Smith discusses the value of sociology and some misconceptions of methodological individualism.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

“[S]ociety is more than the sum of individuals of which it is composed.” So wrote an ardent defender of sociology in 1922. Seven years later the same theoretician expressed his disagreement with those who challenged “sociology’s right to exist.” Contrary to its many critics, sociology is able to justify theorems that “have the character of scientific laws.” The laws of sociology are “causal propositions.” “They express that which necessarily must always happen as far as the conditions they assume are given.”

It may surprise some libertarian readers to learn that these comments were written by Ludwig von Mises, a methodological individualist and staunch critic of positivism. (The first quotation is from Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis; the rest are from Epistemological Problems of Economics.) The positions taken by Mises on these and other fundamental sociological issues did not change significantly over the years. What did change was his preference in labels. In his early works Mises used “sociology” to signify the theoretical science of human action, whereas he later adopted the label “praxeology” instead. The reasons for that change are unimportant for our purpose. I quoted Mises, to the effect that sociology is an authentic science capable of generating causal laws of social interaction, for two reasons.

First Reason

Those libertarians who associate sociology with the academic discipline taught in modern universities tend to be suspicious of this field of study, which is dominated by left‐​leaning intellectuals who view sociology as an indispensable foundation for social engineering. I confess that I have very little interest in what passes for sociology nowadays; instead, my interest lies primarily in the formative years of sociology, when the very legitimacy of a “science of society” was under attack from various quarters. Such attacks demanded philosophical analyses and justifications of sociology, and this need brought to the fore a host of first‐​rate intellectuals to defend the cause. Whether or not one agrees with those early champions is, from my perspective, irrelevant. If I read only those thinkers with whom I agree 100 percent, I would read no one but myself—and even then I would be restricted to what I have written over the past twenty years or so.

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) is a good illustration of the point I wish to make. The author of several landmark books in sociology—most notably The Division of Labor in Society, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, and The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life—Durkheim was trained as a philosopher and brought a philosophical perspective to bear on almost everything he wrote. This perspective is especially evident in The Rules of Sociological Method, a full‐​scale defense of positivism and a type of social holism, according to which social phenomena are sui generis and so cannot be reduced to (i.e., adequately explained in terms of) the actions, beliefs, values, etc., of individuals.

Now, there is little in Durkheim’s book on methodology that I agree with, and I suspect the same would be true of most libertarians, who tend to be methodological individualists. Nevertheless, over the years I have read Rules several times, and I will probably read it again at some point. I find the book of value because it raises difficult questions about the nature of social phenomena, and it provides reasonable and provocative, if incorrect, answers to such questions. The time spent reading a book that gets one thinking about significant philosophical issues is, I think, time well spent.

I should note that I had little patience for Durkheim in my early years. My attitude changed in 1974, at age twenty‐​five, while I was auditing a class (at the University of Arizona) taught by the distinguished sociologist Robert Nisbet. Nisbet admired Durkheim, despite his disagreements—indeed, he published The Sociology of Emile Durkheim in 1974—and in some personal conversations Nisbet persuaded me that Durkheim was worth reading carefully, while alerting me to some common misrepresentations of Durkheim’s ideas. It could be said that I later adopted the same attitude toward Herbert Spencer, with whom I have many serious disagreements. Admiration and agreement are two different things. (I shall discuss some of Durkheim’s ideas later in this series.)

In any case, I quoted Mises at the beginning of this essay partly because of the allergic reaction experienced by some libertarians, including serious intellectuals, whenever they hear the words “sociology” and “sociologist.” I thought a defense of sociology by a familiar and friendly name, Ludwig von Mises, might help with this problem, provided we keep in mind that many early discussions of sociology might better be described as social philosophy, or philosophies of society, rather than “sociology” in the modern, academic sense of the word.

I vividly recall a conversation I had with a woman (a non‐​libertarian) around fifteen years ago. She had a doctorate in sociology and taught the subject at the university level, so I figured this was a rare opportunity to engage in a stimulating discussion about some of the pioneers in sociology—an opportunity that almost never arises with my fellow libertarians. But when I asked her opinion of Max Weber—one of the most important and influential sociological writers of all time—she responded with a quizzical look, saying that she had heard the name but knew nothing else about him. I was surprised, to say the least. With my scant knowledge of how sociology is taught in modern universities, I cannot say if this anecdote is typical. But it at least illustrates, if in a peculiar and tenuous way, the chasm that divides the modern discipline of sociology from the philosophically oriented treatments of an earlier era. There is much to be learned from the early pioneers who understood the close relationship between sociology and philosophy. (This overlap is discussed in a number of Robert Nisbet’s books; I especially recommend The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought, 1973.)

Second Reason

The passages I quoted from Mises may raise the eyebrows of those unfamiliar with his overall approach. For example, his claim that sociology can justify causal laws that are as universal and necessary as the laws found in other sciences sounds a bit like the positivism that Mises rejected categorically. (Those familiar with Misesian “praxeology” will understand the profound differences, but I cannot explain the details at this time.) This potential confusion illustrates an important point, namely, that methodological individualism does not rule out sociology as a legitimate field of study with its own subject matter. Consider this passage from Mises’s magnum opus, Human Action (3rd ed., 1963):

It is uncontested that in the sphere of human action social entities have real existence. Nobody ventures to deny that nations, states, municipalities, parties, religious communities, are real factors determining the course of human events.

It may seem strange to see a methodological individualist declare that “social entities have real existence,” and that (as quoted previously) society “is more than the sum of individuals of which it is composed,” but similar claims have been made by other leading methodological individualists, such as Herbert Spencer, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber. To understand this matter we need to explore the meaning of “methodological individualism” and its implications for social theory; but before doing so, let’s take a look at how Herbert Spencer, a confirmed methodological individualist, dealt with the issue of whether social “entities,” such as society and state, should be regarded as real existents that provide a distinctive field of study for sociology, a field not covered by other social sciences.

When Spencer considered the question of whether society is “but a collective name for a number of individuals,” he answered, No; society is an “entity” with identifiable properties. Spencer rejected the view “that society is but a collective name for a number of individuals”—in other words, that only individual human beings exist while “the existence of the society is but verbal.” He compared this nominalist doctrine, which treats “society” as nothing more than a name for an aggregate of individuals, to the members of an audience attending a lecture—a “certain arrangement of persons” that disbands and disappears, qua aggregate, after the lecture is over. Spencer called attention to an important difference between an audience and a society. The audience is a temporary gathering of individuals who do not exhibit fixed and recurring patterns of interaction. A society, in contrast, exhibits a “permanence of relations among component parts which constitutes the individuality of a whole as distinguished from the individualities of its parts.”

Spencer likened the relationship between society and individual human beings to a house and the individual stones that make it up. A house is more than a mere heap of stones randomly arranged; rather, it consists of stones that are “connected in fixed ways.” Similarly, a society is more than a heap, or aggregate, of individual human beings; it consists of individuals who exhibit a “general persistence” in their mutual relationships. This permanent element is the “trait which yields our idea of society.”

Society is therefore more than an aggregate of individuals; it is a system of individual relationships. Social institutions are recurring and (fairly) predictable patterns of interaction with definite characteristics that can be identified and studied by the sociologist, apart from their concrete manifestations in particular cases. Social institutions are “real” in the sense that they reveal themselves to human consciousness as objective features of the external world. They are discovered rather than invented; we cannot will them out of existence as we can a subjective idea that exists only in the mind. And it is this objectivity that makes an impartial science of society—i.e., sociology—possible.