It seems self evident, barely worth remarking, that social outcomes are the result of the actions of numbers of ordinary human beings, doing things for their own particular reasons — finding solutions to the challenges of life that confront them, taking care of themselves and their families, making mistakes, acting out their passions, hatreds and loves, interacting with neighbors and strangers, taking risks, acting prudently, following impulse or dream. And out of these ordinary origins come great social outcomes — migrations, revolutions, demographic transitions, famines, economic crises, the rise and fall of regions and cities. Sometimes a small number of individuals or groups have inordinate influence on the shape of events — Mussolini, Kant, Gramsci, Fidel; the Abolitionists, the Tea Party, the United Mine Workers. But even here it is still individuals, in relation and communication with other individuals, whose small and local actions sometimes aggregate to large social changes.
This description makes the individualistic impulse of social-science disciplines like political science, economics, and historical demography seem intuitive. These disciplines basically ask a common question: what are the individual purposes and plans that work to shape a subset of social phenomena? Why did the Great Migration take place from the South to northern cities in the 1930s? Because vast numbers of poor rural black people gained information about better opportunities in northern cities and set out to improve their lives.
But this same description also makes us consider how large “structural” factors come into social process and change. How do economic conditions, political institutions, social attitudes, and systems of race, class, and gender influence social outcomes? Once again, it is evident that individuals frame their worlds and make their choices within environments that are largely independent of their wills and their specific mental frameworks. They confront systems of labor allocation that work in a certain way when it comes to race, class origins, gender, and educational background. They operate within political institutions that offer them opportunities and limitations — “do support the ward boss, don’t join a demonstration against City Hall.” They function in social environments where other actors have certain beliefs and attitudes about race, gender, and class.
These structural conditions face real social actors as facts that they understand well enough and that set constraints around their choices. So it is entirely understandable and legitimate that sociologists want to consider those structural factors in the abstract and to uncover how they work in detail. They want to abstract from the individuals who make up the structures. At the same time, these conditions are themselves embodied in the thoughts and actions of other individual actors. There is an iterative reality to the relation between structure and agency — a reality that Margaret Archer attempts to capture with her concept of morphogenesis (link). The social world is highly dynamic and situational; we may want to abstract from this dynamism and characterize a moment as consisting of fixed structures and agents acting within them, but in the next frame we find yesterday’s agent becoming through her actions a part of tomorrow’s structure. So static analysis creates an unrealistic rigidity for what is in actuality a highly fluid process.
There is a further complexity raised by the action-centered picture sketched above. This has to do with the making of social individuals through concrete and historically actual processes of formation and socialization. Actors are social from infancy forward, and their cognitive, affective, and practical mental frameworks are created and formed through their various social interactions. So their behavior as adults is itself a socially created product of the ideological and practical circumstances within which they developed. Here once again, we cannot “reduce” social change to pre-social or non-social individuals. There is no starting de novo in the social world or in history.
My point here is a simple one for philosophers of social science: we shouldn’t let our debates about emergence, meso-level causation, and structural causal powers lead us to forget some of the fundamental and obvious facts about the social world. I think there is room for meso-level social causes within this story. But our thinking about meso-level causes and social structures needs always to be grounded in a concrete understanding of how social interaction happens at the local and individual level. I have tried to formulate a description of this set of realities in terms of the idea of methodological localism (link). Archer’s theory of morphogenesis points in a similar direction. Of all the metaphors we sometimes use for describing the social world, E. P. Thompson’s idea of the “making” of the English working class seems most apt (link). Methodological individualism is not a valid basis for the social science. But a related but less strident imperative seems crucial: pay attention to the social actors who constitute the social world — they are all we’ve got in the social world.