Methodological individualism, network analysis, and the emergence of postmodernity

Peter Burke’s History and social theory, second edition (2005) deals with links between history and social theory.

The book has been discussed in other blog posts, which can be found in the Historiography category at this website.

Imagination in historical practice

Reading this book has vastly enhanced and clarified my understanding of the role — and the limitations — of imagination and creativity in historical practice. Burke discusses the role of imagination in history from many perspectives, including in the concluding sentence of History and social theory (2005):

“To sum up the value of theory in a single sentence, one might say that, like comparison, it enlarges the imagination of historians by making them more aware of alternatives to their habitual assumptions and expectations” (p. 189).

Forward and backward analog links

The book we are discussing makes good use of analog backward and forward links. That is, we are talking about a system of hypertext links within the pages of a book, as contrasted to the standard hypertext links in the online environment.

The links in the book are placed in parentheses, and are identified by page numbers. This is a great way to organize information for the benefit of the reader. As well, authors and page numbers are cited right in the main text, rather than in notes at the back of the book.

The index at the back briefly identifies each theorist or historian mentioned in the book — for example, “Frye, Northrop (1912-91), Canadian literary theorist” — and notes the page number(s) where that persons’s contributions are discussed.  As well, there’s a separate bibliography listing the articles and books cited in the essay. This makes for a user-friendly approach to the organizing of information.

As well, the text is published in a medium-size font, which makes for easy reading. It’s also helpful that the topics are covered clearly and concisely.

Destabilization, network analysis, and methodological individualism (p. 173)

One of the Burke’s backward links refers to ‘methodical individualism.’

The term is associated with network analysis, which is linked with destabilization as a feature of postmodernity.

‘Destabilization’ refers to “a shift from the assumption of fixity to the assumption of fluidity, or, to vary the metaphor, the collapse of the traditional idea of structures, whether they are economic, social, political or cultural. Concepts such as ‘structure’ have been largely replaced by concepts such as ‘flow’ amd ‘transformation'” (p. 173).

On p. 173, in speaking of destablization as a feature of postmodernity, Burke introduces a link to ‘social exchange’ theory (p. 68) and to methodological individualism (p. 127). The discussion proceeds as follows:

  • The rise of network analysis in anthropology, sociology, and history is a manifestation of the above-noted shift in assumptions, from fixity to fluidity.
  • Network analysis entails a certain image of society.
  • Instead of focusing on more or less firm social structures, network analysts focus on social relationships centred on a single individual.
  • Network analysts often use ‘social exchange’ theory in their work. “The idea of social exchange is not new, as we have seen (above, p. 68), but it has become associated with a view of society as the sum of the actions of individuals following strategies based on expectations of returns. What we see is a revival of methodological individualism (above, p. 127).”

When I first encountered the reference to methodical individualism, the significance of the term escaped me. I read the passage but I did not think about what the concept meant. When I read the backward link, some time later, I gave the concept closer thought.

Much of my work involves networking. The social and information-sharing aspects of networking have been at the forefront of my thinking. The fact that each person’s network is focused on the person at the centre of the network is something I’ve taken for granted. Burke’s discussion has clarified my thinking. A focus on the individual can sharpen a person’s thinking, and a person’s effectiveness.

What Burke has shared has the potential to enhance a reader’s strategic thinking. There is much value on the information he has shared.

Backward link to p. 68 (social exchange)

The discussion on p. 68 concerning social exchange theory highlights the history of conspicuous consumption.

Burke notes that conspicuous consumption is “only one strategy for a social group to show itself superior to another.”

He adds that one of the dangers of theorizing “is the propensity to see the world as nothing but illustrations of the theory.”

He notes that a British sociologist, Colin Campbell (1987) has attacked the assumption that consumers simply want to display their wealth and status. Instead, Campbell argues that “the reason why people buy many luxury objects is to sustain their image of themselves. What they a really buying is identity, individual or collective (Clammer 1997).”

Backward link to p. 127 (methodological individualism)

On p. 127, Burke refers to debate about the extent to which “humans make their own decisions or make their own history.”

He refers to two opposing schools of social theory in this regard. The methodological individualists “reduce the social to the individual.” Their opponents, the holists, “view specific actions as embedded in a system of social practices.”

Burke describes the English philosopher John Stuart Mill and the English sociologist Herbert Spencer as individualists. Methodological individualism has been strong in the English-speaking world.

The most famous holists have been French or German (Emile Durkheim, French sociologist; Max Weber, German sociologist-historian; Georg Simmel, German sociologist).

The latter theorists speak of collective mentalities and collective memory — concepts that a often rejected in Britain. “The contrast is so striking,” says Burke, “as to suggest we should interpret the debate itself in structural terms, as a clash of cultures” (pp. 127-28).

The reference to ‘structural terms’ is of interest, given that elsewhere in the book, Burke notes we can no longer speak of structures (p. 178), and that the term ‘arrangements’ can serve as a replacement. He notes as well that “Concepts such as ‘structure’ have been largely replaced by concepts such as ‘flow’ and ‘transformation'” (p. 173).

It may be added, however, that Burke also argues that postmodernist influences – such as the application of imagination and creativity in the field broadly defined as the ‘history of reading’ – can at times go too far.

In the latter context, he has argued in favour of analysis that includes elements of both postmodernist and pre-postmodernist approaches. Such a mode of historical practice involves working with the two approaches “together and simultaneously, however difficult this may be (p. 179).

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