microfoundations of social theory: a response to jepperson and meyer

One of the most provocative things I have read this year is Jepperson and Meyer’s “Multiple Levels of Analysis and the Limitations of Methodological Individualisms” (free html version on journal web site) published in the March 2011 issue of Sociological Theory.

Jepperson and Meyer argue that sociological theorizing based on methodological individualism is “micro-chauvinist,” “doctrinal and exclusivist” and is founded on “liberal and American cultural models of society [that] notoriously dramatize and valorize purposive individual action.”

Jepperson and Meyer further argue that “methodological individualisms”

  • “[avoid or deny] multiple levels of analysis,”
  • focus on “mass of similar individuals,”
  • provide “images of modal individuals aggregating in plebiscitary or market-like ways.”

The upshot?  Jepperson and Meyer argue for the “displacement of action theories.”  Yes, you read that correctly.  Very provocative.  I wish more pieces like this were published.

But I think that they are wrong – on every count – and severely misunderstand methodological individualism.

First, there are of course various strong and weak versions of methodological individualism (see Lars Udehn’s thorough book on this) — as is suggested by Jepperson and Meyer’s use of the plural, “individualisms” — so this type of discussion can get into a war of quotations.  But no matter how one cuts it, Jepperson and Meyer’s arguments go against a large swath of social science: individualist metatheory was the foundation of many sociologists – Weber, Simmel, Tarde, Coleman, Selznick are just a few examples.  (Or to use a more recent example: John Levi Martin’s intro book chapter in Social Structures essentially defends a form of individualism, without using the label – Martin’s metatheoretical arguments are strikingly similar to Coleman’s excellent discussion of methodological individualism in Foundations of Social Theory, pp. 1-23.)

Second, to the argument itself, Jepperson and Meyer’s arguments against individualism and their call for the “displacement of action theories” would sideline and ignore what, to me, seem like some extremely significant issues in social theory:  Katz-Lazarsfeldian-type priors (a priori interests, values etc), the choices that actors make in terms of who/what to align themselves with (in short, self-selection – a critical mechanism), “exit, voice and loyalty,” strategies, choices that actors and organizations make about their structures and the associated heterogeneity in form that we observe, how heterogeneous interests or beliefs get resolved (or not), how social influence or institutionalization occurs as actors interact,  where various collective forms and institutions come from, etc, etc.  And despite Jepperson and Meyer’s call for “process” (mentioned 57 times), their own actor-less alternative is fundamentally anti-thetical to explicating social processes as they assume compliance, equilibrium and homogeneity (as noted by Selznick, Hirsch, DiMaggio – and now by folks doing work on “institutional work”).

There are many other problems with their arguments.

In response to Jepperson and Meyer – sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves (and since we’re in self-promotion mode here at orgtheory)  –  O&M’s Nicolai, Peter Abell (LSE) and I wrote a short essay addressing many of the above (and other) issues: (pdf, rough draft) “Microfoundations of Social Theory: A Response to Jepperson and Meyer.”  (BTW: Big-big-time thanks to commenters! – without implicating them since they disagree with us on some points!)  I don’t know that these types of debates necessarily convince anyone who is already set in their ways — probably not — but we felt that a quick response nonetheless was worthwhile given the rather strong arguments that Jepperson and Meyer make.

Written by teppo

August 8, 2011 at 6:49 am

10 Responses

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  1. I’m surprised to find out that the first author teaches statistics at the University of Tulsa. Being a teacher of statistics and refusing methodological individualism at the same time seem odd to me (I’m sincerely surprised and not being snarky).



    August 8, 2011 at 8:00 pm

  2. Guillermo: The side one takes in this metatheoretical debate does not (well, necessarily) directly dictate what type of methods one might use – lots and lots of statistical work (often, I think, high-level correlations) is done without ever getting into the nature of actors themselves (Durkheim, many network studies, studies that look at the causal role of social facts etc). But the goal of MI is to try to unpack explanation by looking at the nature of the constituent parts/actors and their choices (self-selection, alignments, strategies etc – BTW the 2004 Jasper Mobilization piece does a nice job addressing this vis-a-vis social movements), interaction and influence processes, “emergence,” agency-structure/context type interactions etc (oh, right – and then that “mechanisms” stuff). Folks subscribing to MI often use simulation type approaches, mathematical modeling, though of course lots of statistical work is done in this vein as well – though, it tends to include individual-level (and up) variables (e.g., Katz/Lazarsfeld, Coleman etc).



