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Methodological individualism (MI) is often associated with a model of economic action. As a result, criticism of it tends to equate it with this “individualistic” economic model. However, this kind of reductive critique is in fact irrelevant and ignores the basic arguments of MI, and the misconceptions it introduces should be dispelled. At the same time, MI is often opposed to the “holism” model that is argued to be incompatible with MI because it centers on a “collective” dimension of representations and behaviors (Descombes 1996). This article seeks to unite these two paradigms by demonstrating that MI is in fact compatible with the existence of norms, institutions, and collective representations. In the first section, I begin by reviewing three basic ideas of the MI tradition. In the second section, I argue that these ideas are entirely compatible with an analysis of institutions, norms, and collective representations, including with in-group identification. This requires, however, that MI not be reduced to an economic or psychological analysis. I devote two sections to discussing and critiquing these two reductive possibilities, where I develop two main arguments simultaneously: first, that MI’s fundamental ideas need not be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis or to a psychological analysis focused on an unconscious dimension of behavior; and second, that cost-benefit and psychological analyses themselves tend to be inseparable from the collective representations and norms that orient them…


The aim of this paper is to show that the basic arguments underlying the methodological individualism (MI) tradition are in fact compatible with an acknowledgment of the existence of collective representations and, consequently, their analysis. Showing this, however, involves moving away from unfounded reductive versions of MI, be they economic or psychological. This should lead to a renewed way of considering the links that exist between psychological features of action, social norms, and rational behavior.

  • methodological individualism
  • psychology
  • economic behavior
  • rationality
  • social norms

Le but de cet article est de montrer que les idées de base constitutives de la tradition de l’individualisme méthodologique ne sont pas incompatibles avec la reconnaissance de l’existence de représentations collectives et, par conséquent, avec leur analyse. Pour ce faire, cependant, il convient de s’écarter des versions réductionnistes inappropriées, économique ou psychologique, de l’individualisme méthodologique. Cela doit conduire à une approche renouvelée des liens existant entre les caractéristiques psychologiques de l’action, les normes sociales et le comportement rationnel.

  • individualisme méthodologique
  • psychologie
  • comportement économique
  • rationalité
  • normes sociales
Pierre Demeulenaere
Pierre DEMEULENAERE is professor of sociology at Sorbonne University and director of the journal of sociology L’Année Sociologique, founded by Émile Durkheim. His area of research is the theory of action in the social sciences and its relationship to social structures. He is particularly interested in how individual interests, collective interests, and social norms are interconnected, as well as the ways in which they have been explained and justified throughout history. His research also focuses on negative externalities and their social management based on the notion of justice.
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