at a weekend conference in Indianapolis that started last night and goes through tonight. About 14 people, roughly evenly split between philosophers and economists, are working our way through Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice. One of the things I'll raise is a jarring passage on "methodological individualism." Sen's working definition, from Frances Stewart and Severine Deneulin, is that it is the belief that "all social phenomena must be accounted for in terms of what individuals think, choose, and do."

Having written that, Sen writes in his next sentence, "There have certainly been schools of thought based on individual thought, choice, and action, detached from the society in which they exist."

Did you see the fast one he pulled? Somehow the thought that social phenomena must be accounted for by the things individuals do translates, for Sen, into the thought that individuals are "detached from the society in which they exist." That doesn't follow at all. I know probably dozens of "methodological individualists." I'm one myself. I don't know a single one who thinks that thoughts, choices, and actions are not influenced by others.

Sen elaborates:

If, for example, women in traditionally sexist societies come to accept that women's position has to be standardly [sic] inferior to men, then that view--shared by individual women under social influence--is not, in any sense, independent of social conditions.

I agree. So what? Those women are individuals who think, make choices, and act, and they're influenced by others' choices and actions. That example is not a counterexample to methodological individualism.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods



COMMENTS (12 to date)
david writes:

The methodologically individualist position is to take the choices and actions of "other people" as constant, or at least approximately so. If you don't, then we have a situation where an individualist method permits multiple equilibria (so to speak) and does not distinguish between them, and so the method becomes less useful for analysis.

Another problem would be that the individuals we are concerned about often are not, themselves, individualist - if someone thinks, makes choices, and acts based on their gauge of social atmosphere and vague outlook rather than of other individuals in particular, then an individualist analysis would be less useful. "Others' choices and actions" may turn out to be not meaningfully reducible to actual individuals, because people are in fact not often individualist or even internally rational. This is, perhaps, Sen's point.

Steve Horwitz writes:

Apparently even Nobel Laureates have trouble distinguishing between *methodological* individualism (which is an explanatory strategy) and *ontological* individualism (which is about features of the world).

Methodological individualism need not assume individuals are atomistic.

Faré writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness. --Econlib Ed.]

Riddhima writes:

Is an individual 'independent' decision same as an individual influenced( dependent) decision? If yes, then how in the latter case is the individuality of an individual is reflected? can a mere action of choosing be called as individualism overlooking the process behind it?

twv writes:

This is a standard retort from critics of normative individualism. That it doesn't take methodological individualism seriously is only its most obvious defect.

There is a tie between methodological individualism and any number of normed individualisms - perhaps multiple ties - and opponents of normative individualism have an inkling of the link, and reflexively attack methodological individualism as a way to destroy the normative doctrines. But, in so doing, they ball up the method, and disable themselves from understanding, properly, concepts like "emergent order," which has been an obsession of methodological individualists for ages.

And thus individualists and "socialists" of all types talk at cross-purposes. We often lack the same concepts to debate each other respectfully. We define our shared vocabulary in interestingly opposite ways.

We cannot, it seems, come to terms.

Bob Murphy writes:

Wow... David I actually thought maybe you were misreading him at first, but the example he gives clearly shows he's using the term in a way that no methodological individualist I know would use it. (At least not a professional economist. Maybe somebody in my blog comments.)

The Man Who Was . . . writes:

I think the distinction is between thinking of people purely as individuals acting in their own individual interests or thinking of people as members of a group sometimes acting in the interests of their group. Sometimes people act more one way and sometimes they act more the other way.

valter writes:

I haven't read Sen's book. The two passages you quoted are a clear non sequitur.

However I wonder whether, at least implicitly and/or somewhere else, Sen had in mind a narrower version of individualism, namely one in which preferences are taken as given, exogenously of social interactions. This is a not necessary but common assumption in methodologically individualistic analysis (esp. in economics, where it is almost universal).

Would the rest of the book make sense in this light?

Harrison Searles writes:

"However I wonder whether, at least implicitly and/or somewhere else, Sen had in mind a narrower version of individualism, namely one in which preferences are taken as given, exogenously of social interactions. This is a not necessary but common assumption in methodologically individualistic analysis (esp. in economics, where it is almost universal)."

What methodological individualist actually assumes that preferences are independent of one's interaction of society. I certainly cannot think of any and yet you assert that it is a "common assumption." Indeed, preferences are mostly assumed to be simply given since economics does not need to know whence individuals' came, but only how they act with them.

valter writes:

Harrison Searles:
[1] "What methodological individualist actually assumes that preferences are independent of one's interaction of society. I certainly cannot think of any"
[2] "preferences are mostly assumed to be simply given since economics does not need to know whence individuals' came, but only how they act with them"

So you don't know any economist (taking preferences as given as per [2]) that is a methodological individualist (as per [1])?

I for sure don't disagree that in many economics cases (hopefully all those I work with) the assumption of exogenous preferences is a perfectly good. I wrote "almost universal" because there are critics of the assumption also among economists (e.g., Bowles and Gintis).

I don't really know how common the assumption is outside of economics, so I should have replaced the "esp." with an "at least". Sorry about that.

I am still curious about whether it was this "exogenous preferences" assumption (rather than methodological individualism in general) that Sen wanted to criticize.

Pandaemoni writes:

I haven't read Sen's book. If Sen's "elaboration" is his way of explaining why he thinks methodological individualism is wrong, then I think Henderson's criticism is valid.

If (as I think the post above implies in its structure) that is Sen's "elaboration" of the sentence, "There have certainly been schools of thought based on individual thought, choice, and action, detached from the society in which they exist," then it seems like Sen is agreeing with Henderson. (In which case we're misunderstanding what Sen means when he, presumably inartfully, wrote "thoughts detached from the society.")

polemanic writes:

I think it would be safe to say, that the methodological individualists Sen was thinking about when writing this passage, were exactly the ones who's position you take David. There are other individiualists than rational choice theorists, mind you.

Furthermore, I believe that you actually validate Sen's position, by exemplifying the reductionist method of rational choice, by more or less saying you don't actually need to take individual's rationalities in to account, but rather state that their motivation is a constant. In my opinion that is to be detached from society.

Also, thin and thick models exists within rational choice theory, and methods have been developed that take individual's different rationalities in to consideration which, in my opinion, may make rational choice a viable theory, rather than the current deterministic, structuralist model.

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