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Methodological Individualism and Holism in Political Science: A Reconciliation


Political science is divided between methodological individualists, who seek to explain political phenomena by reference to individuals and their interactions, and holists (or nonreductionists), who consider some higher-level social entities or properties such as states, institutions, or cultures ontologically or causally significant. We propose a reconciliation between these two perspectives, building on related work in philosophy. After laying out a taxonomy of different variants of each view, we observe that (i) although political phenomena result from underlying individual attitudes and behavior, individual-level descriptions do not always capture all explanatorily salient properties, and (ii) nonreductionistic explanations are mandated when social regularities are robust to changes in their individual-level realization. We characterize the dividing line between phenomena requiring nonreductionistic explanation and phenomena permitting individualistic explanation and give examples from the study of ethnic conflicts, social-network theory, and international-relations theory.

Corresponding author
Christian List is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy, Departments of Government and Philosophy, LSE, London WC2A 2AE, UK.
Kai Spiekermann is Associate Professor of Political Philosophy, Department of Government, LSE, London WC2A 2AE, UK.
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American Political Science Review
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