Alternatives to analytical sociology

I’ve now spent a fair amount of time in the past month on the micro-macro link and the foundations of analytical sociology (AS). It is worth taking stock to consider how this approach relates to other important methodologies in sociology and the social sciences more generally.

To start: I’ve generally found the strictures of “microfoundations” and “agent-based explanations” as representing ontological constraints on sociological explanations rather than guides for empirical research. The constraints require, essentially, that all our explanations of social processes and causal connections need to be compatible with providing plausible micro-level accounts of how they work. This is somewhat analogous to the philosophy of atomism in pre-Socratic natural philosophy; atomism postulated that there was a most fundamental level of physical phenomena; that these “atoms” were discrete and indivisible; and that all natural phenomena are composed of atoms and their aggregations. But this philosophy doesn’t prescribe how to pursue the science of chemistry.

So these constraints don’t necessarily provide guidance about what social phenomena to study or how to study it. In particular, they don’t imply that sociological research needs to flow from bottom up, and they don’t imply that the content of sociology should derive from features of individual agency and psychology.

But it seems that advocates of AS believe that the framework goes beyond this; that it leads to research strategies and areas of empirical inquiry that are distinctive from those adopted by other approaches to sociology. Research needs to fit into one of the struts of Coleman’s boat. It needs to provide an empirical understanding of some of the micro-micro linkages or the micro-macro linkages; and it needs to offer rigorous techniques for establishing causal connections from micro to macro. Hedstrom puts the point this way early in Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology:

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. (kindle location 139)

This brief summary of the central dogmas of AS provides one reason why AS theorists are so concerned to have adequate and tractable models of the actor — often rational actor models. Thomas Schelling’s work provides a particularly key example for the AS research community (Micromotives and Macrobehavior, Choice and Consequence, Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays); in field after field he demonstrates how micro motives aggregate onto macro outcomes. And Elster’s work is also key, in that he provides some theoretical machinery for analyzing the actor at a “thicker” level — imperfect rationality, self-deception, emotion, commitment, and impulse (Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality, Ulysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment, and Constraints, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions).

This summary also shows why agent-based modeling and simulations are so attractive to AS researchers: these techniques offer tractable methods for aggregating the effects of lower-level features of social life onto higher-level outcomes. If we represent actors as possessing characteristics of action X, Y, Z, and we represent their relations as U, V, W — how do these actors in social settings aggregate to mid- and higher-level social patterns? This is the key methodological challenge that drives the Santa Fe Institute, and it produces very interesting results (link). (Here is an interesting recent paper on agent-based simulations for the social sciences by Dirk Helbing and Stefano Balietti called “How to Do Agent-Based Simulations in the Future: From Modeling Social Mechanisms to  Emergent Phenomena and Interactive Systems Design” (link).)

There certainly is intellectual power in this approach — actors in social relations and the aggregation of their actions; but it isn’t the whole of sociology. So let’s quickly consider a few examples of sociological research that seem fairly distant from AS and consider how they might relate.

We might consider such fertile social scientists as Jack Goldstone, Theda Skocpol, Charles Tilly, Andrew Abbott, Emmanuel Wallerstein, Pierre Bourdieu, Stanley Lieberson, George Steinmetz, Douglas Massey, and Erving Goffman, with respect to these questions:

  • To what extent do their theories rely on “mechanisms” as a foundation for social explanations?
  • Are their theories compatible with the requirement of microfoundations at a local actor level?
  • Do they have a theory of the actor?
  • And do they make use of social ontologies that presuppose large social causes and macro causal relationships?

In many instances some but not all answers to these questions will be affirmative.  Goffman and Bourdieu have a theory of the actor; Tilly and Lieberson appeal to social mechanisms; and in different ways I would say that each of them offer theories that are compatible with the requirement of microfoundations.  At the same time, the explanatory logic that these authors provide is rarely “aggregative”; they are not interested in showing how a macro phenomenon is the aggregate result of local actors’ choices.  Moreover, several of them make specific and deliberate use of macro factors as central explanatory constructs: Goldstone, Skocpol, Wallerstein, and Massey. And Tilly explicitly criticizes the individualism that is characteristic of rational-actor theories, preferring a relational understanding of social phenomena.  So there isn’t an easy translational relationship between AS and a number of other important and productive research traditions in sociology today.

