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The Case for Causal Individualism in Social Science

Social science has, from its very beginnings, been characterized by debates over the true nature of society and about how to best understand and explain it. At the heart of these discussions lies the question of the causal structure of the social world. Two overarching positions on this issue can be identified: causal individualism and causal holism. While causal individualism argues that we can account sufficiently for the types of causal relationships of interest to social scientists simply with reference to processes involving actions, interactions and mental properties on the part of individuals in physical settings, causal holism argues that social causation also involves higher level phenomena and/or entities, such as “macro social organisms”, “structures” or “institutions”. This compilation thesis makes the case for the former perspective. More specifically, the thesis aims to do two things: 1) To provide a clear account of causal individualism based on an explicit social ontology; and 2) To defend this position against the most influential versions of causal holism. It is argued that contemporary embodiments of causal holism in social scientific meta-theory (e.g. the notion that there are micro-macro mechanisms in the social sphere, the idea that social phenomena may be “micro realization robust” and the belief that social macro entities can have a downward causal effect on individuals) all stem from one and the same more fundamental error, i.e. that of treating the analytical micro-macro relationship in social science as if it were empirical.