Micro Level Theoretical Orientation Essay

1. Macro and Micro

The sociological theories of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons and the functional school are primarily large scale, macrosociological, and structural. These theories were developed in the latter half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries in Europe (with Parsons adapting these theories and developing a similar model in the United States). These theories were developed by European social theorists who were attempting to understand the new social world of a modern, industrial, urban society. These classical theories established sociology as an academic discipline, their definition of the social world established the scope of sociological study, and their methodologies determined how sociology would be studied and applied.

In North America a different set of questions occupied late nineteenth and early twentieth century sociologists, and a different sociological tradition became established. North American writers were more concerned with understanding the bases of social action and interaction among individual members of society. Since it is these interactions that define the the social world, underly social structures, and create and maintain societies, sociologists need to understand these. These microsociological or interaction perspectives are of several main types. Symbolic interaction examines meaning, action, and interaction at the micro level, and was developed by United States sociologists George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer, with Erving Goffman, a Canadian, being one of its primary practitioners (Wallace and Wolf, Ch. 5). A related approach is that of ethnomethodology, originally developed by Harold Garfinkel. This is referred to as interpretive sociology or interpretive analysis, and is related to the phenomenological approach of the Austrian-American Alfred Schutz (Wallace and Wolf, Ch. 6). Contemporary sociologists have adapted and developed these ideas and have created a great variety of mixed interaction approaches.

Some of the ideas that led to the these microsociological theories are examined in the following sections. A short summary of some of the different aspects of these two levels of sociology is provided first.

a. Structures or Action

. The subject of macrosociological theory is the large-scale structures and features of society – social class, division of labour, power, forms of authority, rationalization, and broad historical developments. In contrast, the subject of microsociology is the individual interacting with other individuals, often in small group settings. Where the settings are within larger scale structures, the micro focus is still on how individuals interpret the situation and interact with other individuals in these settings.

The classical approaches often began with what could be considered micro concepts, but use these to develop macrosociological theories. For example, Marx begins with a micro concept, the commodity, but derives this from a study of capitalism as a whole, and uses it to explain the structure of this system. The theories of Weber and Parsons are concerned with social action, and Parsons calls his theory an action theory, so it might be thought that these two writers span macro and micro. While the action approaches of Weber and Parsons could have led to an interaction perspective, neither author really develops such an approach. Weber is concerned with meaning, but does not devote much attention to defining this, and the bulk of his writings is devoted to groups, organizations, history, and structures of power. Parsons begins with the individual act in a situation, and considers interaction, but moves quickly from this to systems and needs. Interaction underlies these, but is not the primary focus of Parsons. The macro theories concentrate on average action and the regularities that are common to large numbers of social actors. The micro focus is on individual action, its meaning, how interaction occurs, and the uniqueness of individuals and the self

b. Determined or Creative

. The macro approach to social action tends to be determined by large scale structural features of society or the cultural and value systems. In these theories, there is often little room for, or analysis of, the manner in which people are creative in their interaction with others. That is, action is determined by social norms, cultural values, laws, religion, social class, consciousness, and ideology. These effect of these macro forces on social action is determinate and can be examined empirically in sociological studies (e.g., Marx’s study of capitalism, Durkheim’s analysis of the division of labour and suicide, Weber’s study of rationalization). In contrast, the interaction approach considers humans to be creative, with unique selves and individual forms of interaction. For these sociologists, social action and interaction can only be studied by carefully examining the ways in which symbols, structures, and organizations are understood by individuals and how different individuals come to interpret interaction differently.

The development of the child, socialization, and the formation of self and individual identity form a large part of the interaction perspective. In this perspective, personality and identity are not determined biologically, but are developed actively within the social environment. While the symbolic interaction approach identifies symbols as important, these are not so determined as the values, norms, or consciousness of the classical theorists and Parsons. Rather, sociologists working within the interaction perspective argue that the basis for social interaction is "a common set of symbols and understandings possessed by people in a group" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 191). These are developed through socialization and continual interaction with other individuals. The sociologist must also understand how the development of the self occurs as children and adults "interpret, evaluate, define, and map out their own action" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 191), rather than merely being "passive beings who are impinged upon by outside forces." (Wallace and Wolf, p, 191).

c. Decision or Practice

. A third difference is the underlying approach to social action. The theories of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Parsons tend to look on action as resulting from a conscious and considered decision on the part of the individual actor. This approach to action may derive from the enlightenment view of individuals as rational decision makers, weighing alternatives, and deciding on the best course of action. Parsons is explicit concerning the rational, decision making process in his theory of social action, and the three classical theorists also appear to adopt such an approach, even if only implicitly. In contrast, interaction theories tend to focus more on actual activities and actions, and what people do in social situations. Whether or not such action is consciously considered and aimed at achieving a specific goal is not the focus of the interaction approach. Rather, interaction theorists examine the experiences, practices, actions, and situations of people to see what they do, and then attempt to understand how these features occur. Everyday life, ordinary experiences, and asking how the generally accepted features of society emerge, are the focus of interaction studies.

While interaction theorists may not have an overall theory of society, classical and Parsonian theory has little analysis of social interaction. Both perspectives have been accused of ignoring women and gender issues, and having inadequate analyses of power in society. In order to understand contemporary sociology, it is necessary to study all of these sociological approaches.

2. Weber

Since Weber defined the social world as that of social action, with the aim of the sociologist being to develop an understanding of how individuals act, his theory is one forerunner of some interaction approaches. For Max Weber, each social action has meaning associated with it, in the sense that the individual does not act as a automaton or robot, or on the basis of instinct or stimulae. Some of the acts carried out by individuals are conditioned or automatic, but a large part of what individuals do is to consider a situation, think about how to approach the situation, contemplate the possible actions of others, and act in a way that the individual thinks will best meet his or her goals. This may be entirely a consciously worked out process, but to be considered as social action, there must be some meaning associated with the action. The task of the sociologist is to attempt to see how people interpret and attribute meaning to the situation.

Consider the situation of workers in a job as an example. Marx assumed that the situation of workers was structurally determined to be in opposition to that of the employer. Yet workers may accept the authority and power structure of the employment situation, perhaps because they need to support themselves and their families, and wish to create a reasonably comfortable life for themselves. They may consider their situation and view acceptance of the organizational structure in which they work as their best option. That is, domination within an organizational structure may be viewed as legitimate, so that there is rational-legal authority. If the employment situation becomes intolerable, this may create more active struggle, perhaps with workers combining to form a trade union. But Weber would say though that the latter does not necessarily result. Rather, the sociologist must evaluate each situation through the eyes of the actors, in order to determine what meanings they take out of the situation, how they assess alternatives, and how they decide to act (or not act).

The interactionist approach can be connected to Weber, although contemporary symbolic interactionism has dramatically refined and developed Weberian and other concepts. Historically, more of the roots of the interaction perspective are in philosophical pragmatism, psychological behaviourism, the German writer Simmel, and some early United States social science approaches.

3. Simmel

While Simmel is generally not regarded as being as influential in sociology as were Marx, Weber, Durkheim, or even Parsons, several of the early United States sociologists studied with or were influenced by Simmel. This was especially true of those who developed the symbolic interaction approach including writers in the Chicago school, a tradition that dominated United States sociology in the early part of this century, before Parsons.

