Broadly any set of ideas emphasizing the importance of the individual and the individual's interests, the term is used to characterize a range of ideas, philosophies, and doctrines. It is, for example, employed to describe a political philosophy usually described as ‘liberal individualism’ that stresses the importance of the individual and the value attached to individual freedom and individual choice. This philosophy is frequently contrasted with collectivism , where the collective rather than the individual good is paramount. Thus, the American sociologist Robert N. Bellah and his colleagues have recently proposed the controversial thesis that American individualism is becoming excessive, since it is destroying the moral integrity of that society (see Habits of the Heart, 1985). The term is also used to characterize certain religious ideas, as in the phrase ‘Protestant individualism’, since Protestant churches historically have emphasized the relationship of God and individual as being one that is not mediated by the organization of the Church itself.
Whilst sociologists frequently use the term as a description of the philosophy of a particular social or political group within society, they also use it to characterize an approach to social phenomena within their discipline. So-called methodological individualism refers to the position adopted by those who argue that, in studying society, sociologists must not only (inevitably) study individuals, but also that the explanations of the social phenomena they study-phenomena such as social classes, power, the educational system, or whatever-must be formulated as, or reducible to, the characteristics of individuals. This position stands in marked contrast to ‘methodological holism’, the theoretical principle that each social entity (group, institution, society) has a totality that is distinct, and cannot be understood by studying merely its individual component elements. (An example would be Émile Durkheim's claim that social facts can be studied and explained independently of the individual.)
The debate over methodological individualism reflects an underlying tension about the relation between the society and the individual. This tension is, however, now more commonly analysed in terms of structure and agency : discussions of methodological individualism as such are less common. See also liberalism.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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