    August 8, 2011 at 8:24 pm

  3. “Folks subscribing to MI often use simulation type approaches”. Yup, I’m familiar with that vein of work as well.



    August 8, 2011 at 9:52 pm

  4. I haven’t yet read your article in response to Meyer and Jepperson, but at least in this post you seem to mischaracterize their position quite a bit. I find their argument closer to the “explanatory pluralism” position than you would make it out to be (a good example of this perspective is Explanatory Pluralism and Complementarity: From Autonomy to Integration by Caterina Marchionni). I find Meyer and Jepperson’s argument truly rather close to that presented by Stinchcombe in “The Conditions of Fruitfulness of Theorizing About Mechanisms in Social Science” from which they draw quite heavily. While they do indulge in more polemical statements from which you take your quotes, I would say, simply put, that they are broadly right: the “macro” can be, if correctly specified, a legitimate and autonomous level of explanation; the macro as an explanatory “level” can be sufficient and even better than other more micro alternatives, again in certain situations; and that an explanation which includes the micro and the macro without reducing one to the other (a truly multilevel explanation) may be richer and just simply better than other alternatives.


    Luis Enrique

    August 9, 2011 at 3:48 am

  5. Luis Enrique: I think the paper does far far more than defend the macro (as autonomous level, which is also an important issue implicated by the discussion). First, individualismS, in the plural, are mis-specificied: contra J&M, they are highly attuned to multiple levels, they are explicitly about lower-level heterogeneity, individualisms indeed are about varied forms of aggregation, and the proposed link to “American” models is a complete mystery.

    Second, perhaps more importantly, their key point about the need to “displace action theories” and “actors” (in scare quotes) for us is directly counter to the best social theorizing that we are aware of (again: their implied model focuses on homogeneity, compliance and equilibrium – thus, for example, the focus on “process,” in my mind, is anti-thetical to the actor-less worldview implied by their arguments).

    The piece is definitely provocative, which is why I like it, and it offers a unified position that I think captures an extant ethos out there – we just happen to disagree (respectfully – at least that was the intent).



    August 9, 2011 at 4:56 am

  6. Very interesting piece indeed. The Jepperson-Meyer is also worth a read. They make at least one point that seems right to me: the “textbooking” of the Weber’s thesis on the relationship between Protestantism and the rise of modern capitalism has lead many scholars to lose sight of the complexity – and, btw of the ‘structuralist’ side – of Weber’ explanation. Coleman’s diagram and Hedström&Swedberg’s interpretation do not render fully it.

    I’m also currently working on similar subjects such as “do institutions are emergent phenomena?” and the like. I concur with almost everything you write in your answer but still I think you should take a look at the more recent developments in game theory, and particularly epistemic game theory. According to me Aumann’s and Gintis’ works on the concept of correlated equilibrium demonstrate the logical impossibility of methodological individualism: for example, to explain how common knowledge can obtain, you have to assume features that expand beyond the individual level (such as common priors). It is simply impossible to account for them in purely individualistic terms, either in a model or in a more discursive exposition. Mickael Chwe’ “Rational Rituals” and Avner Greif’s “Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy” are two great and recent examples suggesting that when you want to explain how individuals coordinate or how an institution fosters economic efficiency, you have to invoke “cultural beliefs” (Greif) or “common culture” (Chwe) to provide a full explanation.

    Of course, game theory is not the sole theory of the individual action available. However, this is arguably the most successful one…



    August 9, 2011 at 2:48 pm

  7. “According to me Aumann’s and Gintis’ works on the concept of correlated equilibrium demonstrate the logical impossibility of methodological individualism: for example, to explain how common knowledge can obtain, you have to assume features that expand beyond the individual level (such as common priors). ”

    In a series of essays in the 1960s-70s, Steven Lukes already proved that a methodological individualism bereft of all references to social relations is inexistent and impossible. In my mind, the question is not whether the macro affects the micro but how much it really does.



    August 9, 2011 at 4:05 pm

  8. […] some issues related to performativity and markets – but Paul had the students read about the Jepperson and Meyer debate.  The discussion was very lively.  We had a great discussion about whether the two sides simply […]


  9. […] recognize there has already been some push-back against this article (here and here, for example). I would be happy to enter the fray with a theory piece once I clear my desk […]


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