Mechanisms of contention reconsidered

Social contention theorists Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly created a great deal of interest in the “mechanisms” approach to social explanation with the publication of their Dynamics of Contention in 2001.  The book advocated for several important new angles of approach to the problem of analyzing and explaining social contention: to disaggregate the object of analysis from macro-events like “civil war,” “revolution,” “rebellion,” or “ethnic violence” into the component social processes that recur in various instances of social contention; and to analyze these components as “causal mechanisms.”  Here is how they define contentious politics:

By contentious politics we mean: episodic, public, collective interaction among makers of claims and their objects when (a) at least one government is a claimant, an object of claims, or a party to the claims and (b) the claims would, if realized, affect the interests of at least one of the claimants.  Roughly translated, the definition refers to collective political struggle. (5)

Here is the way they characterize the distinctive nature of the analysis offered in their new work:

This book identifies similarities and differences, pathways and trajectories across a wide range of contentious politics — not only revolutions, but also strike waves, wars, social movements, ethnic mobilizations, democratization, and nationalism. (9)

And here is how they want to make systematic, explanatory sense of the heterogeneous examples of social contention that the world presents: to identify and investigate some common social mechanisms that work in roughly similar ways across numerous different instances of social contention.

Social processes, in our view, consist of sequences and combinations of causal mechanisms.  To explain contentious politics is to identify its recurrent causal mechanisms, the ways they combine, in what sequences they recur, and why different combinations and sequences, starting from different initial conditions, produce varying effects on the large scale….  Instead of seeking to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for mobilization, action, or certain trajectories, we search out recurrent causal mechanisms and regularities in their concatenation. (13)

They offer these definitions of the key analytical terms:

Mechanisms are a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.

Processes are regular sequences of such mechanisms that produce similar (generally more complex and contingent) transformations of those elements.

Episodes are continuous streams of contention including collective claims making that bears on other parties’ interests. (24)

They distinguish among environmental mechanisms (“externally generated influences on conditions affecting social life”), cognitive mechanisms (“operate through alterations individual and collective perception”), and relational mechanisms (“alter connections among people, groups, and interpersonal networks”) (25-26).  And they offer a few examples of mechanisms: mobilization mechanisms, political identity formation mechanisms, and aggregation mechanisms.

The approach can be summarized in these terms:

Seen as wholes, the French Revolution, the American civil rights movement, and Italian contention look quite different from each other. … Yet when we take apart the three histories, we find a number of common mechanisms that moved the conflicts along and transformed them: creation of new actors and identities through the very process of contention; brokerage by activists who connected previously insulated local clumps of aggrieved people; competition among contenders that led to factional divisions and re-alignments, and much more.  These mechanisms concatenated into more complex processes such as radicalization and polarization of conflict; formation of new balances of power; and re-alignments of the polity along new lines. (32-33)

This is roughly the conception of social ontology and explanation that was put forward in 2001, and it was a powerful challenge to a more positivistic methodology that insisted on looking for general laws of contention and uniform regularities governing things like revolutions and civil wars.

By 2007, however, Tarrow and Tilly found it necessary to reformulate their views to some degree; and this re-thinking resulted in Contentious Politics.  So what changed between the theory offered in 2001 and that restated in 2007?  The answer is, surprisingly little at the level of concept and method.

Tilly and Tarrow refer to three main lines of criticism of Dynamics of Contention to which they felt a need to respond:

Although that book stirred up a lively scholarly discussion, even specialists who were sympathetic to our approach made three justified complaints about it.  First, it pointed to mechanisms and processes by the dozen without defining and documenting them carefully, much less showing exactly how they worked.  Second, it remained unclear about the methods and evidence students and scholars could use to check out its explanations.  Third, instead of making a straightforward presentation of its teachings, it reveled in complications, asides, and illustrations. (xi)

What did not change between the two formulations was the conceptual foundation.  The key concepts of contentious politics, mechanisms, processes, and episodes are essentially the same in the 2007 book as in 2001.