Georg Simmel (1858-1918, Germany) was born in Berlin and received his doctorate in 1881. He was of Jewish ancestry and was marginalized within the German academic system. Only in 1914 did Simmel obtain a regular academic appointment, and this appointment was in Strasbourg, far from Berlin. In spite of these problems, he wrote extensively on the nature of association, culture, social structure, the city, and the economy. His writings were read by Durkheim and Weber, and Simmel contributed greatly to sociology and European intellectual life in the early part of this century. One of his most famous writings is "The Metropolis and Mental Life" (1903) and his best known book is The Philosophy of Money (1907). Simmel's ideas were very influential on the Marxist scholar Georg Lukacs (1885-1971) and Simmel's writings on the city and on money are now being used by contemporary sociologists.

Simmel was influenced by Hegel and Kant and developed a sociological analysis with ideas similar to the three major classical writers. When Simmel discusses social structures, the city, money, and modern society, his approach is similar to that of Durkheim (individual and society), Weber (rationalization), and Marx (alienation). Simmel considered society to be an association of free individuals, and argued that it could not be studied in the same way as the physical world, i.e. sociology is more than the discovery of natural laws that govern human interaction. "For Simmel, society is made up of the interactions between and among individuals, and the sociologist should study the patterns and forms of these associations, rather than quest after social laws" (Farganis, p. 133). He analyzed individual behaviour "because some crucial decisions are made on the individual level, among the ‘atoms of society,’ which can cause reverberations throughout an entire nation" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 193). Simmel’s emphasis on social interaction at the individual and small group level, with the study of these interactions being the primary task of sociology, makes Simmel's approach different from that of the classical writers, especially Marx and Durkheim.

It is Simmel's attempt to integrate analysis of individual action with the structural approach that make his writings of contemporary interest.

a. Size of Group

. Simmel noted that the number of individuals in a group in which social action takes place affects the form of group interaction. Relationships in a two person group, what Simmel called a dyad, are relatively straightforward, in that each individual can present themselves to the other in a way that maintains their identity, and either party can end the relationship by withdrawing from it. When a dyad changes to a triad, a three person group, the form of interaction may alter. In the triad, there may be strategies that lead to competition, alliances, or mediation. The triad is likely to develop a group structure that is independent of the individuals in it, whereas this is less likely in the dyad (Ritzer, p. 166).

As group size increases even more, "the increase in the size of the group or society increases individual freedom" (Ritzer, p. 167). The small circle of early or premodern times,

As the group grows in numbers and extends itself spatially, "the group's direct, inner unity loosens, and the rigidity of the original demarcation against others is softened through mutual relations and connections" (Farganis, p. 140). This implies much greater possibility of individual freedom and flexibility, with the common culture and form of association greatly weakened. Note the similarity to Durkheim’s analysis.

The metropolis or city becomes the location where the division of labour is the greatest and where this individuality and individual freedom is most expanded. At the same time Simmel notes that for the individual this creates the "difficulty of asserting his own personality within the dimensions of metropolitan life" (Farganis, p. 142). The growth of the city, the increasing number of people in the city, and the "brevity and scarcity of the inter-human contacts granted to the metropolitan man, as compared to the social intercourse of the small town" (Farganis, p. 143) makes the "objective spirit" dominate over the "subjective spirit." Modern culture in terms of language, production, art, science, etc. is "at an ever increasing distance." This results from the growth of the division of labour and the specialization in individual pursuits that is a necessary part of this. Subjective culture is "the capacity of the actor to produce, absorb, and control the elements of objective culture. In an ideal sense, individual culture shapes, and is shaped by, objective culture. The problem is that objective culture comes to have a life of its own" (Ritzer, p.162). "The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of objective life" (Farganis, p. 143). This sounds much like Marx's alienation, Durkheim's anomie, or Weber's rationalization, although Simmel associates this with the city, rather than with the society as a whole, as do the other classical writers.

Where Simmel differs from these other classic writers, is that Simmel returns to the individual, analyzes how the individual deals with the developments of modern society, and considers how the individual personality is developed in these circumstances. Simmel notes that one way individuals assert a personality is to "be different," to adopt manners, fashions, styles, "to appear concentrated and strikingly characteristic." The brevity and fleetingness of contact in the city mean that lasting impressions based on regular and habitual interaction with others cannot be developed. In these circumstances, obtaining self-esteem and having "the sense of filling a position" may be developed by seeking "the awareness of others" (Farganis, p. 143). This means that individuals may adopt some characteristic fashions and in their personal mannerisms may try to appear "to the point." Note that the personality is not an isolated entity but also is a social entity, one that depends on interaction. Social interaction, looking to the reaction of others, and seeking the recognition and awareness of others is an essential aspect of individual personality. In this way Simmel ties together the individual and the social, and each requires the existence of the other.

Further, the intellect and personal psyche develop in a different way in traditional and in modern society. In rural and small town settings, impressions of others are built up gradually, over time, on the basis of habit. Many of these impressions are less conscious and are built on more deeply felt and emotional relationships. (Farganis, p. 136). In contrast, in the city, there is sharp discontinuity, single glances, a multitude of quick impressions.

Thus Simmel views objective culture as having an effect on the individual, but at the same time considers how this alters the development of the individual, how the individual understands this and develops in this context, how the individual interacts with other individuals, and how these interactions form the social life of the city. Simmel concludes his essay by noting how the city influences individuals and provides the "opportunities and the stimuli for the development of ... ways of allocating roles to men. Therewith these conditions gain a unique place, pregnant with inestimable meanings for the development of psychic existence" (Farganis, p. 144). Note "allocating roles to men" rather than "men to roles" as the structural functionalist might describe this process. While Simmel is concerned with the possible negative effects of objective culture, he considers it possible for personalities to develop within these conditions.

b. Individual and Society

. For Simmel, there is a dynamic or dialectical tension between the individual and society – individuals are free and creative spirits, yet are part of the socialization process. Simmel was troubled by this relationship. He viewed modern society as freeing the individual from historical and traditional bonds and creating much greater individual freedom, but with individuals also experiencing a great sense of alienation within the culture of urban life. Simmel notes:

Simmel makes three assumptions about the individual and society. (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 312). These are:

In the social world, the various forms and styles of interaction are brought into existence by people and the above assumptions are realized as individuals interact with one another. Humans possess creative consciousness and the basis of social life is "conscious individuals or groups of individuals who interact with one another for a variety of motives, purposes, and interests" (Ritzer, p. 163) People are conscious and creative individuals and the mind plays a crucial role in this mutual orientation and social interaction. This creativity allows for flexibility and freedom on the part of the individual, and at the same time helps to create the structures of objective culture that may constrain and stifle this freedom. That is, social interaction becomes regularized and has patterns to it, and these become forms of association. These patterns and forms, regardless of their content, is what sociologists should study.

This means that society is not a separate reality of its own, but "society merely is the name for a number of individuals, connected by interaction ... society certainly is not a 'substance,' nothing concrete, but an event: it is the function of receiving and affecting the fate and development of one individual by the other." For Simmel, society is nothing but lived experience, and social forces are not external to, nor necessarily constraining for the individual, rather it is individuals who reproduce society every living moment through their actions and interactions. Simmel disagreed with Durkheim that "society is a real, material entity" and did not view society as merely a collection of individuals. Rather, he adopted the position of "society as a set of interactions" (Ritzer, p. 170).

