The debate between Miliband and Poulantzas revolves around the difference between the basic ontological positions behind methodological individualism and methodological collectivism, which affect the ways in which they approached the question of whether, ‘Is there still a Ruling Class? ‘. In their widely publicised exchange Miliband and Poulantzas debated ‘the important questions of method and substance which Miliband’s book (The State in Capitalist Society) raised for Marxist theory. [Blackburn, 1973:238]
In his book Miliband presented an account of the relationship between the state and the capitalist economy and class structures in such a society. This text was not aimed at advancing political science beyond where pluralist, elitist and Marxist analysis had previously taken it. It was Miliband’s contribution to the delegitimisation of the capitalist state. Although in his article Poulantzas does point out the many merits of Miliband’s book, he however agrees to disagree. He criticises Miliband’s approach in general.
Both these men study social stratification, but Miliband investigates social stratification by observing the different class members and their actions. Poulantzas on the other hand, studies social stratification through observing the surface manifestations of institutional relationships. We can thus see that Miliband’s approach was close to that of the traditional methodological individualism approach, while Poulantzas’ was closer to the classical methodological collectivism/holism. This essay will look at the debate between Miliband and Poulantzas, and what underlies it.
Miliband’s methodological individualism advocates that the ultimate constituents of society are individual people. Poulantzas’ methodological collectivism however says that societal facts are just as ultimate as facts about individuals. Both methodological individualism and methodological collectivism will be looked at separately in this essay. It will then try to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the different ontological and epistemological positions of these approaches. It will thus also help establish the link between theories and methods when investigating and social reality – which in this case is social stratification.
However, as to who won their debate, this essay will not adopt any particular view. It will instead try to highlight how both methodological individualism and methodological collectivism are quite valid in their own right, and perhaps reconciliation between these two approaches would be the best. The essay will hence start by trying to define methodological individualism and methodological collectivism. Individualism is an approach to ethics, social science and political and social philosophy which emphasises the importance of human individuals in contrast to the social wholes, such as families, classes or societies, to which they belong.
In different contexts, individualism is contrasted to holism and collectivism. Metaphysical individualism claims that social objects like societies can be reduced to individuals. Methodological individualism does not make metaphysical claims, but it is the doctrine that all sociological explanations are reducible to the characteristics of the individuals. It was originally formed in opposition to the work of sociologists like E.
Durkheim who argued that the characteristics of individuals could safely be ignored in sociological explanations; ‘social facts’ have an existence of their own and can be studied independently of individuals whose actions they determine. Less radically, many functionalists argue that social groups have emergent properties, that is, characteristics that are produced when individuals interact but are not reducible to individuals. Against this, methodological individualists claim that all such functionalist arguments rest ultimately on assumptions about individual behaviour.
Collectivism on the other hand is the tendency to emphasise the interests and well being of the group over those of each individual. The advocates of methodological collectivism believe that society has irreducible properties of its own. ‘The basic social ontology of the Holist is that “societal facts are as ultimate as psychological facts” and that those concepts which refer to society’s form of organisations cannot be reduced to concepts which only refer to the thoughts and actions of individuals (e. g. “mass production”, “the factory”, “the corporation”, or “the market”). [Archer, 2004]
Methodological collectivism thus posits that parts function in association with other parts and that the properties of wholes therefore cannot be predicted on the basis of the parts alone, and that the actions of individuals cannot be understood without reference to external factors such social facts. Individualism is thus positivist, reductionsist and dispositional in nature, whereas collectivism has none of those characteristics. Methodological individualism could be called positivist it studies individuals like objects – externally observable – to examine who they are and what they do.
Miliband directly studies the ‘plural elites’ of American society and looks into its members. He demonstrates their existence by showing the societal and familial ties. In his criticism of Miliband’s book, Poulantzas feels that, ‘ “concrete reality” concealed by the notion of plural elites can be grasped if the very notion of elite is rejected. ‘[Miliband, 1977: 255] To this, Miliband replies – ‘concrete reality can only be grasped if the concept of elite is turned against those who use it for apologetic a purposes and shown to require integration into the concept of a dominant or ruling class. [Miliband, ibid. ]
In ‘The State in Capitalist Society’ Miliband criticised the view that power in industrial societies is held by a plurality of competing elites rather than by a dominant class. He says that there are no longer a ruling class derived from ownership of property – in the Marxist interpretation of the term. But he says that instead there has arisen a new category that he calls the capitalist class. [Miliband, 1969: 29] He showed that the members of these classes were being held together by a multiplicity of familial religious educational and cultural ties.
These elites consisted a single homogenous ruling class. At the same time, methodological individualism was also reducionist because it assumes that every institution can be reduced to individuals even when they are apparently non-people such as – state, army etc, but they too can be reduced to a string of individuals. Similarly the state, bureaucracy will be seen to be having interpersonal relationships between its members from the ties between them mentioned earlier.
