The nature of the social world: a touch of philosophy

599px-The_Blue_Marble“The…argument is against methodological individualists, such as Popper (and Margaret Thatcher who claimed that ‘society’ does not exist!), who argue that all explanations can be couched in terms of an individual person’s beliefs and actions. The first refutation concerns emergent properties. There are attributes of people that concern physical properties such as height or weight; there are attributes that we share with other animals such as pain or hunger; but there are many attributes, essentially human ones, that are unavoidably social, for example ‘bachelor’, ‘banker’, or ‘nun’. These are only intelligible within the context of a social institution or practice. The second argument is that many activities we undertake, most obviously perhaps language, must already exist and be available for people to learn and then use. As Wittgenstein argued, there can be no such thing as a private language – every time anyone has a conversation, uses a credit card, or waits for a train they are assuming the existence of a structured, instransitive domain of resources, concepts, practices, and relationships. The successful occurrence of social activities warrants the existence of causally efficacious, although unobservable, social structures.”

John Mingers (2014), Systems Thinking, Critical Realism and Philosophy

Mingers makes a good argument for the relevance of what are variously called structures or systems in social science. There are objects we can think about that are larger than the individual, such as society, which cannot be directly observed while their effects can be. This produces a rational for examining the economy of a nation, particular industries, social groups such as class etc.

Modern mainstream economics prides itself on constructing models which use a ‘representative individual’ as the basic unit of analysis and deriving macroeconomic outcomes from this. But a truly macro-economics analyses structures larger than the individual, which are said to be ’emergent’ from individual behaviour but ‘irreducible’ to it. An example of this might be the national economy. This is dependent on and emerges from the interactions of millions of individuals, but has properties of its own which cannot be simply read off from the individuals themselves.

Classical political economy, Marxism and post-Keynesianism also contain systemic concepts, but the latter are sorely neglected in the modern mainstream. Systems thinking, which has been applied across social and natural science in recent decades, does not neglect the individual, but holds that particular objects can be considered as more than the sum of their constituent parts. The parts interact to produce emergent properties. Economics could do with a bit more of this kind of analysis.


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