The individual in a social unit must be an entity or constituent part of the unit, and Simmel distinguishes between a personal self and a social self. If there is no self-consciousness, symbolic interaction would disappear and human experience would just be the responses to stimuli. Instead, we live and die in terms of what is intersubjectively meaningful – i. e. we view ourselves in terms of responses of others – even others who we have never met.

c. Fashion

. An example of how Simmel examines some of these connections in a concrete connection is his discussion of fashion. (See Ritzer p. 161 and Ashley and Orenstein, pp. 314-5). Simmel notes that fashion develops in the city, "because it intensifies a multiplicity of social relations, increases the rate of social mobility and permits individuals from lower strata to become conscious of the styles and fashions of upper classes" (Ashley and Orenstein, p. 314). In the traditional and small circle setting, fashion would have no meaning or be unnecessary. Since modern individuals tend to be detached from traditional anchors of social support, fashion allows the individual to signal or express his or her own personality or personal values. Simmel noted that fashion provides

Ritzer notes that fashion can be considered to be a part of objective culture in that it allows the individual to come into conformity with norms of a group. At the same time, it expresses individuality, because the individual may differ from the norm. Fashion is dynamic and has an historical dimension to it, with acceptance of a fashion being followed by some deviation from this fashion, change in the fashion, and perhaps ultimate abandonment of the original norm, so that a new norm is established. This is a dialectical process, with initial success, widespread acceptance, followed by eventual abandonment and failure. Leadership in a fashion means that the leader actually follows the fashion better than others. Mavericks are those who reject the fashion, and this may become an inverse form of imitation.

In summary, fashion allows personal values to be expressed at the same time as norms are followed. The two exist together, and the one without the other would be meaningless. In all of this, social interaction is of the essence – what others think, what one thinks that others think, and how one conceives of fashion.

d. Philosophy of Money

. Simmel's major work concerns money and the social meaning of money. In The Philosophy of Money, Simmel is concerned with large social issues, and this book can be thought of as on a par with The Division of Labour of Durkheim, although not as extensive and thorough as Marx's Capital or Weber's Economy and Society. Simmel considers money as a symbol, and examines some of its effects on people and society. In modern society, money becomes an impersonal or objectified measure of value. This implies impersonal, rational ties among people that are institutionalized in the money form. For example, relations of domination and subordination become quantitative relationships of more or less money – impersonal and measurable in a rational and calculated manner. The use of money distances individuals from objects and also provides a means of overcoming this distance. The use of money allows much greater flexibility for individuals in society – to travel greater distances and to overcome person-to-person limitations.

At the same time, personal identity becomes problematic, so that development of monetary exchange has both positive and negative implications. That is, individual freedom is potentially increased, but alienation and fragmentation may occur.

e. Conclusion

. In some senses, Simmel's sociology is similar to that of the other classic writers, although he had less to say about social structure or its dynamics than did Marx, Weber, or Durkheim. He discussed objective culture and his writings on money have some affinity with Weber's rationalization. Simmel’s emphasis on social interaction and the resulting social world provide a unique contribution to the interaction perspective from the European classical period. His analysis of fashion, money, and the city also make his writings worthwhile reading.

4. Philosophical and Psychological Approaches

The symbolic interaction approach was first developed in the United States by social scientists who were familiar with pragmatism and behaviouralism.

According to the pragmatist view, reality is not "out there" in the world, but exists only as it is actively created by individuals in the world. Several principles of pragmatist thought are as follows:

All of these fatures of social life are demonstrated through the way that we use language and the manner in which we fill our various social roles. The philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey was an important influence on Mead, Blumer, and other symbolic interaction writers.

a. William James

(1842-1910) taught at Harvard and wrote about psychology and philosophy and attempted to develop moral and ethical principles for meaning and truth that depend on the definite difference these make to people (Knapp, p. 180). For James, consciousness is active, selective and interested, and direct experience is an especially important aspect of this. Ideas are not absolutes, but are a way of preparing for and anticipating experiences.

b. John Dewey

(1859-1952) was an important American writer who spent most of his academic life at Columbia University. Dewey argued that the various types of human activity are instruments that are developed to solve the various problems faced by humans. There is no eternal truth, but rather truth is based on experience, testable by all who investigate it. For Dewey, the human mind was not just a thing or a structure, but an active process by which the individual imagines, interprets, decides, defines, and acts in the world. Dewey attempted to work out principles for a democratic and industrial society, and was an opponent of authoritarian methods in education. As founding president of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dewey was an important intellectual influence in American life. (Knapp, p. 180 and Columbia Encyclopedia, p. 756).

c. Behaviourism

is the psychological approach that explains animal and human behaviour in terms of observable and measurable responses to stimuli (Columbia Encyclopedia, p. 261). In this approach, mental processes are not as important as the stimulus and the response so that the observed stimuli and the observed set of behaviours should be the subject of psychological study. The behaviourist approach was influential on interaction theory in a negative way, with the latter developing to counter the former. While the unit of study for Mead was the act, Mead argued that there were mental processes involved in actions, processes that the behaviourists ignored. Human mental processes differed from those of non-human animals, and this meant that human behaviour had to be studied differently than non-human behaviour. Mead's approach can be considered to be a social behaviourist approach, emphasizing social rather than biological or mental processes (Ritzer, pp. 327-30).

5. Chicago School

In 1890, the department of sociology at the University of Chicago was founded by Albion Small. This department was dominant in American sociology for 40-50 years, until Parsons and Harvard University became more influential. The Chicago school also had an impact on Canadian sociology and one of the major figures in the Chicago school (Ernest Burgess) was from Canada. Small also founded the American Journal of Sociology in 1895 and translated some of Simmel's essays for this journal.

One of the major figures in the Chicago school was Robert Park (1864-1944). After working as a journalist, he graduated from the University of Michigan, studied in Germany with Simmel, and obtained a doctorate at Heidelberg in 1904. He was associated with Booker T. Washington until 1914, when he joined the University of Chicago. Park published Introduction to the Science of Society, which introduced some of the major European theorists to the United States. Park looked on "the city as a giant social experiment, consisting of different worlds, neighbourhoods, and groups which are connected to each other and in conflict with each other" (Knapp, p. 175). Some of Park’s ideas were derived directly from Simmel. Park told his students:

In order to understand society, Park considered it necessary to study the city, the structure of the social world in which people live, and the relationships of people to each other – using "the ‘moving camera’ of the naturalistic approach to catch life as it was happening" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 195). He emphasized communities and changes in these, how individuals were shaped by and integrated into these communities, and how people and groups formed communities. Park stressed the importance of both social research and social reform. For Park and others in the Chicago school, the city was "a social laboratory in which human nature and social processes could be examined" (Shore, p. 127). These researchers were also concerned with the "expanding metropolis and the influence it exerts over contiguous regions" (Shore, p. 121).

Another Chicago school sociologist was W. I. Thomas (1863-1947), co-author of the two volumes of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918, 1920), an important empirical study of immigration and immigrant adjustment in the United States. W. I. Thomas, along with Dorothy Swaine Thomas, noted how individuals involved in interaction define the situation as important in understanding how interaction occurs. If the individual defines situations as real, they are real in their consequences (Wallace and Wolf, p. 194). Sociological researchers must "pay attention to subject meanings or definitions" in order to understand human activity (Wallace and Wolf, p. 194). The Thomases noted that individuals can ignore a particular stimulus or examine and deliberate concerning a situation, before taking action (or not acting).

6. Mead

Mead is generally regarded as the founder of the symbolic interaction approach. George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was trained in social psychology and philosophy and spent most of his academic career at the University of Chicago. Mead's major work is Mind, Self and Society, a series of his essays put together after Mead's death and originally published in 1934, a work in which he emphasizes how the social world develops various mental states in an individual.