Contentious politics involves interactions in which actors make claims bearing on someone else’s interests, leading to coordinated efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs, in which governments are involved as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties.  Contentious politics thus brings together three familiar features of social life: contention, collective action, and politics. (4)

Further, they analyze contention in the same basic terms in 2007 as in 2001:

For explanation, we need additional concepts.  This chapter supplies four of them: the events and episodes of streams of contention and the mechanisms and processes that constitute them.

And their definitions of mechanisms and processes are unchanged:

By mechanisms, we mean a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.  Mechanisms compound into processes.  By processes, we mean regular combinations and sequences of mechanisms that produce similar (generally more complex and contingent) transformations of those elements. (29)

One goal of the 2007 book is to simplify the discussion of mechanisms.  The authors highlight three mechanisms as being particularly central to episodes of contention:

  • Brokerage: production of a new connection between previously unconnected sites
  • Diffusion: spread of a form of contention, an issue, or a way of framing it from one site to another
  • Coordinated action: two or more actors’ engagement in mutual signaling and parallel making of claims on the same object (31)

Other mechanisms that are discussed include social appropriation, boundary activation, certification, and identity shift (34).  And their key examples of processes are mobilization and de-mobilization — each of which consists of a series of component mechanisms.

One difference between the two versions of the theory is more substantive.  In 2007 Tarrow and Tilly give greater priority to the performative nature of contentious politics: contentious performances and repertoires have greater prominence in the story offered in 2007 than in the analysis of episodes provided in 2001.  This is not a new element, since Tilly himself made extensive use of the ideas of performance and repertoire in his earlier analyses of French contentious politics; but the theme is given more prominence in 2007 than it was in 2001.

Overall, it seems reasonable to say that Contentious Politics expresses the same conceptual framework for researching and understanding contention as that found in Dynamics of Contention.  There is no fundamental break between the two works.  What has changed is more a matter of pedagogy and presentation.  The authors have sought to provide a more coherent and orderly presentation of the conceptual framework that they are presenting; and they have sought to provide an orderly and systematic analysis of the cases, in order to identify the mechanisms that recur across episodes.

Where additional work is still needed is at the level of conceptualization of causal mechanisms.  There is now a large body of discussion and debate about how to think about social causal mechanisms, and many observers are persuaded that the move to mechanisms is a very good way of getting a better grip on social explanation and analysis.  But how to define a social mechanism is still obscure.  The definition that MTT offer does not really seem satisfactory — “a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations.”  A mechanism is not an event (or a class of events); rather, it is a nexus between a cause and an effect; it is the pathway through which the cause brings about the effect.  It is a materially embodied set of causal powers and their effects.  But the specific formulation provided by MTT doesn’t succeed in capturing any of these root ideas.

Various philosophers have attempted to specify more clearly the notion of a causal mechanism (Jon Elster, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences; Hedstrom and Swedberg, Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory, my own Varieties Of Social Explanation: An Introduction To The Philosophy Of Social Science). We can give good examples of what we mean by a causal mechanism.  But to date, it seems that we have not yet been able to come up with a fully satisfactory definition of a causal mechanism.  (Here is a short conference paper by Tilly in 2007 that takes a different approach by linking the concept to Robert Merton’s work; link.)

So the disaggregative approach that MTT advocate is a crucially important breakthrough in the study of complex social phenomena, and it seems convincing that it is “mechanisms” that disaggregation should lay bare.  Moreover, the idea of mechanisms aggregating to processes and constituting episodes is an intuitively compelling notion of how complex social phenomena are constituted.  These are genuinely important new ways of conceptualizing the complex social reality of contention and the task of providing descriptions and explanations of complex social episodes.  Contentious Politics is a very good presentation of these fundamental ideas.  What we don’t yet have, however, is a fully convincing and fertile conception of the root idea, the notion of a causal mechanism.

(See other postings under the thread of causal mechanism for other discussions of the topic.)

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