Towards Methodological Situationism

While anarchists have incorporated insights from economics, anthropology, psychology, and some macro-sociology, there is a notable absence when it comes to micro-sociology. This is puzzling as the very core of anarchist thought is about hierarchy, a sociological phenomenon. The standard anarchist conception of hierarchy focuses almost exclusively on structural power. Generally speaking, anarchists claim to be against all hierarchy, yet appear to be unaware of the hierarchies they themselves are reproducing in their everyday lives. The ignorance of micro-sociological processes is nearly universal in contemporary anarchist thought. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the explanatory power of analyzing the social situations in which individuals are embedded rather than just narrowly focusing on individuals.

Georges Gurvitch, a sociologist who built on both Proudhon and Marx while incorporating insights from physics, argued that the universe can no longer be understood as a machine made up of individual parts. Instead, it must be understood as an indivisible, dynamic whole with interrelated parts. Some unacquainted with sociology still generally view individuals as independent and distinct from each other. In so doing, they are able to claim that some individuals are “good” and others “bad.” In essence, they view the social struggle as “good guys versus bad guys.” This is an erroneous worldview. As Gurvitch argued, the we exists ontologically prior to the I. Or in other words, the group exists prior to the individual. The individual is an outgrowth of society, not the other way around (Bosserman 1968). 

Relatedly, humans are one of the handful of species that regularly pass the mirror test, which examines if an animal can recognize themselves as the object in the mirror. If an animal passes the test, it is inferred that they have what sociologists refer to as “a self.” An individual is thought to acquire a self only once they have taken on “the attitude of the other” and become an object to themselves. Interestingly, while chimpanzees regularly pass the mirror test, those who are kept in isolation since birth are unable to pass the test. Once isolated chimps are able to socialize with others though, they then can pass the test (Gallup 1977). These findings align with George H. Mead’s social behavior theory, later termed symbolic interactionism, that the acquisition of self requires interaction with others. “The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience (Mead 1934: 140).” How society acts towards an individual completely shapes the individual’s understanding of self.  Hence, the self is a social construction. This should not be that surprising as all language and symbols are inherently social constructs and comprise most mental activity.

The understanding of self as social construct is an important insight because it demonstrates how entrenched society’s grip is in our minds. Our interactions with others are fundamentally shaped by unconscious social processes which we have learned since infancy. While we like to think of ourselves as rational, we are clearly bounded in our rationality. We regularly use heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to facilitate interaction. The sheer amount of information flowing between two people interacting is mind-boggling and generally taken for granted. In our voice alone, tone, volume, pitch, inflection, and pace all attach significant symbolic meanings to whatever words are being spoken.  As Randall Collins (1992: 12) wrote “Society works precisely because people don’t have to rationally decide what benefits they might get and what losses they might incur. People do not have to think about these things and that is what makes society possible.” Everyone encapsulated in society unknowingly abides by an enormous amount of social heuristics which facilitate interaction with others.

Unsurprisingly then, over the course of a normal day, we enact a multitude of cultural scripts, which includes rules for deference and demeanor, which are embedded within our psyche. “Like professional actors on a stage, social actors enact roles, assume characters, and play through scenes when interacting with one another. In short, they put on “performances” (Trevino 2003: 18).” These performances allow for the smooth flow of interaction and derive from culturally-shared beliefs which influence how we interact with others. As hierarchy is entrenched in our society, so is it in all of our behavior. Dominance and prestige hierarchies take place in everyday interaction without needing to appeal to conscious thought. For example, as early as preschool, kids have been found to be able to accurately infer dominance hierarchies simply by observing others (Charafeddine et al. 2015). Although anarchists want to minimize, if not abolish, these hierarchies, they generally lack a clear understanding of what hierarchy actually is within society. 

