New Grundrisse for the Levels of Analysis Problem

  • W. Peter Archibald


For many of his interpreters, Marx was both a “methodological holist” and a “sociological reductionist”; that is, his only units of analysis were collective “totalities” such as entire communities and classes, and he regarded such collective phenomena as not only “independent of the consciousness and wills” of individuals, but themselves the only (or by far the most important) sources of the latter. For some such interpreters, most notably Lukács and Althusser, this was as it should be;1 for others such as E. P. Thompson, Jean Cohen, and Jon Elster, such thinking is a misguided hypostatization of society and reification of individuals, an “objective teleology” which, in Marx’s case, represented a regression to the Hegelianism of his youth and/or an obsession with bourgeois political economy and its stress on the market.2 Astoundingly, for still others, especially Louis Dumont,3 Marx was both a methodological individualist and a psychological reductionist! Here too he is alleged to have been unable to escape the quagmire of political economy, only now the major carryover was homo economicus rather than a self-regulating market. Finally, for a fourth category of commentators, including Joachim Israel and D. F. B. Tucker, Marx was a methodological individualist in order to avoid an objective teleology, but he did not in fact resort to psychological reductionism either.4


Human Nature Analysis Problem Social Phenomenon Collect Work Human Individual 
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  1. 2.
    Jean Cohen, Class and Civil Society: The limits of Marxian critical theory (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1982).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Joachim Israel, “The principle of methodological individualism and Marxian epistemology”, ACTA Sociologica, vol. 14, 1971, pp. 145–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 16.
    The distinctions I have drawn here among “representative”, “free” and “historic” agency were partly inspired by Perry Anderson in his Arguments within English Marxism (London: New Left Books (Verso), 1980) pp. 15–20.Google Scholar
  4. 23.
    On the parallel between Marx’s treatment of needs and that of other phenomena not so directly related to individuals, see Kate Soper’s On Human Needs (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1981) pp. 14–15.Google Scholar
  5. 29.
    Gyorgy Markus, Marxism and Anthropology (Essen: Van Gorcum, 1978) pp. 40–1.Google Scholar
  6. 39.
    See Archibald, op.cit., for a rationale for doing so in general. For Marx in particular, see my “Psychic alienation in Marx: The missing link?”, Praxis International, vol. 3, 1983 (April), pp. 73–81, and point 4, p. 31.Google Scholar
  7. 40.
    For example, see Anthony Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory (London: Macmillan, 1979) p. 77.Google Scholar
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    Alan Dawe, “Theories of social action” pp. 362–417 in Tom Bottomore and Robert Nisbet (eds), A History of Sociological Analysis (London: Heinemann, 1979).Google Scholar
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  10. 51.
    For a more comprehensive review of this particular problem, see Michael T. Hannan, “Problems of aggregation” pp. 473–508 in H. M. Blalock (ed.), Causal Models in the Social Sciences (Chicago: Aldine/Atherton, 1971).Google Scholar
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    Althusser, op. cit. See also his “Ideology and ideological state apparatuses” and “Freud and Lacan” in Lenin and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971).Google Scholar
  13. 61.
    Marx, Theses…. See also Norman Geras (Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (London: New Left Books (Verso), 1983), who devotes a whole chapter to unravelling various possible meanings of the Sixth Thesis alone.Google Scholar
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    E.g., Ralph Turner, “Collective behavior”, pp. 382–425 in Robert E. L. Faris (ed.), Handbook of Modern Sociology (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964).Google Scholar
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    Michael Billig, Social Psychology and Intergroup Relations (New York: Academic Press, 1976).Google Scholar
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  17. 105.
    In the structuralist camp, Althusser himself makes the surprisingly un-Marxian claims that man is an ideological creature by nature, but that this ideology is “stamped into” him (“Ideology …”, op. cit.)! Similarly, John Mepham (“The theory of ideology in ‘Capital’”, Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1974, No. 6, pp. 98–123) disputes suggestions that Marx saw any psychic mechanisms behind workers’ acceptance of bourgeois ideology, but then goes on to suggest that their acceptance is in fact pragmatic, because such ideological notions as the wage contract “work”.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© W. Peter Archibald 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • W. Peter Archibald
    • 1
  1. 1.McMaster UniversityHamiltonCanada

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