On “Multiple Levels of Analysis and the Limitations of Methodological Individualisms”

As evident in another recent post, I have as late encountered a bit of difficulty with my work. Related to the wrestling with the issues of the meaning of the heterogeneity of my observations when it comes to cleaning up a particular book chapter, I’ve been noticing some patterns in the responses I get to the articles/manuscripts I’ve sent out for external review.

One of the big issues that often arises is generally treated by the reviewer as a methodological one. It tends to read something like this (This is just my characterization. I haven’t pasted an actual review):

Voyer provides an interesting and compelling account of the discourses and dialogues characteristic of the process of immigrant incorporation in her field site (usually some comment about how it was interesting to read and students would love it). However, her analysis fails to provide crucial information about her individual research subjects (usually accompanied by a request for some table in which I ennumerate and tabulate the characteristics of folks I talked to). What are the differences in the people, the motivations and interests represented by the different ways of talking about “diversity” in this community? She must provide more information about the individuals she studied and the ways in which the narratives she observes are true to the objective reality of life in the town.

Whenever I get reviews like this I run through a range of emotions ranging from hostility and resentment to this feeling of utter despair regarding the value of my work. I return to the methodological literature on ethnography in hopes of locating someone with more standing within the academy who supports my claim that I don’t need to give voice to the affective states of people encountering diversity in order to provide a compelling account of how diversity gets done. When I don’t find what I need I return to my fieldnotes for more quotes and biographical information on the people I encountered (in the course of fieldwork not interviews, by the way) and try to insert it into the manuscript. I revisit the sections in which I describe my methods and try to figure out a better way to explain what kind of project it is (an ethnographic study of the cultural-structural process of immigrant incorporation in a particular town with a particular immigrant group) and, what it is not (a RSF/NSF-brand qualitative research in which I interview a “representative” [sarcarsm] sample of some population that I claim to be researching).

After taking a couple of weeks to cool off from a particularly difficult review of an article, this week I decided to try defending my methodological and empirical approach by arguing that much of the sociological work in my sub-field is characterized by the fundamental attribution error (F.A.E.) –  over emphasis on the actor (instead of the context) as the primarily explanatory factor and unifying feature of observable action. In searching for literature on F.A.E. in methods of social research, I came across a theory article that I only glanced at when it first came out in March: Jepperson and Meyer’s Multiple Levels of Analysis and the Limitations of Methodological Individualisms. Just the thing I needed!

It turns out that my problem of method masks a problem of theory. J & M argue that contemporary theory is largely dominated by “doctrinal insistence on single-level individualist explanation” (54) and tends to mistake the assumption of the individual actor as the basic unit in the construction of the social world for the necessary fundamental unit/level of explanation of social processes. J & M do not deny the importance of individual motivations and actions. They merely demonstrate that the individual is neither necessary to nor fundamentally constitutive of all causal claims. Sometimes the focus on the individual can detract from our attempts to develop good explanatory accounts – introducing unnecessary and messy data and requiring attention to individual psychology and the development of an otherwise superfluous theory of agency.  J & M further argue that conclusions about the levels (individual, social-org, institutional) of analysis appropriate for causal explanation should not be determined by prior theoretical assumptions but should instead be determined in relation to the empirical case.

I am so happy with this article that I would like to break into song right here in the cafe that serves as my almost-home office. This is the quote that put me over the top:

Structural explanations, in other words, give accounts of how changed distributions of social values and opportunities occur… Much less causation is located in individual personality or actorhood, and structural arguments do not typically rely upon strong (and empirically questionable) assumptions about the competence, coherence, and boundedness of persons. It is one thing to be a capitalist if that implies the social role of pariah or alien or thief— perhaps some very distinctive values and orientations are necessary, requiring much socialization (religious or otherwise). It is quite another thing to be admired as a capitalist carrier of progress, and quite routine motives may suffice to encourage individuals to want to be recognized as successful. One does not need to assume very much about values or personality to understand that young persons in the 1990s might have seen investment banking as an attractive career.

My research is precisely about the cultural construction, enactment and recognition of the categories “racists” “Somali-Americans” “good people” and “multiculturalists.”  Is it any wonder, then, that I emphasize the epistemological context that makes these categories possible, establishes their relative values and provides them causal power? I have little interest in biography and instead often detach words and deeds from their speakers to show what those words and deeds do instead of what they show us about the “real” motivations or circumstances of the person that did them. Instead of actors and unit acts, I use Bakhtin and Ricoeur to show that meaning and even our own words become decoupled from the individuals who speak them. As an observer of the social world, I cannot get inside of anyone’s head and I would rather not pretend I could, but I can listen to see how meanings are constructed and disseminated, how those meanings beget action, and the consequences of that mass of words and deeds for the way that immigrants become American.

I recognize there has already been some push-back against this article (here and here, for example). I would be happy to enter the fray with a theory piece once I clear my desk of some of the work that Jepperson and Meyer will help me defend.

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One Response to On “Multiple Levels of Analysis and the Limitations of Methodological Individualisms”

  1. Michael L. Clancy says:

    I am studying complex adaptive systems relative to the application to organizational and individual clarity. One of the articles I read (Agar, 2010) describes how the author realized that the unit of measure (for his study of the spread of heroin use) was the group, not the individual. He cites CAS theory as helping him realize the it wasn’t the individual user that was the key, but rather the collection actions of the target population. His work seems like a great rationale for your research approach as well.
    Good luck with getting past the reviewers and editors with what is a very valid approach to your analysis.
    Michael L. Clancy
    Lawrence Technological University

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