Reductionism and Non-Reductionism in the Social Sciences

June 7 – 9, 2012

Room LAK.2.06

Conveners: Christian List and Kai Spiekermann

Sponsored by the Department of Government and supported by the LSE Choice Group

Please register by sending an email to|.


Thursday, 7 June

2:30pm - 3:45pm: Adrian Vermeule (Harvard), "System Effects in Constitutional Law"

3:45pm - 5pm: Thomas Smith (Manchester), "Good and Bad Reasons for Reifying Groups"

Coffee break

5:30pm - 6:45pm: Christian List and Kai Spiekermann (LSE), "Reductionism versus Holism in the Social Sciences"

Friday, 8 June

9:15am - 10:30am: Armin Schulz (LSE), "Beyond the Hype: The Value of Evolutionary Theorising in Economics"

Coffee break

10:45am - 12noon: Rosa Cao (MIT / Harvard), "Reductive and Non-Reductive Mappings in Mind-Body Materialism"

12noon - 1:15am: Rohit Parikh (CUNY), "Social Software: Current Developments"

Lunch break

2:30pm - 3:45pm: Joseph Heath (Toronto), "Prospects for a General Theory of Action"

3:45pm - 5pm: Nigel Franks (Bristol), "Neither Reductionism Nor Non-Reductionism in the Insect Social Science"

Coffee break

5:30pm - 6:45pm: Samir Okasha (Bristol), "Individualism and Reductionism in Evolutionary Biology"

Saturday, 9 June

9:30am - 10:45am: Jason Alexander (LSE), "Virtual Holism"

Coffee break

11:15am - 12:30pm: Chandran Kukathas (LSE), "Genocide and Mass Murder"

Description of the topic

The social sciences are divided between those who think that a scientific approach to the study of social phenomena requires methodological individualism and those who consider this idea hopelessly reductionistic. On a first gloss, reductionism or methodological individualism is the thesis that good explanations in the social sciences should refer solely to facts about individuals and their interactions, not to any higher-level social entities, properties or causes. Non-reductionism or holism is its negation. Social scientists taking cues from economic methodology are often reductionists, while sociologically or historically minded scholars in the discipline are sometimes non-reductionists.

We feel that a reconciliation between these two rival perspectives is overdue and would like to promote an exploration of the insights, as well as the mistakes, on both sides. We think that recognizing these insights, and overcoming the mistakes, is needed to make real methodological progress. To achieve a reconciliation between reductionism and non-reductionism, it is important to recognize that there is not just one version of each view, but many, and that being a methodological individualist in some respects is compatible with being a methodological holist in others.

In particular, methodological individualists are right to remind us that the social world is ultimately made up of a large number of individuals and their interactions, and that any theory that does not recognize this basic fact rests on mysterious metaphysical assumptions. However, this insight does not imply that all social phenomena can be explained in purely individualistic terms. Holists are therefore right to insist that some social-scientific explanations require reference to non-individualistic terms. But this explanatory holism is a far cry from the more radical forms of social holism that give a kind of metaphysical priority to certain social structures over and above the individuals living in them.

The debate between proponents of methodological individualism and its detractors is vivid, for example, in political science. While most scholars sympathetic to rational choice theory prefer some form of methodological individualism, others have observed that core entities of political research, such as states, nations, ethnic groups, cultures, parties, interest groups etc., while constituted by individuals, are of independent explanatory value. Thus, non-reductionists maintain that explaining the behaviour of collectives typically requires more than an explanation of individual behaviour. Examples of such explanatory strategies can be found in many forms of comparative politics, but also in the so-called "new institutionalist approach". More generally, the methodological debate in the social sciences is far from settled, and there is considerable confusion over the possibility and desirability of reductionist and non-reductionist approaches.

This workshop (open to a broad academic audience not just from the LSE but also from other institutions) is intended to tackle these matters head on, bringing together social scientists and philosophers of social science.