Importantly, society not only shapes how we understand ourselves, but it also shapes how we define a situation. All individual behavior is shaped by their understanding of the situation. In contrast to methodical individualism then, the emphasis should be placed on what I term methodological situationism. It is situations which predominantly shape individual actions. “The individual is the precipitate of past interactional situations and an ingredient of each new situation. An ingredient, not the determinant, because a situation is an emergent property. A situation is not merely the result of the individual who comes into it, nor even of a combination of individuals (although it is that too). Situations have laws or processes of their own (Collins 2004: 5).” In the same way that the game makes the hero, it is the situations, or the chains of situations, which make the individual. In Asylums, Erving Goffman (1968) illustrates how total institutions like mental asylums try to impose, often successfully, certain understandings of the self onto inmates simply by forcing the inmates into particular situations. 

As all social life boils down to concrete situations, it is these situations which should be given the focus. An attention to situations can be extended to understand how individuals take on counterintuitive beliefs. For example, Ludwig Gumplowicz (1899), whose work Franz Oppenheimer (1922) built on to create the conquest theory of the state, argues that when a group is conquered by another, it is initially through pure domination. However, over time, and through interaction between the two groups, this imposed hierarchy becomes understood as more and more legitimate until the two formerly independent societies are incorporated as one. Dominance recedes and prestige takes root. A tacit agreement emerges between the two groups. Generally, the idea used to legitimize the situation is the argument of “divine right” or, nowadays, “merit.” By legitimizing the inequality between the two, it adds considerable complexity to society by synthesizing two societies into one. Over the course of the past 12,000 years, the entire planet has gradually come under one super stratified global society, with the US military at the very top, through similar situational processes (Malešević 2017). Hence, we ALL now find our “self’s” embedded within a society which has its foundation rooted in sheer domination and submission. 

Alexander Rustow (1980: 38), a conquest theorist of the state, describes our situation:

All of us, without exception, carry this inherited poison within us, in the most varied and unexpected places and in the most diverse forms, often defying perception. All of us, collectively and individually, are accessories to this great sin of all time, this real original sin, a hereditary fault that can be excised and erased only with great difficulty and slowly by an insight into pathology, by a will to recover, by the active remorse of all.

As situations determine the vast majority of individual behavior, it is in the interest of the anarchist to turn their focus towards social situations. By narrowly focusing on the individual, they are missing a key part of how structural arrangements shape individual behavior. Even more, I would argue that the social disintegration we are currently witnessing has less to do with individual actors as with the social situations and roles themselves. The only reason Trump can now play a tyrant, for example, is because the situation was first made available. The notion of “good guys versus bad guys” only serves to stroke the egos of the so-called “good guys” while alienating those whom they have deemed irredeemable of the so-called “bad guys.”  Therefore, incorporating micro-sociological insights allows for a more nuanced understanding of social reality as well as adds considerable explanatory power to the anarchist framework.


  • Bosserman, Phillip. 1968. Dialectical Sociology: An Analysis of the Sociology of Georges Gurvitch. Porter Sargent Publisher.
  • Charafeddine, Rawan, Hugo Mercier, Fabrice Clément et al. 2015. “How preschoolers use cues of dominance to make sense of their social environment.” Journal of Cognition and Development 16(4): 587-607.
  • Collins, Randall. 1992. Sociological Insight: An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology. Oxford University Press.
  • Collins, Randall. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton University Press.
  • Gallup, Gordon G. 1977. “Self recognition in primates: A comparative approach to the bidirectional properties of consciousness.” American Psychologist 32(5): 329-338.
  • Goffman, Erving. 1968. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Aldine Transaction.
  • Gumplowicz, Ludwig. 1899. The Outlines of Sociology. American Academy of Political and Social Science.
  • Malešević, Siniša . 2017. The Rise of Organised Brutality: A Historical Sociology of Violence. Cambridge University Press.
  • Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self and Society. University of Chicago Press.
  • Oppenheimer, Franz. 1922. The State: Its History and Development Viewed Sociologically. Vanguard Press.
  • Rustow, Alexander. 1980. Freedom and Domination: A Historical Critique of Civilization. Princeton University Press.
  • Treviño, Javier A. 2003. Goffman’s Legacy. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.


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