Mead looked on the "self as an acting organism, not a passive receptacle that simply receives and responds to stimuli" (Wallace and Wolf, p, 197), as Durkheim and Parsons may have thought. People are not merely media that can be put into action by appropriate stimuli, but that "we are thoughtful and reflective creatures whose identities and actions arise as a result of our interactions with others" (Farganis, p. 145).

For Mead, what distinguishes humans from non-human animals is that humans have the ability to delay their reactions to a stimulus. Intelligence is the ability to mutually adjust actions. Non-human animals also have intelligence because they often can act together or adjust what they do to the actions of other animals. Humans differ from non-human animals in that they have a much greater ability to do this. While humans may do this through involuntary gestures, Mead thought it more important that it is only humans that can adjust actions by using significant or meaningful symbols. As a result of this greater intelligence, humans can communicate, plan, and work out responses, rather than merely reacting in an instinctive or stimulus-response manner.

Mead notes that human actions have three characteristics: (i) humans are able to organize their minds concerning the array of possible responses open to them; (ii) humans can consider the likely implications of different actions, and test possible outcomes mentally in their own minds; and (iii) since there are a range of stimuli that impinge upon an individual, a human need not react to the immediate stimulus, but may react to one of the lesser stimuli. This means that humans are able to make choices that are better adapted to the situation and "intelligence is largely a matter of selectivity" (Ritzer, p. 339).

For Mead, rather than action being defined by:

Stimulus Response

action is more appropriately identified with the following sequence of events:



Stimulus Interpet and Define Response

That is, the stimulus-response pattern is not what characterizes social interaction, but rather what happens between stimulus and response. Here humans go through a process of interpreting and defining the stimulus before providing a response. Associated with this is meaning – "the wedding of different attitudes and the use of significant symbols that have the same import for all concerned" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 202). "When individuals share symbolic interpretations, the act is meaningful to them" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 202). For Mead, symbols are important in allowing human interaction to occur, and it is the shared understanding of the significance of symbols that and what they denote that makes for social interaction.

a. Mind

. Mead conceived of the mind as the processes involved in responding to stimuli and contemplating action, with these being almost more important than the physiological processes of the brain, the structure of knowledge, or the contents of individual knowledge. The mind is also social, rather than being purely a characteristic of the brain or the individual. That is, the mind develops as a result of social interaction, the mind is part of social processes, and since the latter precede the mind, society is prior to the mind and self for Mead. While Mead's concept of the mind is less clear than that of the self, Ritzer notes that the mind "has the ability to respond to the overall community and put forth an organized response." This is not just a particular response, but one that can have meaning for the community as a whole, with symbols playing a major role. Further, the mind "involves thought processes oriented toward problem solving."

b. Self

. The self is the central social feature in the symbolic interaction approach. Instead of being passive and being influenced by values or structures, Mead considers the self as a process that is active and creative – taking on the role of others, addressing the self by considering these roles, and then responding. This is a reflexive process, whereby an individual can take himself or herself to be both subject and object. This means that "the individual is an object to himself, and, so far as I can see, the individual is not a self in the reflexive sense unless he is an object to himself" (Mead, quoted in Farganis, p. 148).

Wallace and Wolf note that Mead distinguished "things" from "objects" and the "I" from the "me." When an individual is involved in a situation and acts, this action occurs in an environment. Physical things or stimulae exist in the environment, prior to action, and people encounter these. By considering these things and acting in response to them, following self-reflection and interpretation, these things become objects. In doing this, individuals are active and creative. Those things of which the individual is conscious are those that the individual takes note of and indicates to the self. This has two consequences. (i) By being conscious of certain things, the individual makes these things into objects, and these are more than stimuli. The individual "constructs his objects on the basis of his on-going activity." These objects then become meaningful for the individual and "This is what is meant by interpretation or acting on the basis of symbols" (Blumer in Wells, p. 92). (ii) This also means that acts are "constructed or built up instead of being a mere release." The act is considered, in the context of the surroundings including the possible responses of others, and the overall consequences that are anticipated by the actor. Action is thus conscious and is not just a reaction to a stimulus.

Similarly, the I is the impulsive and spontaneous, unorganized response of the individual, whereas the me is the organized self that is learned in interaction with others and which guides the behaviour of the socialized person. The I allows for spontaneity, innovation, and individuality, and the me is that part of the self which involves the influence of others. The self involves both the I and the me, with acts resulting from the dialogue between the two.

Self-interaction is the way in which the individual takes things into account and organizes himself or herself for action. As the social environment changes, or as individuals encounter new or altered experiences, they experiment and interact with themselves in order to find an appropriate response. This involves taking on the role of the other, considering how others will respond, having a conversation with oneself, and forming a means of response which takes all these considerations into account. This may sometimes be quick and not entirely conscious, as in fairly routine situations such as buying food at the cafeteria. At other times, it may involve a long period of conscious role-playing, for example in preparing for a job interview. In either case though, some self-interaction does take place, in that each action is unique and is a result of the individual using the information from previous experiences and what the individual understands about the environment and situation, in order to act appropriately in the future.

Humans are distinctive in having the ability to be able to have a conversation with themselves, to imagine themselves in the position of other people, to consider what the other person imagines, and contemplates what the reaction of the other person is likely to be. This is evident in communication with the other person, where the individual carries on a conversation with himself or herself (although this is covert and in the mind, and is not stated for others to hear) at the same time as the conversation with the other person is carried on.

Development of the Self

. Mead spends considerable time discussing the development of the child, because this is how the self is created. The first stage of development of the self involves imitative acts on the part of the child. This is the pre-play stage, around age two, where the child does not have the ability to take on the role of others, but merely imitates the actions of others. A play stage follows, where the child can act out the parts of others but cannot yet relate to the role of others. That is, the child repeats what others say, and takes on several roles, one at a time. Later, the child is able to act with others and anticipate the actions of others. This is the game stage, where the child can take on the role of all the others involved in the game or situation. In doing this, the child learns the organized attitudes of the whole community, and is able to act in common with others. The final stage in socialization is the internalization of the generalized other, whereby people can put themselves in the position of the other person, imagine how others will react, and from that contemplate various courses of action. Once this ability is developed, the individual has a self which is individual, yet could not have developed apart from the community. That is, "one has to be a member of a community to be a self" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 202).

Simple and then more complex situations and games are means by which the child develops a self, and these situations illustrate the nature of more general social processes – interacting with family and friends and taking part in social relationships. Other than games, the development of the individual's ability to communicate using language and other symbols also play an important role in this. In the use of different forms of language, the child learns what others think and how others might respond. Games and learning a language are both social – they could not occur in the isolated individual.

c. Society

. The third major part of Mead's approach is society. The ongoing symbols and social processes that exist are logically and historically prior to the development of the mind and self. Institutions that give the common responses of society and the regular habits of the community are the context within which the mind and self are created. Socialization and education are the means by which individuals internalize these common habits. Mead does not see these as coercive or oppressive, and feels that individual creativity can exist within this. Social institutions can be viewed as constraining on individuals but these same institutions can also be viewed as enabling people to become creative individuals (Ritzer, p. 347). Mead did not develop a macro view of society and social institutions as a whole, but his approach might be combined with some of the more structural approaches to provide a more integrated view of the macro and micro approaches. Note that the classical sociologists have a similar conception of society to that of Mead, but they do not have a theory of the self, and they do not emphasize interaction.

d. Symbolic Meaning

. For Mead, significant symbols are those "which will call out in another that which it calls out in the thinker" (Mead in Farganis, p. 150). Symbols of this sort are universal (rather than particular) and are involved in the process of thinking – "an internalized or implicit conversation of the individual with himself" (Mead in Ritzer, p. 338) using gestures or symbols. Language is a set of vocal gestures which are significant symbols carrying social meaning. Thinking is implicit conversation, or covert behaviour -- that is, it "is not a mentalistic definition of thinking; it is decidedly behavioristic" (Ritzer, p. 338).

