Dissecting the social


The past dozen years or so have witnessed the emergence of a distinctive approach to the social sciences that its practitioners refer to as “analytical sociology.” Peter Hedström’s Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology (2005) serves as a manifesto for the approach, and Pierre Demeulenaere, ed., Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms, and Peter Hedström and Peter Bearman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology provide substantive foundations for several areas of research within this approach.  And the European Network of Analytical Sociologists provides an institutional framework within which research approaches and findings can be shared (link).

Hedström describes the analytical sociology approach in these terms:

Although the term analytical sociology is not commonly used, the type of sociology designated by the term has an important history that can be traced back to the works of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sociologists such as Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville, and to prominent mid-twentieth-century sociologists such as the early Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton. Among contemporary social scientists, four in particular have profoundly influenced the analytical approach.  They are Jon Elster, Raymond Boudon, Thomas Schelling and James Coleman. (kl 113)

One important characteristic of the analytical approach is that it aims to gain understanding by dissecting the social phenomena to be explained.  To dissect, as the term is used here, is to decompose a complex totality into its constituent entities and activities and then to bring into focus what is believed to be its most essential elements. (kl 65)

And here is how Hedström and Bearman describe the approach in the Handbook:

Analytical sociology is concerned first and foremost with explaining important social facts such as network structures, patterns of residential segregation, typical beliefs, cultural tastes, common ways of acting, and so forth. It explains such facts not merely by relating them to other social facts — an exercise that does not provide an explanation — but by detailing in clear and precise ways the mechanisms through which the social facts under consideration are brought about.  In short, analytical sociology is a strategy for understanding the social world. (3-4)

Two interrelated aspects are of particular importance: the explanatory principles guiding the approach and the type of explanatory factors being evoked. Analytical sociology explains by detailing mechanisms through which social facts are brought about, and these mechanisms invariably refer to individuals’ actions and the relations that link actors to one another. (4)

In my assessment, AS rests on three central ideas.

First, there is the idea that social outcomes need to be explained on the basis of the actions of individuals.  This position is referred to variously as methodological individualismmethodological localism, or microfoundationalism.  It is often illustrated by reference to “Coleman’s Boat” in James Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory (1994:8) describing the relationship that ought to exist between macro and micro social phenomena:



The diagram indicates the relationship between macro-factors (Protestant religious doctrine, capitalism) and the micro factors that underlie their causal relation (values, economic behavior).  Here are a few of Hedström’s formulations of this ontological position:

In sociological inquiries, however, the core entity always tends to be the actors in the social system being analyzed, and the core activity tends to be the actions of these actors. (kl 106)

To be explanatory a theory must specify the set of causal mechanisms that are likely to have brought about the change, and this requires one to demonstrate how macro states at one point in time influence individuals’ actions, and how these actions bring about new macro states at a later point in time. (kl 143)

Further, Hedström is drawn to a broad version of rational-choice theory — what he calls the “Desire-Belief-Opportunity theory”.

Desires (D), beliefs (B) and opportunities (O) are the primary theoretical terms upon which the analysis of action and interaction will be based.  … The desires, beliefs and opportunities of an actor are here seen as the proximate causes of the actor’s action. (kl 507)

This is a variant of rational choice theory, because the actor’s choice is interpreted along these lines: given the desires the actor possesses, given the beliefs he/she has about the environment of choice, and given the opportunities he/she confronts, action A is a sensible way of satisfying the desires. It is worth pointing out that it is possible to be microfoundationalist about macro outcomes while not assuming that individual actions are driven by rational calculations. Microfoundationalism is distinct from the assumption of individual rationality.

Second is the idea that social actors are socially situated and socially constructed; the values, perceptions, emotions, and modes of reasoning of the actor are influenced by social institutions, and their current behavior is constrained and incented by existing institutions. (This position has a lot in common with the methodological localism that I’ve defended.) Practitioners of analytical sociology are not reductionist about social behavior, at least in the way that economists tend to be; they want to leave room conceptually for the observation that social structures and norms influence individual behavior and that individuals are not unadorned utility maximizers. (Gary Becker’s effort to explain much of social life on the basis of the premise of maximizing utility is an example of the reductionist tendency of purist rational choice theory; Uncommon Sense: Economic Insights, from Marriage to Terrorism.) In the Hedström-Bearman introduction to the Handbook they put the point this way:

Structural individualism is a methodological doctrine according to which social facts should be explained as the intended or unintended outcomes of individuals’ actions. Structural individualism differs from traditional methodological individualism in attributing substantial explanatory importance to the social structures in which individuals are embedded. (4)

This is a direction of thought that is not well advanced within analytical sociology, but would repay further research.  There is no reason why a microfoundational approach should not take seriously the causal dynamics of identity formation and the formation of the individual’s cognitive, practical, and emotional frameworks.  These are relevant to behavior, and they are plainly driven by concrete social processes and institutions.

Third, and most distinctive, is the idea that social explanations need to be grounded in a hypothesis about the concrete social causal mechanisms that constitute the causal connection between one event and another. Mechanisms rather than regularities or necessary/sufficient conditions provide the fundamental grounding of causal relations and need to be at the center of causal research.  (This is a position developed and discussed many times in this blog; thread.) This approach has several intellectual foundations, but one is the tradition of critical realism and some of the ideas developed by Roy Bhaskar (A Realist Theory of Science). Hedström advocates for a theory of causal explanation that is grounded in the idea of a causal mechanism:

The position taken here, rather, is that mechanism-based explanations are the most appropriate type of explanations for the social sciences.  The core idea behind the mechanism approach is that we explain a social phenomenon by referring to a constellation of entities and activities, typically actors and their actions, that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about the type of phenomenon we seek to explain. (kl 65)

A social mechanism, as defined here, is a constellation of entities and activities that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about a particular type of outcome. (kl 181)

In addition to these three orienting frameworks for analytical sociology, there is a fourth characteristic that should be mentioned.  This is the idea that the tools of computer-based simulation of the aggregate consequences of individual behavior can be a very powerful tool for sociological research and explanation.  So the tools of agent-based modeling and other simulations of complex systems have a very natural place within the armoire of analytical sociology.

In short, analytical sociology is a compact, clear approach to the problem of understanding social outcomes.  It lays the ground for the productive body of research questions associated with the “aggregation dynamics” research program (link).  There is active, innovative research being done within this framework of ideas, especially in Germany, Sweden, and Great Britain.  And its clarity permits, in turn, the formulation of rather specific critiques from researchers in other sociological traditions who reject one or another of the key components.  (This is the thrust of Andrew Abbott’s article on mechanisms, discussed previously.)

(An earlier post described John Levi Martin’s effort to show how social structures come to be as the result of the accretion of patterns of individual social interaction.  Where Levi Martin proceeds from micro to macro through aggregation, Hedström proceeds from macro to micro through disaggregation (or dissection, in his words). But both are fundamentally interested in analyzing the micro-macro link.)





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