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Methodological Individualism and Sociological Reductionism

Roger Just

Having for nearly a century lived a shadowy existence on the margins of mainstream ethnography, summoned forth only to play bit parts in some exemplary anecdote or illustrative vignette, over the last two decades the individual has emerged to take anthropological center stage. And not just the particular individual (the individual individual, so to speak)—the Nisa or the Tuhami (Crapanzano 1980; Shostak 1981)—but also the generic individual. Of course, the ethnographic foregrounding of individual individuals cannot be decoupled from a theoretical reconsideration of the generic individual, but it is the prominence granted the latter that marks a fairly decisive shift in current explanatory and interpretative paradigms (or at least rhetoric), so that nowadays it is commonplace to remind readers that the individual members of any society discussed are all “agents” actively engaged in “contesting,” “disputing,” “negotiating,” if not “creating” the social or cultural rules and norms to which they remain subject only in so far as those rules and norms may be incorporated into their own strategic pursuits.

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