Sanderson on individuals and systems

Tue, 22 Apr 1997 12:29:51 -0500 (EST)
s_sanderson (

Bruce McFarling's post in regard to some of the arguments in my Social
Transformations deserves a response. I assume that social systems are
creations of individuals and thus aggregate effects of individual action.
I think that the basic assumption of rational choice theory -- that it is the
selfishly rational behavior of individuals that creates the basic features
of societies and larger systems -- is correct and a proper starting point.
However, the matter does not stop there. Social creations, once created,
are powerful constraints that establish the contingencies that determine the
direction of individually rational behavior. Individuals create society, which
then in turn at least partially reconstitutes those (or later generations of)
individuals. Social systems are real, and they certainly influence behavior,
but only because of the way they act on rational individuals.

In regard to social evolution, take a simple example, the Neolithic Revolution.
Why did humans all over the world beginning around 10,000 years ago start
domesticating plants and animals and shifting from hunting and gathering to
agriculture? As many archaeologists have argued, it was growing population
pressure against resources. Hunting and gathering was a rational way to make a
living so long as population density was low and resources were widely
available. Eventually a point was reached at which investing more time and
energy in planting came to be necessary to maintain a certain standard of
living. The reward-cost contingencies changed, and new forms of subsistence and
social life began to emerge as a result. But the new agricultural communities
established a new set of circumstances with new constraints on later action.
And so on and so forth.

Can macroevolutionary events be explained simply in terms of micro-level
actions? No, not completely. Macroevolutionary events are to some extent
emergent phenomena. But to understand them, one has to ask questions about
what is going on at the micro level, i.e., what individuals are trying to do
within the range of circumstances they confront. What applies to social
evolution also applies to revolutions. Take, for example, Jack Goldstone's
demographically-based theory of state breakdowns. This theory certainly makes
use of macro variables, but these are explicable only in terms of what
rationally selfish individuals are doing to satisfy their interests.

World-system theory assumes a rationally selfish actor but assumes that such
selfish behavior is socially created rather than an innate tendency. This is
where I part company with WST. If capitalism created selfish individuals, then
what created capitalism? Gunder Frank argues that it has been slowly evolving
for some 5,000 years, and I agree with him. Why then are the rudiments of
capitalism so old? To find out, read my book.

Stephen Sanderson