Peter Demeulenaere on analytical sociology

Here is another take on the core features of analytical sociology, this time from Peter Demeulenaere in the introduction to his very interesting recent collection on the subject, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms. The volume includes thirteen essays by leading experts grouped around “Actions and Mechanisms,” “Mechanisms and Causality,” and “Approaches to Mechanisms,” and it is an important further contribution to the framework of analytical sociology. (The volume is also available in an affordable Kindle edition; Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms.)

Demeulenaere makes several basic points. First, he holds that AS is not just another new paradigm for sociology. Instead, it is a reconstruction of what valid explanations on sociology must look like, once we properly understand the logic of the social world. He believes that much existing sociology conforms to this set of standards — but not all. And the non-conformers are evidently condemned to being judged non-explanatory. So this sets a claim of a very high level of authority over the whole field — what Ronald Jepperson and John Meyer refer to as micro-chauvinism (link, 57). Here are several of Demeulenaere’s statements of the intended scope of AS:

Analytical sociology should not therefore be seen as a manifesto for one particular way of doing sociology as compared with others, but as an effort to clarify (“analytically”) theoretical and epistemological principles which underlie any satisfactory way of doing sociology (and, in fact, any social science). The social sciences already command a considerable stock of substantive descriptions and explanations; and some of the alternatives to these are either redundant, or resistant to proof, even false or imprecise, quite regardless of their status with respect to one or other established paradigm. Analytical sociology should seek to define a set of sound epistemological and methodological principles underlying all previously established and reliable sociological findings. The aim of analytical sociology is to clarify the basic epistemological, theoretical and methodological principles fundamental to the development of sound description and explanation. (Kindle loc 121)

The most important aspect of the analytical approach should be to clarify the strategy by which we endeavour to separate and conceptualize different elements entering into descriptions and explanations of the social world, so that we might understand their mutual relationships, and in particular the causal links existing among them. (Kindle loc 139)

Second, Demeulenaere provides a long, detailed, and helpful analysis of the doctrine of methodological individualism and its current status. He believes that criticisms of MI have usually rested on a small number of misunderstandings, which he attempts to resolve. For example, MI is not “atomistic”, “egoistic”, “non-social”, or exclusively tied to rational choice theory. He prefers a refinement that he describes as structural individualism, but essentially he argues that MI is a universal requirement on social science.

The two core ideas behind MI, first expressed by John Stuart Mill and Carl Menger, and subsequently by Weber, can be expressed very simply:

— Social life exists only by virtue of actors who live it;

— Consequently a social fact of any kind must be explained by direct reference to the actions of its constituents.

These two simple propositions remain central to the analytical approach; we therefore have to address the problem of the relationship between MI and AS. This section is directed to a brief exposition of the problem. (Kindle loc 183)

This is important, because it involves two separate assertions: social things are composed of individual actions and nothing else; and “therefore” social outcomes must be explained on the basis of facts about individual actions. But the inference doesn’t hold — more in an upcoming post on explanatory autonomy.

Demeulenaere specifically disputes the idea that MI implies a separation between society and non-social individuals. He believes that even the originators — Watkins and Mill, for example — recognized that individuals are social organisms. But he believes this recognition can be folded into a consistent elaboration of MI that he describes as structural individualism:

The combination of these two approaches can be called “structural individualism” (Wippler 1978; Udehn 2001). Any serious attempt to reflect on a social situation should deploy both in turn. Their combination is in some respect illustrated by Coleman‘s famous “boat” (1986, 1990). It remains a central aspect of analytical sociology. (kl 246)

That said, Demeulenaere fully endorses the idea that AS depends upon and presupposes MI:

Does analytical sociology differ significantly from the initial project of MI? I do not really think so. But by introducing the notion of analytical sociology we are able to make a fresh start and avoid the various misunderstandings now commonly attached to MI. (kl 318)

Third, Demeulenaere holds that AS depends closely on the methodology of social causal mechanisms. The “analytical” part of the phrase involves identifying separate things, and the social mechanisms idea says how these things are related. Demeulenaere gives a compressed history of the development of this framework over the past decade or so.

Analytical sociology incorporates an affirmation that “social facts” are generated, triggered, produced, brought about, or “caused” by individual actions which themselves are in some sense “caused”, or at least partly determined by, the constraints presented by the social environments and situations in which such actions take place.

Therefore the focus has to be on the causal “process” occurring at the action level. The idea that there are laws directly implemented at a macro level can be easily rebutted, since the effectiveness of the outcome necessarily leads to the “active” level, the level of action. One general implication of the notion of “mechanism” is to move analysis away from an “inactive” level to an “active” level, where effective actions occur. A strong correlation between variables should not therefore be interpreted in causal terms unless a mechanism linking the two dimensions is identified, mechanisms involving effective actions. (kl 378)

So causal mechanisms are expected to be the components of the linkages between events or processes hypothesized to bear a causal relation to each other. And, more specifically to the AS approach, the mechanisms are supposed to occur solely at the level of the actors–not at the meso or macro levels. So this means that AS would not countenance a meso-level mechanism like this: “the organizational form of the supervision structure at the Bopal chemical plant caused a high rate of maintenance lapses that caused the accidental release of chemicals.” Both features are meso-level factors or conditions, and it would appear that AS would require that their causal properties be unpacked onto individual actors’ behavior.

I, on the other hand, would maintain that this is a perfectly legitimate social mechanism because we can readily supply its microfoundations at the behavioral level. So this suggests that we can legitimately refer to meso-level mechanisms as long as we are mindful of the microfoundations requirement. And this corresponds as well to the tangible fact that institutions have causal force with respect to individuals — a point Demeulenaere acknowledges here:

Hence we commonly encounter the fact that, one set of actors having at a certain point adopted a norm, or built up an institution, it then become more difficult for actors subsequently coming onto the scene to adopt another norm, or replace the institution. But this is never impossible. (kl 372)

There is quite a bit of the framework of AS that I find appealing and constructive. Moreover, several of the core premises line up well with assumptions I’ve argued for in my own philosophy of social science — microfoundations, causal mechanisms, and agent-centered ontology, for example. Where there appear to be a few inches of separation between the views is on the subject of reductionism and explanatory autonomy. I will return to these differences in an upcoming post.

 

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