While Weber considered meaning to be essential to defining what is social, he did not provide a very clear idea of how he defined meaning or what aspects of meaning were important. In contrast, Mead makes meaning an essential part of definition and development of self. "Meaning as such, i.e., the object of thought, arises in experience through the individual stimulating himself to take the attitude of the other in his reactions toward the object" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 201). That is, meaning develops through experiences, as different individuals develop a common understanding of social situations and symbols. When symbolic interpretation is shared, people see things in the same light, and acts are meaningful to actors. As a result of this common understanding, the gesture or symbol arouses the same attitude in the individuals, and this is sufficient to trigger a reaction.

A symbol is "the stimulus whose response is given in advance" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 204). This could be a set of words, a gesture, a look, or a more fixed, material symbol such as a flag, crest, or money. When actors in a situation have developed a common understanding of symbols, it is significant for them and has meaning, in that they understand how the symbol will be interpreted by others and what the response is likely to be. This understanding is developed from previous experiences where the likely responses of others to the symbols has been observed or understood. As a result, the symbols have meaning for the individuals, and these allow individuals to interact with each other.



Ashley, David and D. M. Orenstein, Sociological Theory: Classical Statements, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1990, second edition.

Blumer, H., "Society as Symbolic Interaction," in A. Wells, ed., Contemporary Sociological Theories, Goodyear Publishing, Santa Monica, 1978, pp. 91-98 and also in Rose, pp. 179-192.

Denzin, Norman K., "Sexuality and Gender: an Interactionist / Poststructural Reading," in P. England, ed., Theory on Gender / Feminism on Theory, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 1993, pp. 199-221.

Denzin, Norman K., Interpretive Interactionism, Sage, Newbury Park, California, 1989, Applied Social Research Methods Series, Volume 16. HM 24 D438 1989

Denzin, Norman K., Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies: the Politics of Interpretation, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992. HM 291 D454 1992

Farganis, J., Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism,McGraw-Hill, New York, 1993.

Frisby, David, Georg Simmel, Ellis Horwood, Chichester and Tavistock, London, 1984, Key Sociologists Series. HM 22 G3S482 1984.

Frisby, David, Simmel and Since: Essays on Georg Simmel's Social Theory, London, Routledge, 1992. HM 22 G3 S4828.

Frisby, David, Sociological Impressionism: A Reassessment of Georg Simmel's Social Theory, London, Routledge, 1992. Second edition. HM 22 G3 S483.

Knapp, P., One World – Many Worlds: Contemporary Sociological Theory, Harper-Collins, New York, 1994).

Sharrock, W., "Individual and Society," in R. J. Anderson, J. A. Hughes and W. W. Sharrock, Classic Disputes in Sociology. HM51 C54.

Simmel, Georg, The Philosophy of Money,Routledge, London, 1990), second edition. HG 221 S5913 1990.

Turner, H. H., The Structure of Sociological Theory,Wadsworth, Belmont, California, 1991, fifth edition.

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Zorbaugh, Harvery W., The Gold Coast and the Slum, Chicago, University of Chicago, 1929). F 548.5 Z89


Last edited on November 9, 1999

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Demographers study population change across time and place, and traditionally they place a strong emphasis on a long-range view of population change. This paper builds on current reflections on how to structure the study of population change and proposes a two-stage perspective. The first stage, discovery, focuses on the production of novel evidence at the population level. The second stage, explanation, develops accounts of demographic change and tests how the action and interaction of individuals generate what is discovered in the first stage. This explanatory stage also provides the foundation for the prediction of demographic change. The transformation of micro-level actions and interactions into macro-level population outcomes is identified as a key challenge for the second stage. Specific instances of research are discussed.

Keywords: demographic research, theory, life course, micro–macro, discovery, explanation


Demographers study population change across time and place, and traditionally they place a strong emphasis on a long-range view of population change. In this paper, I address two questions about the strategy of studying this phenomenon. First, should the study of population change be anchored solidly at the macro level of populations as located in time and place? Second, should we consider the micro level of individual actions and interaction that bring about demographic change to be outside the core realm of demography? Building on current and past reflections, on methodological arguments, and on actual practice in population studies, I argue for a positive answer to the first question and for a negative answer to the second. More precisely, I propose that the scientific study of human populations and their change comprise two essential and complementary stages: discovery and explanation. Methodologically, and for clarity of exposition, I treat the discovery of demographic facts and their explanation as discrete stages. The two stages, of course, should be seen as interacting iteratively.

The first stage of demographic inquiry should be aimed at producing solid evidence on population trends and patterns, as well as their associations across time and space. In this, the discovery stage, the production of demographic evidence is grounded in formal demographic measurement, which at times might require spatial or temporal statistical modelling, or both. ‘Discovering’ population trends and patterns is a macro-level challenge, albeit ultimately based on the collection of micro-level data.

Informed by evidence produced in the first stage, the second stage in demographic inquiry should be aimed at explaining population change and predicting its future development. For this second, explanation, stage, a micro-level ‘life-course’ theoretical and empirical framework is essential in order to explain what has been discovered. The use of the term ‘explanation’ here relies chiefly on the generative approach to social science advocated by Epstein (2006). Explaining population change means recognizing the fact that human actions and interactions, embedded in a macro-level context, are driving demographic events. In turn, these actions and interactions are driving population change at the macro level. The key challenge for the explanation stage is the aggregation of micro-level outcomes up to the macro level of population change—that is, the recognition that explaining population change cannot be confined to micro-level outcomes but requires an understanding of the mechanisms through which the aggregation of micro-level behaviour shapes macro-level population change.

In this view of the study of population change, both stages are considered as highly legitimate, complementary, and valued parts of demographic research. A single piece of research will normally focus on either the discovery or the explanation stage. However, research directed towards a broad understanding of population change, including (but not limited to) long-term population change, must unavoidably take both stages into account to produce comprehensive scientific knowledge. These efforts are demanding because they require an integrative view at macro and micro levels of analysis, with command of traditional demographic methods, the life-course approach, and formal and simulation models. This integration should however be seen as the goal that guides research and training in the study of population change, and fully justifies the definition of demography as the scientific study of (human) populations and their change.

Is demography abandoning its ‘core’? And, if yes, is that really harmful?

In an important manuscript, never formally published, Ron Lee (2001) discusses the evolution of demographic research during recent decades. In particular, Lee argues that along with the rise of what he calls ‘micro demography’, demography itself is abandoning its ‘core’. Defining the core of an area of study is a challenging issue—and no doubt scholars who have had a huge influence in shaping the area, as Lee has, are among the best placed to formulate such a definition. In particular, Lee's central thesis is that ‘Key issues are macro demographic’, examples being the relationship between population growth and economic development, and the consequences of population change for the environment. Similarly, in an earlier reflection on the state of population theory 150 years after the death of Malthus, Roger Schofield and David Coleman (1986) identified the core of the subject matter of demography as being the ‘mathematical theory which deals with statics and dynamics of population; vital rates in relation to the age structure, dynamics, growth and their perturbations, and all the techniques of measurement, analysis and substitution that follow’ (p. 5).