One interesting data point on this question of the relationship between AS and other approaches to social explanation can be examined in Kathleen Thelen’s contribution to Renate Mayntz, Akteure – Mechanismen – Zur Theoriefähigkeit makro-sozialer Analysen. (The book is very interesting and is available as a PDF download; link.)

Thelen is a brilliant scholar within the new historical institutionalism perspective (How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan), and her contribution to the Mayntz volume (“The Explanatory Power of Historical Institutionalism”) implicitly aims at tracing out some of the points of contrast between AS and historical institutionalism. She highlights several key methodological and theoretical assumptions underlying current research in historical institutionalism: attention to the formation of collective interests (92), attention to context (93), attention to meso- and macro-causal analysis (95), and sensitivity to the temporal dimension of social processes (96).  Here are some representative passages:

Thus, historical institutionalists have consistently drawn attention to the way in which institutional configurations »foster the emergence of particular definitions of mutual interest« (Immergut 1998: 339), and how they also often shape political outcomes by facilitating the organization of certain groups while actively disarticulating others (e.g., Skocpol 1992). (92)

A good deal of historical-institutional scholarship shows that the impact of institutions is often heavily mediated by features of the overarching political or historical context, a point that Charles Ragin’s work has repeatedly emphasized and underscored (Ragin 1987; also Katznelson 1997). (93)

However, beyond that, the emphasis on timing and sequencing in historical institutional research is also motivated by the insight, borne out in a number of studies, that when things happen, or the order in which different processes unfold, can itself be an extremely important part of the causal story (Pierson 2000c). (97)

Thus, for example, a number of authors have suggested that rational choice institutionalism applies best to understanding the strategic interaction of in- dividuals in the context of specific, well established and well known rules and parameters (e.g., Bates 1997; Geddes 1995). By contrast to this, the strength of historical-institutional approaches is precisely in the leverage it provides on understanding configurations of institutions (Katznelson 1997) and over much longer stretches of time (Pierson 2001). Historical institutionalism is concerned not just with how a particular set of rules affects the strategic orientation of individual actors and their interactions, but also with the broader issue of the ways in which institutional configurations define what Theda Skocpol has termed »fields of action« that have a very broad influence not just on the strategies of individual players but on the identities of actors and the networks that define their relations to each other. (103-4)

My takeaway from Thelen’s thinking here and elsewhere is that there is a pretty significant methodological divide between her way of thinking about social processes and that of AS.  She highlights a handful of characteristics of HI research.  Historical institutionalists are inclined to focus on the meso level — the settings of rules, norms, and processes through which social life is mediated; and they are sensitive to the crucial variations across time and place that these arrangements illustrate.  Nothing in this construction is antithetical to the requirement of microfoundations and the recognition that socially situated actors constitute the social world; but the emphasis of the research is not on the discovery of the aggregation dynamics from the level of the individual actor.

So I’m inclined to judge two things: first, that the methodological requirement of microfoundations is indeed a universal requirement on valid sociological research; but second, that the program of aggregation from micro to macro is only one way of conducting sociological research and explanation. So we shouldn’t expect other areas of sociological thinking and research to simply fold into the framework of analytical sociology — any more than a common commitment to natural selection as the causal mechanism underlying species change dictates the content and methods of the various areas of biology.

This is a place where the ontological framework of social structures that Dave Elder-Vass provides in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency seems methodologically useful.  It provides a rigorous basis for conceding the point that context, institutions, moral ideas, and value systems have a causal role to play in social explanation.  In E-V’s view, these social structures supervene upon facts about individual actors; but their causal properties do not need to be reduced to features of the actors.

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