Individuals Are Abstractions, Too

This semester, I’m working as a graduate student instructor (read: TA) for a one-semester introduction to sociological theory for undergraduates. The first week’s readings include a few classic intro pieces, including the first of Alexander’s Twenty Lectures: Sociological Theory Since World War II, “What is theory?” The lecture is very straightforward, and I really like it as a first reading. But I think it’s also flawed in a critical way that’s common to a lot of sociological theorizing, and some empirical work. Specifically, Alexander continues to reify the individual even as he attempts to move beyond the level of the individual.

On page 2, Alexander defines theory as “a generalization separated from particulars, an abstraction separated from a concrete case.” Alexander goes on to offer what he presents as a simple, straightforward case:

Economic actors are concrete particulars. For example, the president of Chrylser, the automobile company, is a specific person, Lee Iacocca. If we wanted to describe what Lee Iacocca does at Chrysler Corporation, we would not be doing theory. On the other hand, the ‘presidents of automobile companies’ are a class of people. Now we are abstracting from a concrete case. (Alexander 1987:2)

Here’s my concern: “Lee Iacocca” is not an obvious, stable, thing in much the way that “presidents of automobile companies” are not a completely obvious, stable, collection. On one somewhat silly, but not unimportant, level, the physical components that make up Lee Iacocca vary overtime – biologically speaking, human beings are a process not a stable collection of atoms. We can think here of the famous example of Caesar’s last breath (some of the atoms that Caesar breathed out in his last breath are probably now part of your body). I mention this just to forestall the physical unity/biological determinist sort of explanation of why it makes sense to think of individuals as the baseline, underlying units of analysis.

On a more recognizably social level, “Lee Iacocca” is the complex intersection of past experiences, present positions in larger networks, particular capacities, and so on. The relevant level of theorizing may well be “below” the individual. For example, Latour uses the phrase “plugins” to describe our capacity to learn particular, pre-formed modes of action. Teach Lee Iacocca how to value derivatives with Black-Scholes-Merton and he’s now a different sort of actor, one with different capabilities. For some purposes, it might make sense to collect the entire historical trajectory of stuff, ideas, and connections together and name it “Lee Iacocca”… but sometimes it might not. The individual is a theoretical abstraction, but one that we misrecognize when we use it as our baseline example of something that obviously just exists in the world against which to compare other abstractions, and label those abstractions (which are almost always “bigger” than the initial individual) “theoretical.”

From a radically different theoretical and disciplinary starting point, economist Thomas Schelling has also done a wonderful job of elaborating the problems with conceptualizing individuals as consistent, concrete, things. In a 1984 speech/essay, Schelling focuses on a particular type of behavior that is nonsensical under the prevailing model of rationality: acting against your own future self-interest. Specifically, Schelling points to examples like asking a drinking buddy to not give you a cigarette if you later ask for one, asking a doctor not to give anesthetic partway through labor even if you then desire it, asking a friend to help you commit suicide in case your will falters, asking a friend to prevent you from committing suicide, and so on. These behaviors pose a serious problem for economic theory, and for policymaking. How do you weigh an individuals’ current desires against the same individuals’ immediate future or past desires? But simply posing this question requires that we challenge some of our assumptions about the apparent concreteness of individuals.*

Physicists and chemists abandoned the idea that atoms were uniform billiard balls long ago.** Since then, there’s been a proliferation of particles, some small, some big (some charmed, some strange!) that seemingly have advanced our understanding of the natural world. Rather than simply accepting the idea that individuals are the atoms of the social world, and then arguing about whether or not there are “emergent” social structures that are bigger than and irreducible to these individuals-as-atoms, let’s remind ourselves that individuals are (incredibly convenient, useful) abstractions too – and thus our options are not so limited as “individualist” and “holist”, or whatever you want to call it this decade. To put it another way, and to riff off of recent debates in economics, it may well be useful to think about the macrofoundations to microsociology. But this requires abandoning our implicit or explicit assumptions that individuals are not abstractions.

*If I knew more about Freud, I might mention him here too. And, arguably, one of Nietzsche’s most influential moves, one that influenced Freud, was to describe conflicting internal desire within a person (the “Apollonian” and “Dionysian”). My point is just that lots of smart people from different times and places have recognized this problem of the inconsistent individual.
**I desperately apologize for the reference to the natural sciences. My only defense is to say that so much of the literature that you might call “metatheory” or “philosophy of social science” refers to natural science analogies that it’s worth making explicit reference to the work these metaphors are doing.



  1. Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes! This is a huge problem with lots of current sociological theory (and research), emphatically including so-called analytical sociology. You should publish on this. Soon. Cheers, Andy

  2. John Krinsky

     /  September 6, 2012

    I agree with Andy. Really nicely done. You might enjoy Chapter 4 of Charles Tilly’s Identities, Boundaries, and Social Ties (2005), “Do Unto Others.” It makes this case fairly well, too.

  3. AdamTalkington

     /  September 7, 2012

    Great post. You might look into George H. Mead’s “On Social Psychology.” He begins the book with an argument very similar to the one you’ve made here, but rooted in the comparison of biological evolution with social evolution. His driving point: we are not so much discrete individuals as “life processes.”

    John Dewey also writes a great deal on this subject, which is really ontological. If you want to look more into how this notion might help to reorient approaches to sociological research, check out Dr. Mustafa Emibayer at UW Madison. Much of his theoretical work aims to expand the relational theoretical frameworks constructed by Tilly and Bourdieu with the ontological strengths of Pragmatic philosophy.

  4. edwin

     /  September 9, 2012

    Hi Dan,

    I’m interested in what exactly you mean when you say that individuals are abstractions. In other words, what do you mean by the term abstraction? Related, when you say “individuals are abstractions” do you mean our conceptions of individuals or individuals as they exist in the real world?

    I’m only asking as I think the argument is interesting but I’m not sure I fully understand it.

    (By the way, totally agree with the macrofoundations of microsociology with the caveat that this is just the mandate of most sociology – even if its not always fulfilled).

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