The emphasis on measurement as the core of demography is paramount in one of the key textbooks in demography produced in the new millennium. Preston, Heuveline, and Guillot introduced their book by maintaining that it ‘attempts to impart an understanding of the behaviour of human populations by describing carefully the basic measures, models, and observational procedures devised by generations of demographers’ (p. xiv). In other words, demography is what demographers do, as we should say from a sociology of science perspective. Thus, the book by Preston et al. (2001) is deliberately emphasizing the core technical tradition that extends from the life table onwards. In contrast, Le Bras's (2008) non-orthodox textbook comes much closer to the general view of demography that I am proposing here.

Lee's fears that demography is abandoning its core are not isolated. In an influential article, Ní Bhrolchaín and Dyson (2007) state that ‘[t]he current prominence of individual-level analysis has tended to displace and distort approaches to aggregate phenomena, with a resulting blight on causal explanation at higher levels’ (p. 1). Dyson and Ní Bhrolchaín go further in taking as their point of departure Herbert Smith’s (2003) advice that demographers should not ‘blindly cede our population-based perspective in service to the micro-foundations’ (p. 467) of statistics and econometrics, concluding that ‘We believe that aggregate phenomena and demographic change through time should be at the heart of demography, and therefore represent a central object of causal investigation in the discipline’ (Ní Bhrolchaín and Dyson 2007, p. 1). In a similar vein, Geoffrey McNicoll (1992) sees ‘little excitement’ in micro-level social demography and claims that ‘More ambitious work on what could be called the Malthusian program—concerned with demographic regimes rather than individual behavior—remains […] sporadic and noncumulative’—thus limiting the policy relevance of an important part of demographic research.

Why have these scholars felt that the primacy of this macro-demographic core is threatened by micro-level approaches? Lee argues that the rise of ‘micro demography’ can be explained by three key developments: the growing availability of survey data; the development of new or better statistical methods for analysing such data; the increase in computing power and opportunities for data storage. Moreover, Lee argues, demography has been influenced by the development of micro-level economic theory, shaped in particular by the works of economists such as Becker, Mincer, Heckman, and Willis (see, in particular, Becker 1976).

Are demographers who ‘cede’ their population-based perspective to micro-foundations, to use Smith's words, soldiers in a Trojan horse that threatens the discipline? Not in my opinion. On the contrary, it is the outright rejection of micro-level analysis that potentially threatens the existence of demography as an independent discipline. Indeed, some of the analytical tools that ‘micro demography’ now uses are derived from seminal ideas that originated within the discipline, such as the regression approach to life tables pioneered by Cox (1972). Limiting the core to the traditional macro-level approach ‘devised by generations of demographers’ in an explicit counter-position vis-à-vis the peripheral, micro-level life-course approach would, in my view, be a grievous error. Nevertheless, a framework needs to be put in place to delineate useful directions. In line with another idea proposed by Ní Bhrolchaín and Dyson (2007), that is, of a double nature of demography, with ‘powerful descriptive potential’ on the one side and ‘a long history of causal analysis’ on the other, I argue that the enlargement of a measurement core that is focused on macro-demographic issues is not harmful if a broader, two-stage, view of demography is adopted. The perspective adopted here borrows in particular from the view of sociology depicted by John Goldthorpe (2007, 2015) and James Coleman (1986, 1990), and recently systematized within the so-called ‘analytical sociology’ programme (Hedström and Bearman 2009). However, in contrast to Goldthorpe's micro-based sociology, rational action theory is not necessarily seen as the ‘default’ approach to the study of population change. My proposed perspective also draws on the interdisciplinary paradigm that has become known as the ‘life-course’ paradigm (e.g., Giele and Elder 1998).

Here, in brief, is the line of reasoning we shall follow. In the definition of key demographic issues, one should agree with Lee—if one wants to study population change, the key issues need to be defined as ‘macro demographic’. The first stage of demographic inquiry, discovery, should remain what Schofield and Coleman, Lee, Preston, and others see as the ‘core’ of demography. It should comprise the measurement, using appropriate formal methods and with the usual obsessive concern over data quality, of population change, that is, demographic processes and their association over time and space. This measurement may entail the use of a series of summary measures of fertility, mortality, and migration (e.g., the total fertility rate, life expectancy, migration rates), or more complex distributional measures (e.g., a series of age-specific rates, life tables or population counts, age–period–cohort analyses) and their associations. Examples of established associations that have been very important discoveries include the links between mortality and fertility decline (Ní Bhrolcháin and Dyson 2007). Advances in formal modelling of population dynamics at the macro level also constitute discoveries. In other words, demographers should keep the mathematical and statistical description of how the world works, that is, of how population changes, at the centre of their scientific research. Inasmuch as this form of description contributes to cumulative knowledge on population change, it becomes the discovery of demographic facts. However, it would be a mistake to stop at this stage, or to restrict the core of demography to the macro level. While discoveries should be highly valued, they also need to be seen as the starting point, or as the target phenomena to be explained in the second stage. We should note here that ‘discovery’ has been a central concept in the epistemological debate since at least Popper (1959) and Reichenbach (1938), although the use of the term has been debated and seen as ambiguous at times (see, in particular, Hoyningen-Huene 1987).

In the second stage, an explanation of how population change comes about has to be rooted in models of the action and interaction of individuals, couples, and families, as embedded in their macro-level context. Discoveries provide the empirical target for the second stage—usually a ‘puzzle’ for explanation, in the shape of a set or pattern of demographic data. The idea of the ‘life course’ is that demographic trajectories are shaped by life events (from birth to death), and the timing of these life events is influenced by the historical, political, and cultural context, the development of individuals, and their relationships with significant others (‘linked lives’) (Giele and Elder 1998; Mayer 2009). The life-course perspective is useful in informing this second stage, together with theories on prospective decision-making approaches that have informed recent comparative demographic surveys such as the Generations and Gender Survey (Vikat et al. 2007). Biological (including genetic and epigenetic) and evolutionary ideas can also contribute significantly to the explanation (Hobcraft 2006; Sear 2015, this issue). The use of a life-course foundation for demographic research has been advocated previously (e.g., van Wissen and Dykstra 1999; Hobcraft 2006). Courgeau (2012) has argued for a multilevel probability-based approach to the study of population issues (see also Courgeau and Franck 2007).

For this second stage to be complete and fruitful, it needs to specify how macro-level population patterns re-emerge from the action and interaction of individual life courses. The need for explicit micro-level foundations is certainly not new in demography—for instance, Davis (1963), in his ‘theory of change and response’, emphasized the need to motivate through individual behaviours the long-term population changes that were of interest to him. Here, we propose this second stage to be built according to the ‘social mechanisms’ approach of Hedström and Swedberg (1998), based on James Coleman's work (see, e.g., Coleman 1986, 1990). In the social mechanisms approach, the explanation of macro-level social change entails three parts (which we can see as constituting the key components of our second stage). First, situational mechanisms are the ways through which the macro level is seen as affecting individual outcomes (e.g., how mortality decline in a society affects individual fertility choices). Second, action-formation mechanisms are the ways through which inter-individual processes (over time) affect individual outcomes (e.g., how past fertility choices affect current fertility choices). Third, transformational mechanisms are the ways through which, via the aggregation of individual outcomes or the interaction among individuals, macro-level outcomes are generated. Figure 1 provides a graphical summary of the proposed framework, including both stages.

