Some thoughts on microfoundations and methodological individualism

The notion of microfoundations emerged from within Marxist theory as a claim that “macro explanations of social phenomena must be supported by an account of the mechanisms at the individual level through which the postulated social processes work” (Little 1991: 196). I first encountered this idea on Daniel Little’s blog Understanding Society and I’ve started reading his books with the hope of clarifying my feelings about it. I find it an immensely attractive idea but one which troubles me given its obvious connection to methodological individualism. As Little describes the concept:

These theorists have held that it is necessary to describe the circumstances of individual choice and action that give rise to aggregate patterns if macroexplanations are to be adequate. Thus, in explaining the policies of the capitalist state it is not sufficient to observe that this state tends to serve capitalist interests; we also need an account of the processes through which state policies are shaped and controlled so as to produce this outcome.

More specifically, the microfoundations thesis holds that an assertion of an explanatory relationship at the social level (causal, functional, structural) must be supplemented by two things: knowledge of what it is about the local circumstances of the typical individual that leads him or her to act in such a way as to bring about this relationship and knowledge of the aggregative processes that lead from individual actions of that sort to an explanatory social relationship of this sort. (Little 1991: 196)

This places great importance upon “individual choice and action”, reintroducing the micro-social into macro-explanation but also challenging micro-sociologists to offer accounts of the macro-sociological implications of situated action. In this sense I find the microfoundations thesis immensely promising as a potential basis for the unification of sociological inquiry and as a counterweight to reinforcing negative tendencies inherent in both micro-sociology and macro-sociology. The problem I have with the notion comes in how we conceptualise the basis of these microfoundations. As Little wrote about the issue in 1991,

Once we accept the point that macroexplanations require microfoundations, we must next ask what types of individual-level processes we should look for. And here there are two broad families of answers: rational choice models and social-psychology motivational models. The first approach attempts to explain a given social process as the aggregate result of large numbers of individuals pursuing individually rational strategies. The second approach attempts to explain the social phenomenon as the complex outcome of a variety of motives, rational and nonrational, that propel individual action. (Little 1991: 198)

My difficulty here is with how the ‘individual-level processes’ are conceptualised. This is where I think the methodological individualist baggage attached to the notion of microfoundations begins to pose a problem. I’m convinced that, as Archer puts it, “an insistence upon the activity-dependence of each and every social structure” is “indispensable to a non-reified ontology of society”. However it’s also crucial to recognise that:

  1. a structure being dependent upon the activity of agents does not entail structure being reducible to agency
  2. a recognition of the role of agency as such in the emergence of structure as such does nothing to address the much more interesting question of “upon whose activities the development of a particular structure depended” (Archer 1995: 72).
  3. agency itself is structured, in the sense that individuals figure in macro-social processes both aggregatively and through their participation in collective agents (which themselves invite microfoundational analysis)

If these premises are accepted then the notion of microfoundations begins to look rather different. Our focus turns from the explanatory gaps in macro-social processes (where we offer microfoundations to explain how constant conjunctions hold together) to the manner in which macro-social processes are relationally constituted by micro-social processes. While Little (1991: 200) accepts that “it is entirely compatible with the microfoundations thesis that a microfoundational account of the determinants of individual action should refer to social relations, structures, etc”, claims (1)-(3) above have important consequences for the manner in which microfoundations figure into social explanation. While Little frames it as a problem “that for a given class of social phenomena there often are no clear regularities visible at macro-level at all”, relational realism would see this as inevitable – only tendential claims obtain at the macro-social level and microfoundations enter into the explanatory endeavour in order to explain the relational constitution of the mechanisms underlying these tendencies.

In other words I’m actually quite drawn to a strong version of the microfoundations claim: “social explanations must be explicitly grounded on an account of the microfoundations that produce them” (Little 1991: 196). Or rather they should be. But these microfoundations are intrinsically relational and biographical – looking at the biographical trajectories that lead people ‘into’ and ‘out of’ situated interaction, as well as the way in which this interaction reproduces or transforms the individuals party to the interaction and the social relations obtaining between them:


My point is that a genuinely comprehensive explanation of something like the UK student protests would encompass (a) a macro-social account of the protests, their context and the relevant history (b) an account of the relational contestation that took place within each of the collective agents party to the unfolding of events (c) narratives of participation in the protests and the personal and relational changes which ensued from them. Furthermore, these accounts would be mutually consistent – this is a less stringent demand than might initially seem to be the case case because, if points (1)-(3) are accepted, then the (a), (b), (c) all figure into their reciprocal explanation. So while I see individual biography and relations as providing microfoundations – my interest comes from the possibility that, purged of its individualistic connotations, this notion can help point us towards a unification of sociological inquiry. What fascinates me are the sorts of questions Nick Crossley indicates in relation to social movements below:

We would all agree that social movements are ‘collective’ ventures, for example, but what makes a venture count as collective? Is it a matter of numbers? If so, how many? Is it a matter of a type of interconnection between people, an organization or network? If so, how is that interconnection itself defined? Does ‘wearing the badge’ and ‘buying the T-shirt’ make one part of a movement or must one attend monthly meetings and engage in protest? And if the latter, what counts as protest? Would wearing the aforementioned badge count as a protest or must one stand in a group of three or more people waving a placard? 

– Nick Crossley, Making Sense of Social Movements, Pg 2

However I find his later relational approach to addressing them unsatisfactory (focused on the T2-T3 of the above diagram) but I also find methodological individualism problematic on a variety of levels (remaining confined to the T1 and T4 of the diagram). My (mis?)appropriation of the microfoundations concept is an attempt to think through a way out of this impasse that incorporates the micro-social into the macro-social (and vice versa) in an emergentist manner.

One thought on “Some thoughts on microfoundations and methodological individualism”

  1. If one wants to go further with the microfoundations thesis in the direction of unification of sociological inquiry, it is necessary to develop non-essentialist approaches not just for Structure as Daniel Little does, but also for Agency and Emergence. For a non-essentialist treatment of Agency one can postulate, as Mohr & White (2008) and Donati (2013) do, that there is a Metaself in the mind that supervises the individual’s engagement into structures as for example in the decision to engage in social movements. For Emergence one just needs to complement theories of decision-making with theories from psychology of situated improvisation, creativity and reaction to unpredictable events such that habitual action gets transformed by learning or intuitions. One can then further argue that situated action not only has a relational and a psychological perspective but also a “Trajectory” perspective, that is the irreversible path created by learning, improvisation and creativity. Note that the metaself is then found in all three perspectives.

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