Mario Bunge on micro-macro links

Mario Bunge’s preface to Voir la société (Seeing Society)

Pierre Moessinger has the distinction of having been the last disciple of Jean Piaget and having continued to work in psychology, social psychology, and sociology. The work of Moessinger, like his master’s, is both rigorous and focused on important issues. It contrasts with die hard experimentation and with the triviality that is found too often in contemporary work. Furthermore, Moessinger is of great clarity, a singular virtue at a time when the postmodern nonsense is combined with technical jargon to create the illusion of depthLast but not least, Moessinger does not hide his philosophical presuppositions: he is a realist who believes in the existence of objective regularities.

This book addresses a central problem of sociology: how can we best « see » society; it is so little noticeable that some went as far as saying that it did not exist. As we know, methodological individualists assert that only individuals exist and can be studied, whereas holists stress the existence of wholes and deny that they can be understood in detail, in terms of individuals connected to each other.

In opposition to such conceptions, authors such as Moessinger, and with him the great sociologist Georg Simmel, know that we cannot separate the person from the society, be it only because every time individuals join or leave a social group, they acquire new properties such as becoming an employee or changing their political beliefs.

Moessinger insists that social systems, such as families or businesses, have properties that their individual components do not have – i.e., macroemergent properties – such as cohesion or division of labor. His methodological thesis is that sociologists and psychologists should take an explicitly systemic approach. In other words, they should consider each individual as a component of several social systems, each of which being characterized by global properties which are outside of psychology.

Sociologists should not be limited to the micro level or to the macro level: they should explain microproperties from the macro-properties, and vice versa. Their discipline linking the micro and the macro, they must try to understand macrosocial phenomena, such as social movements, in terms of individual actions – as Weber wished. Likewise, they can hope to explain micro-events, such as divorce or crime, by relying only on macrosocial considerations – as Durkheim suggested.

Thus one can, at least in principle, account for the two types of emergence, from micro to macro and from macro to micro, through the merger of psychological and sociological knowledge. Emphasizing that these two disciplines are independent of each other, as did the Pareto, Weber and Popper, can only be an obstacle to scientific progress. But these disciplines are not reducible to one another. The key is in merger, not in reduction.

Disciplinary mergers have already taken place in history, along with divisions: think of chemistry, physics, biochemistry, evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, neurolinguistics, economic sociology, or criminology. In all these cases, a disciplinary convergence has the potential to reach what intra-disciplinary research cannot explain.

I understand that what I am saying is somewhat abstract, not very didactic. Such is not the style of Moessinger. His book is full of examples taken from every day life and from contemporary research, and is stuffed with metaphors and suggestive analogies. The author begins by recalling how our planet is seen by an astronaut, then by a pilot flying at different altitudes, and finally by a pedestrian. He can see his fellow creatures, or rather their external form and apparent behavior. However, he must infer, or rather guess, their intentions. Also, he cannot perceive social systems: he can only make assumptions about them.

Indeed, we do not see a factory, for example, we can only see a building and its contents. The organization of the factory and the technical operations that occur are not seen, they must be investigated. Only assumptions based on investigations can explain the behavior of individuals. For example, if one sees someone running from A to B, one does not know if this person is flying away from A or is attracted towards B. Only an examination of the situation can reveal the truth. And this research must highlight the psychosociological mechanisms of the race in question: fear for oneself, gain hope, imitation, competition, cooperation, or something else.

In general, there is no good explanation without mechanisms. And the mechanisms, the processes that make systems function or that dismantle them, are imperceptible. They must be guessed, and described in theoretical terms. But such riddles, when they are part of a scientific undertaking, must be tested empirically; but we must remember that such tests do not produce complete evidence, they are just as imperfect as theories, we must do scientific research as a continual and temporary back-and-forth between observations and theory.

If you are looking for a sociological or psychosociological metatheory, read this book. Read it also if you are a philosopher interested in real social phenomena put explicitly in a rationalistic, realistic, and systemic framework. In both cases, Seeing through society will help you understand the individual, the social, and disciplines that connect them.

Mario Bunge, FRSC                                                                                                                                                   Department of Philosophy                                                                                                                                   Mcgill University                                                                                                                                                       Montreal, Canada




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