Situational mechanisms have implicitly been invoked in analyses that make use of multilevel models of demographic behaviour, in which a micro-level outcome (such as the timing of demographic events or the prevalence of demographically relevant behaviour among individuals or couples) is studied as a function of macro-level factors (Entwisle et al. 1984, 1986; Entwisle 2007). Action-formation mechanisms have implicitly been invoked in life-course analyses of demographic behaviour, in which micro-level outcomes are studied as a function of the past history of individuals (embedded in a macro context), and in event-history analysis (Hobcraft and Murphy 1986; Courgeau and Lelièvre 1992), generalized to outcomes that are more general than the timing of events as life-course analysis (Billari 2003).

Of course, the fact that population researchers might focus on micro-level, individual outcomes is precisely what is criticized by scholars who see the macro as the ‘core’ (although John Hobcraft (2006, 2007) has argued for going below the micro level of individuals, ‘under the skin’). A focus on transformational mechanisms is therefore essential if one wants to move fully from the discovery stage of demographic research and close the feedback by inferring an explanation of population change, one that will allow further ‘discoveries’. Only an account of how aggregation takes place, that is, of how the micro shapes the macro can close the explanatory circle. In the social sciences, the debate on aggregation has mostly been important within economics, with the widespread use of representative agents in building macro-economic theories (Lucas 1976) and their critics (Kirman 1992). If one privileges analytical (i.e., mathematical) tractability in the micro-to-macro link, models based on representative agents are particularly useful, while heterogeneous agents are more challenging because they are much less tractable. Given that transformational mechanisms represent the key challenge in the development of demography’s capacity to integrate macro and micro processes in the study of population change, the remainder of this paper will deal with instances of the successful application of these mechanisms.

Figure 1

The two-stage view of demography (adapted from Hedström and Swedberg 1998 and the original diagram by Coleman 1986)

Transformational (micro→macro) mechanisms in demography


The formidable improvement in survival triggered by the demographic transition and its aftermath has contributed to a renewed interest in the determinants of age patterns of mortality and their changes over time. In this area, the study of mortality and longevity through the lens of ‘frailty’ is an important example of how the discovery of a population-level target—data on age patterns of mortality—can be generated using transformational mechanisms that aggregate the findings of a model founded at the micro level.

For scholars interested in mortality decline in advanced societies, the discovery stage provided, in addition to a general picture of the evolution of survival, some puzzles. One such puzzle was the decreasing rate of increase of mortality at old and ‘oldest-old’ ages. While a Gompertz-type of ageing mechanism, that is, an exponential increase in the risk of dying by age, seemed a plausible assumption, the key advance in research on this issue was the recognition of the limits of the assumption. It was plausible enough at the micro level of the individual, but when scholars looked at the macro level of the population (or more precisely of the cohort), additional assumptions were needed in order to reconcile what I have described as the discovery and explanation stages of research. In a seminal and particularly influential paper, Vaupel et al. (1979) criticized the methods of research then prevailing on two counts: their overestimation of current life expectancy and of potential gains from policy interventions affecting health, and their underestimation of rates of individual ageing, the extent of past improvements in life expectancy, and differences across populations.

The idea of Vaupel et al.—one of those ideas that appear as simple only after someone else has had it—is to start from the micro level of the individual, or rather of a statistical individual. This is an abstract and fictitious creature whose experience can be described through probability theory (Courgeau 2012) combined with a probabilistic interpretation of the same life table that has constituted a key tool for core demography for some centuries (Hoem and Funck Jensen 1982). In the model of Vaupel et al., for each individual the ‘force’ of mortality μ, that is, the instantaneous risk of dying at age x, is seen as a function of the individual’s observed population group, i, her or his exact age x at time t, and her or his unobserved ‘frailty’ z, that is, the individual-specific chance of dying, . After some algebraic transformations (and the assumption that frailty enters as a multiplicative factor), the age-, group-, and period-specific average force of mortality can be shown to be the product of individual-specific forces of mortality and the average frailty of individuals who remain alive at age x:

Because individuals with high values of z, that is, high frailty, tend to die earlier, the average frailty of the surviving cohort will decline with age. In other words, even if micro-level forces of mortality increase exponentially with age according to Gompertz's intuition, when frailty is heterogeneously distributed, the macro-level force of mortality will increase at a less than exponential pace. The puzzle posed by the macro-level discovery is then solved. This is also an instance where research proceeds by going ‘under the skin’ and below the level of single individuals to explain variation across individuals in frailty and in the ‘rate of ageing’, that is, in the pace of increase in mortality with age (Vaupel 2010). The explanation stage therefore provides the target for further interdisciplinary explanatory research. The profound impact of this result (a similar formal result was derived earlier by an actuary, William Perks (1932)) is such that Vaupel et al.’s paper is, currently, the second most cited article ever published by the journal Demography (search performed on Thomson Reuters’ ‘Web of Science’, 2 March 2014).

In a sense, one could see this development as an equivalent of the ‘Lucas critique’ in economics, because it showed that in order to understand—and forecast—population change, as measured through the change in age patterns of mortality, it is essential to understand the micro-level basis of the change and how micro-level outcomes become population-level outcomes. It is not by chance that, later, pitfalls in the long-term forecasting of limits to life expectancy have been the target of Vaupel's work with Jim Oeppen (Oeppen and Vaupel 2002).

Outside demography, frailty has become a standard tool in the formulation of survival/event-history analysis models, that is, models in which the timing of events is the outcome, and where a regression model for a life table (Cox 1972) might allow for frailty as a means of summarizing unobserved factors. Within (formal) demography, micro-level frailty has become readily part of the standard toolkit (Keyfitz and Caswell 2005, Chap. 19), without provoking adverse reactions among those who see research at the macro level as the core of the discipline. Perhaps the reason for the welcoming approach to what is essentially a micro-level study of population is that, under plausible assumptions, macro-level age patterns arise formally as an aggregation, via averaging, of micro-level age patterns. The priority of analytical tractability in demography is clear for Lee (2001): ‘Formal demography provides the analytic link between individuals at the micro level and populations at the macro level. Sometimes a simulation can serve the same purpose, with less effort, but the proper design and validation of a simulation also requires formal demography. While simulations definitely have a useful place in research and analysis, their shortcomings are well known, most notably that they do not provide insight’ (p. 4).


Migration and spatial mobility

The idea that simulations do not provide insight for demography is at variance with experience in neighbouring disciplines, such as epidemiology and ecology (e.g., Grimm and Railsback 2005; Longini et al. 2005). The precision of simulation models, a feature that has been described as central for demographic theory by Tom Burch (1996, 2003), allows the use of simulation in transformational mechanisms in a way that is homothetic to the use of analytical models. We therefore now move to instances in which micro-level simulations are used to derive insights about macro-level population outcomes, that is, as aggregation tools in transformational mechanisms. The need for analytical tractability—which is very welcome when suitable—should not limit the use of behavioural models based on micro-analysis. They are especially important for research on migration, mobility, and family and fertility, where demographic events are a clearer and a more direct outcome of agents and their decision-making. Micro-based simulation, also known as individual- or agent-based simulation, provides a crucial toolkit for the study of population change as it emerges from ‘the bottom up’ (Billari and Prskawetz 2003; Gilbert and Troitzsch 2005; Epstein 2006; Silverman et al. 2013). We start discussing this approach with the study of population movement and another pioneering example.

