detail: Lynn Cazabon photo
The philosophy of social science encompasses several important tasks, and key among them is to provide theories of social ontology and social explanation. What is the nature of social entities? What is needed in order to substantiate a claim of social causation? What constitutes an acceptable social explanation?
The concept of microfoundations is relevant to each of these domains. A microfoundation is:
a specification of the ways in which the properties and structure of a higher-level entity are produced by the activities and properties of lower-level entities.
In the case of the social sciences, this amounts to:
a specification of the ways that properties, structural features, and causal powers of a social entity are produced and reproduced by the actions and dispositions of socially situated individuals.
This concept is relevant to social ontology in this way. Social entities are understood to be compositional; they are assemblages constituted and maintained by the mentality and actions of individuals. So providing an account of the microfoundations of a structure or causal connection — say a paramilitary organization or of the causal connection between high interest rates and the incidence of alcohol abuse — is a specification of the composition of the social-level fact. It is a description of the agent-level relationships and patterns of behavior that cohere in such a way as to bring about the higher-level structure or causal relationship.
The concept of microfoundations is directly relevant to explanation. If we assert a causal or explanatory relation between one social entity or condition and another, we must be prepared to offer a credible sketch of the ways in which this influence is conveyed through the mentalities and actions of individuals.
Much turns, however, on what precisely we mean to require of a satisfactory explanation: a full specification of the microfoundations in every case, or a sketch of the way that a given social-level process might readily be embodied in individual-level activities. If we go with the first version, we are licensing a fair amount of autonomy for the social-level explanation; whereas if we go with the second version, we are tending towards a requirement of reductionism from higher to lower levels in every case. I am inclined to interpret the requirement in the first way; it doesn’t seem necessary to disaggregate every claim like “organizational deficiencies at the Bhopal chemical plant caused the devastating chemical spill” onto specific individual-level activities. We understand pretty well, in a generic way, what the microfoundations of organizations are, and it isn’t necessary to provide a detailed account in order to have a satisfactory explanation.
The ontological position associated with microfoundationalism falls in the general area of methodological individualism and reductionism, in that it insists on the compositional nature of the social. However, there is a recursive aspect of the theory that distinguishes it from strict reductionism. The individuals to which microfoundations are traced are not a-social; rather, their psychology, beliefs and motives are constituted and shaped by the social forces they and others constitute. So the microfoundational account of the workings of a paramilitary organization may well refer to the locally embodied effects of that organization on the current psychology of the members of the organization; and their behavior in turn reproduces the organization in the next iteration. This is why I prefer the idea of methodological localism over that of methodological individualism (link).
The theory of microfoundations is also very consistent with the idea of social mechanisms. When we ask about the microfoundations of a social process, we are asking about the mechanisms that exist at a lower level that create and maintain the social process.
One way of motivating the theory of microfoundations is to observe that it is a prescription against “magical thinking” in the social realm. There is no “social stuff” that has its own persistent causal and structural characteristics; rather, all social phenomena are constituted by patterns of behavior and thought of populations of individual human beings. And likewise, social events and structures do not have inherently social causal properties; rather, the causal properties of a social structure or event are constituted by the patterns of behavior and thought of the individuals who constitute them and nothing else.
The theory of supervenience is often invoked to express the idea that social entities and properties are constituted by individuals. (Jaegwon Kim is the primary creator of the theory of supervenience in the philosophy of mind; Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays.) This basic idea is expressed as:
No difference at level N without some difference at lower level K.
The advantage of the theory of supervenience is that it provides a way of recognizing the compositional nature of higher-level entities without presupposing explanatory reductionism from one level to the lower level.
The explicit idea of microfoundations appears to have been first developed in the domain of microeconomics; there it referred to the necessity of deriving macroeconomic phenomena from the premises of rational economic behavior (Weintraub, Microfoundations: The Compatibility of Microeconomics and Macroeconomics). (Here is an interesting article by van den Bergh and Gowdy on recent analysis of the microfoundations debate in economics.) Maarten Jansen describes the theory of microfoundations in economics in his entry in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law:
The quest to understand microfoundations is an effort to understand aggregate economic phenomena in terms of the behavior of individual economic entities and their interactions. These interactions can involve both market and non-market interactions. The quest for microfoundations grew out of the widely felt, but rarely explicitly stated, desire to stick to the position of methodological individualism …, and also out of the growing uneasiness among economists in the late 1950s and 1960s with the co-existence of two subdisciplines, namely microeconomics and macroeconomics, both aiming at explaining features of the economy as a whole. Methodological individualism, as explained in the entry on the topic, is the view according to which proper explanations in the social sciences are those that are grounded in individual motivations and their behavior.
The idea of microfoundations is now important in many areas of the social sciences, including especially sociology and political science. Particularly important were ideas formulated by James Coleman in Foundations of Social Theory. Coleman doesn’t use the term “microfoundations” explicitly in this work, but his analysis of the relationship between the macro and the micro seems to imply a requirement of providing microfoundations as a condition on good explanations in the social sciences. The Coleman boat (link) seems to be a graphical way of representing the microfoundations of a macro-level fact.
A second mode of explanation of the behavior of social systems entails examining processes internal to the system, involving its component parts, or units at a level below that of the system. The prototypical case is that in which the component parts are individuals who are members of the social system. In other cases the component parts may be institutions within the system or subgroups that are part of the system. In all cases the analysis can be seen as moving to a lower level than that of the system, explaining the behavior of the system by recourse to the behavior of its parts. This mode of explanation is not uniquely quantitative or uniquely qualitative, but may be either. … I call [this] the internal analysis of system behavior. (2)
Coleman’s view here is complex, though, and isn’t entirely unambiguous. Consider this qualification a few pages later, which refers unexpectedly to “emergent phenomena” and intermediate levels of explanatory mechanisms between the macro and the micro:
Those readers familiar with debates and discussions on methodological holism and methodological individualism will recognize that the position taken above on explanation is a variant of methodological individualism. But it is a special variant. No assumption is made that the explanation of systemic behavior consists of nothing more than individual actions and orientations, taken in aggregate. The interaction among individuals is seen to result in emergent phenomena at the system level, that is, phenomena that were neither intended nor predicted by the individuals. Furthermore, there is no implication that for a given purpose an explanation must be taken all the way to the individual level to be satisfactory. The criterion is instead pragmatic. (5)
Other more explicit advocates of the microfoundations principle are Jon Elster, John Roemer, Adam Przeworski, and other contributors to the theories of analytical Marxism (Analytical Marxism). Here is how I attempted to synthesize some of this thinking in 1994:
Marxist thinkers have argued that macro-explanations stand in need of microfoundations: detailed accounts of the pathways by which macro-level social patterns come about. These theorists have held that it is necessary to provide an account of the circumstsances of individual choice and action that give rise to aggregate patterns if macro-explanations are to be adequate. Thus in order to explain the policies of the capitalist state it is not sufficient to observe that this state tends to serve capitalist interests; we need to have an account of the processes through which state policies are shaped or controlled so as to produce this outcome. (“Microfoundations of Marxism,” reprinted in D. Little, Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation, 4)
As noted in a prior post, the idea of microfoundations is also a core constituent of the methodology of analytical sociology (Peter Hedström, Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology).
In short, a fairly wide range of social science research today embraces the general idea of providing microfoundations for macro-level assertions. And this seems to be a very reasonable requirement, given what we know about how social entities, processes, and forces are composed.