As Miliband says in ‘The State in a Capitalist Society’, the bureaucratic elites in terms of social origin are all drawn from the worlds of business, property or professional middle classes. [Miliband, 1969: 66] The methodological individualism approach is also dispositional. By dispositional, it is meant that ‘there is no social trend, which exists, which could not be reversed by those there present provided they had the information and the will – so examine what they think and want. ‘ [Archer, 2004] Miliband in this case reverses the argument that the ruling class does not exist any longer since the managerial revolution.
He says that the manager’s aims to make profits and hence they fall into the same category as the owners, thus becoming a part of the ruling class themselves. This again is connected to the earlier assumptions that the ruling class members or the elites individually are all connected to each other through various relationships. This thus brings about Miliband’s point, that in this case society or social stratification can be studied in purely individual terms and investigated as an aggregate, via the dispositions and interactions of the individuals making up particular classes.
Poulantzas in his criticism argues that the interpersonal ties between individual members of the dominant class were largely irrelevant to the argument, because the state and social class were social structures and could not therefore be reduced to the personal characteristics of their members. Poulantzas’ approach therefore is strictly anti-positivist, anti-reductionist, and non-dispositional. He feels that as, Miliband does not present the principles of his epistemological approach explicitly enough, he, ‘attacks bourgeoisie ideologies of state while placing himself on their own terrain. [Poulantzas, 1977: 241] According to him Miliband makes a mistake in the case of the ‘plural elites’, the ideological function of which group is to deny the existence of the ruling class. Miliband considers the elites to be a part of the ruling class as they are the people who form it, and he supports his ideas with ‘facts’.
Poulantzas feels that, Miliband should have had included ‘a preliminary critique of the ideological notion of elite in the light of the scientific concepts of Marxist theory. ‘ [Poulantzas, ibid. As mentioned before, the methodological collectivism approach thus does not take ‘concrete facts’ about people as sufficient, and feels the need to take into account the non-observable features of their social context as well. Poulantzas also, brings in the concept of ‘objective structures’. Miliband in ‘The Sate in a Capitalist Society’ establishes the state apparatus as not just the government, but also the army, police, judiciary etc, the members of these branches all being interconnected to each other through interpersonal relationships.
Poulantzas however sees the state apparatus as an objective system of special branches where the common class origins and relationships of the members become less important as the system obeys to a large extent it’s own logic. What unifies the members is their class position in realising the role of the state in supporting capitalism. [Poulantzas, 1977: 248/249] Methodological collectivism thus also seems to be anti reductionist.
According to methodological collectivism when taking into account the wider social contexts such as, state institutions like the police, the army, the church, education etc, capitalism cannot be reduced to the relations between individual people. Miliband, on the question of state apparatuses – both ideological and repressive – says that the dominance of one of these branches over another arises from the class origins of its members. [Miliband, 1969: 66] Those members participating most forcefully in the state apparatus are those who are closest to the ruling class or those having the most active or important economic roles.
Poulantzas however says that, it is the institutional relationships that ultimately affect the way that the individual members act. Along with these features, methodological collectivism also advocates non-dispositionvsm. Poulantzas argues that a system of production such as capitalism does not have to depend on the greed or the dispositions and interests of particular individuals to function. In circumstances where making profit is crucial, because of the institution under which these businesses operate, individuals have little choice but to act as puppets according to the roles given to them by the State.
As research tools, individualism and collectivism may be rather blurred categories, and there has been several efforts to operationalise them by adding other, more specific characteristics to the basic concepts. If one can define attributes of the different kinds of individualism and collectivism understood as a bipolar phenomenon, it should be possible to measure by quantitative and qualitative methods where in the continuum between the two poles a person or a group of people are located.
However, even as both individualism and collectivism seem to be making sense separately, a basic flaw remains… nd that is – it is impossible to study individuals without their societal contexts and vice versa. Methodological individualism has two basic requirements – (i) that contextual elements are not to be included in any argument and (ii) the belief that the social context is made up of nothing but other individuals. However, methodological individualists often break away from these requirements, as the facts that are used in explanations are not completely individual or dispositional.
The predicates often does include, ‘statements about the dispositions, beliefs, resources and other inter-relations of individuals’ as well as their ‘situations… hysical resources and environment’. [Watkins, 1971: 270-1] Thus, in social analysis we have to be less concerned with interpersonal relationships, and more with the social contextual relations. Yet, as Watkins argue, ‘no social tendency exists which could not be altered if the individuals concerned both wanted to alter it and possessed the appropriate information. ‘ [Watkins, ibid. ] Whatever thus be the environmental contexts, they are affected by individuals and individuals are affected by them.
Hence, even though methodological individualism and methodological collectivism, in their own rights are extremely important, in my opinion, the best way to study social reality would be to interconnect these two approaches. The debate between Miliband and Poulantzas is one of the most important pieces of research work that have come up in the last decades. However, trying to come to a conclusion to the question of who won their debate is very difficult. Thus, I shall conclude this essay by stating that both these intellectuals are right, but perhaps reconciliation between these two approaches would be the best.