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Karl Popper’s views on Social Action theory

Karl Popper argues for the use of the idea of situational logic and the principle of methodological individualism. Popper’s arguments are directed against Hegel and Marx whom he regarded as expounding holistic doctrines which treated the social whole – society as though it were a real entity which is independent of and its members. Karl Popper regards such holistic doctrines as conducive to totalitarianism to the oppression of persons for the sake of society. His opposition is politically motivated though his arguments are not solely political. He argues that the sociologist should seek to understand human behavior. For Popper the process of understanding requires analysis of ways people relate ends to means in particular circumstances. We can consider the case of the cargo cults. Cargo cults were religious cults that sprang up in various Pacific island areas. They involved the believers in the expectation of the sudden almost imminent arrival of a material paradise. The islanders believed that very soon they would by one means or another be provided with all the material goods they could want. They were often required as part of their preparation for the arrival of the cargo to destroy or abandon their homes and property. This willingness to do away with their possessions on the basis of an unfounded expectation of new ones might seem irrational to many. An analysis stressing situational logic shows to be behaving rationally. Looked at the light of what the natives want (wealth of the kind possessed by their European colonisers), what they know about the ways Europeans come by their wealth and in relation to the conceptions that they have of effective means (religious and magical) it is hardly surprising that they believe that the cargo will come. In Karl Popper’s view, situational logic is associated with the principle of methodological individualism. Situational logic emphasizes the understanding of social life through a grasp of the way the individual looks upon and reacts to his situation. The policy of methodological individualism is simply an extension of this approach. It argues that all statements about wholes – the state should be reduced to statements about individual behavior. The sociologist should not say the state does this or a class does that without recognizing that such statements are a kind of shorthand for the actions of individuals. 

The intense controversy generated by the principle of methodological individualism ignores the simple fact that it is methodological individualism. It recommends a methodological policy of trying whenever some social whole is mentioned to substitute explanations in terms of individual behavior.

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