Thomas Schelling (1971) developed a model to explain, in a way based on micro-analysis, segregation patterns in cities as the macro-level target. Seen as the archetypal example of an insightful agent-based model, it is described by Gilbert and Troitzsch (2005) in their introductory textbook. Schelling’s (1971) aim was to study spatial mobility as the outcome of micro-level discriminatory behaviour ‘reflecting an awareness, conscious or unconscious, of sex or age or religion or color or whatever the basis of segregation is, an awareness that influences decisions on where to live, whom to sit by, what occupation to join or to avoid, whom to play with or whom to talk to’ (p. 144). In particular, he was interested in ‘tipping’, that is, in the change in the ethnic composition of a neighbourhood.

In Schelling's model, at the micro level agents have a ‘tolerance’ schedule that depends on a threshold. The individual agent does not tolerate living in an area where he or she is a member of a minority if the minority is too scarcely represented in the area. Going below the tolerance thresholds will trigger the spatial mobility of individuals. Individual-level moves will, in turn, determine the spatial redistribution of the whole population. The key result is that, even with relatively low values of the threshold, the macro-level outcome will be complete segregation. The original model is abstract and based on the broad observation of segregation. The fact that it provides sufficient insight has been confirmed by subsequent empirical tests of micro-based ‘tolerance schedules’ that have been implemented within demography and beyond, and that have been reported in a flourishing literature. Later studies have shown that, even when Schelling’s initial micro-level assumption is not fully supported by evidence, the transformational mechanisms can be seen to work in a way that follows the initial intuition (Clark 1991; Bruch and Mare 2006), although their applicability to large cities has been disputed (Singh et al. 2009).

Moving to a broader spatial scale, simulation models have so far been much less used to explain international migration, but some recent and promising studies have tackled the issue (Heiland 2003; Kniveton et al. 2011), and Willekens (2012, 2013) has advocated a wider use of simulation models in this area. Although the adequate definition of empirical macro-level targets appears to be a central challenge for international migration, prospects for research in this area are definitely promising.

Family and fertility

Demographic micro-simulations of conception and birth were developed as early as the mid-1960s by Sheps and Hyrenius (see Coale and Trussell 1996). Since then, micro-simulation models have been used to study the long-term consequences at the population level of specific mortality and fertility rates for kinship. For these studies it is important to keep track of kin relations for each individual in order to derive aggregate kinship measures (e.g., Wachter 1997; Tomassini and Wolf 2000; Murphy 2004, 2011; Zagheni 2011). Usually, the results from the discovery stage of demographic inquiry in these studies (e.g., sets of age-specific rates) are used as probabilistic inputs in simulation models to generate macro-level outcomes and population forecasts. Agents’ decision-making in these models is in the background and quantities that are not available at the time of analysis are usually the outcome of the second stage. An example is the use of micro-simulation for demographic forecasting (Booth 2006).

In the two-stage view of research on population change, the focus is on cases in which a behavioural model is built at the micro level, and aggregation is the main challenge. One such case is research on family formation, which has been growing as a privileged field of application in agent-based computational demography (Billari and Prskawetz 2003). In particular, age patterns of marriage have been the macro-level target of models of union formation based on micro-level analysis (Billari 2000; Todd and Billari 2003; Todd et al. 2005; Billari et al. 2007; Bijak et al. 2013). The approach to generating the macro-level target is similar to that adopted by Vaupel et al. for mortality. Given the challenges of analytical tractability of marriage as a matching process, simulation models are particularly appropriate.

It is well known that the age-specific pattern of marriage rates (or more generally, union formation) rates is non-monotonic, with usually a quicker increase over age, followed by a slower decrease. This pattern has often been investigated using ‘pure’ macro-demographic models, such as the Coale–McNeil model (Coale and McNeil 1972), which has been extensively used and is considered to be one of the key examples of the ‘demographic model’ (Coale and Trussell 1996). In agent-based models of marriage, the pattern of age-specific marriage rates is used as a target, and models are built in which agents search for partners, following mechanisms derived from psychological evidence on search heuristics or from the study of social networks. When search heuristics are the micro-level mechanism, Todd et al. (2005) have shown that heterogeneity in a baseline parameter at the individual level is a key ingredient required for the reproduction of age patterns that match the empirical target qualitatively. In their case, the duration of the ‘learning’ period in which agents gather information but do not marry is heterogeneously distributed. The capacity of individual heterogeneity in the duration of marriage search to account for aggregate-level patterns resembles the finding on mortality patterns using the notion of frailty. Diffusion and social interactions underlie the agent-based ‘wedding ring’ model of marriage (Billari et al. 2007), which was loosely inspired by the macro-demographic model developed earlier by Hernes (1972).

In recent studies of fertility, standard indicators over time or space or both have been used as targets for the second stage of analysis. Social interaction models of fertility decisions have been used to model agents’ decision-making, with simulations used to transform micro- into macro-level outcomes (Aparicio Diaz et al. 2011; Fent et al. 2013; González-Bailón and Murphy 2013).


In this paper I have argued that a two-stage process is essential for the comprehensive study of population change. In the first, discovery stage, novel evidence should be gathered on trends over time and space in demographic components, their mutual relationships, and their associations with other factors. This discovery stage is macro-oriented (even if data originate from individual-level sources) and corresponds to what several scholars insist is the ‘core’ of demography. In the second stage, an explanatory account based on mechanisms at the micro level should be built and tested, to show how population change arises from individual behaviour and interactions between individuals. The need for this form of methodological individualism in demography has been advocated earlier, for instance, by Kingsley Davis (1963), and its importance is recognized in mainstream economics and certain areas of sociology and evolutionary biology. Nevertheless, among the social sciences, demographic research is unique in the importance it accords to the discovery stage, and for the demographic facts that it provides as crucial empirical foundations for the other social sciences (Xie 2000).

If one accepts this two-stage perspective, there are implications for demographic research in general. The scientific study of population change should value both stages, and treat research in each of them as ‘core’ demography. A complete research programme on population change, however, cannot be limited to the macro or micro level only. The two-stage perspective also has implications for the training of researchers. Scholars of population change need to be versed in the methods required for both stages. Particular research and training efforts are needed to improve understanding of the micro-to-macro transition in the explanation stage. We have discussed examples of this transition that deal with it by analytical modelling or by simulation—demographers should be equipped to use both.

The way of studying population change advocated here requires of its practitioners the ability to deal with a number of disciplines that provide behavioural models, such as (but not limited to) economics and sociology, psychology and biology. Also required is skill in the use of mathematical, statistical, and simulation models. The study of population change is not easy. Nevertheless, it remains fascinating and, in my view, worth the substantial efforts its successful study entails.


1 Francesco C. Billari is at the Department of Sociology and Nuffield College, University of Oxford, Manor Road, Oxford OX1 3UQ, UK. E-mail: ku.ca.xo.dleiffun@irallib.ocsecnarf

2 This paper benefited from comments, criticisms, and suggestions from participants to the workshop ‘Population—the long view’ and from other colleagues, in particular David Coleman, Anette Fasang, John Goldthorpe, Ridhi Kashyap, John Simons, James W. Vaupel, Emilio Zagheni, and three anonymous reviewers.


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