Causal-mechanisms theory in Europe

The causal-mechanisms theory of social explanation has been influential throughout an extensive network of European philosophers and social scientists, often with a pretty direct connection to the analytical sociology research programme. Peter Hedstrom and his research network are particularly influential in this spread of ideas. It is worth mentioning a couple of books in the past ten years that have brought this approach to non-English speakers. 

Philosopher Michael Schmid published Die Logik mechanismischer Erklärungen (The Logic of Mechanistic Explanation) in 2006. This appears to be the first full-length consideration of the “social mechanisms” theory of social explanation in German, and it is an impressive volume. Schmid also has an extensive chapter in English in Peter Demeulenaere’s fine collection, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms.

Schmid’s book consists of careful analytical expositions of the theories of a dozen social scientists and philosophers who have advocated for this approach to social explanation, including both current and past proponents. Here is the table of contents, in my own non-expert translation, which gives an idea of the topics and authors Schmid concentrates on.

Michael Schmid, Die Logik Mechanismischer Erklärungen

1. The logic of sociological explanation

2. Philosophical foundations for an explanatory sociology

2.1 Mechanisms and the “Theory of complex phenomena” (Friedrich A. von Hayek)
2.2 Causality, social system, and mechanistic explanation (Mario Bunge)
2.3 Microfoundations and causal mechanisms (Daniel Little)

3. Mechanisms in sociological theory

3.1 Individual decisions and structural selection (Robert Merton)
3.2 Individual rationality and the interdependence of action (James S. Coleman)
3.3 Bridge principles and the transformation problem (Siegwart Lindenberg and Reinhard Wippler)
3.4 Macro-social phenomena and “rationality située” (Raymond Boudon)
3.5 Generative structuralism and generative mechanisms (Thomas J.Fararo)
3.6 Social mechanisms and the theory of rational decision-making (Peter Hedstrom and Richard Swedberg)
3.7 Process mechanisms and causal reconstruction (Renate Mayntz)
3.8 “Generative mechanisms” and “structural models” (Hartmut Esser)

4.0 The research heuristic of mechanismic explanation

Many of these authors considered here are core to the analytical sociology framework, including especially Merton, Coleman, Boudon, Hedstrom, Swedberg, Mayntz, and Esser.

A second relevant book appeared in 2004 in Italian. This is Filippo Barbera’s Meccanismi sociali: Elementi di sociologia analitica. As the title indicates, the book provides a programatic introduction to the social mechanisms approach as expressed within the analytical sociology framework. The contents are descriptive of the focus of the book (again, in my non-expert translation).

Filippo Barbera, Meccanismi sociali


I. Social mechanisms: history, authors, and objectives

I.1 Introduction
I.2 The Columbia School
I.3 Social mechanisms, theory of action and the crisis of the deterministic paradigm

II. Analytical sociology in the contemporary scene

II.1 Introduction
II.2 The relation between social theory and empirical research
II.3 Three principles for analytical sociology: causal processes, multi-level schemata, and formal theory

III. From macro to micro: the logic of the situation

III.1 Introduction
III.2 Interdependence between states: Sour Grapes and Ulysses and the Sirens
III.4 Institutional environments, exchange, and preferences
III.5 Training opportunities
III.6 Effect of social interaction
III.7 Structural effect

IV. The micro-micro axis: the principle of social action and rationality

IV.1 Introduction
IV.2 The forward-looking model
IV.3 The backward-looking model
IV.4 The cognitive model and framing

V. From micro to macro: aggregation and emergent effects

V.1 Introduction
V.2 Microfoundations of emergent effects
V.3 Strategic interdependency
V.4 Processual interdependence
V.5 Relational and spatial interdependence
V.6 Dynamic analysis of micro and macro

VI. Mechanisms in empirical research
VI.1 Introduction
VI.2 The diffusion of pharmacological innovation
VI.3 Individual educational choices
VI.4 Collective violence

VII. The integration of theory and social research

VII.1 Introduction
VII.2 Building the phenomena to be explained
VII.3 Postulating the generative mechanism
VII.4 Testing the mechanism

Here is a translation of a few lines from the introduction:

This book presents a theoretical perspective and empirical research that have gained growing acceptance in contemporary sociology. Many terms have been used to identify this perspective: “explanation by social or generative mechanisms”, “sociological analysis”, “sociology of causal processes”, and “analytical sociology”. Here we will use each of these expressions interchangeably. The book aims to rebuild from within the core of analytical sociology by isolating the principles and objectives shared, without carrying out a systematic comparison with other trends in contemporary sociology. This systematization had to first try to reduce the heterogeneity that characterizes the internal perspective of the social mechanisms approach, but not completely undo the specificities of the individual authors and the different proposals they put forward. The priority attention given to the objectives of clarification and synthesis of a complex and heterogeneous field has had to overshadow the critical evaluation of analytical sociology. This critical evaluation, incidentally, is not entirely absent, and in any case is made ​​more simple after we have specified the conditions and objectives of the approach. (7)

German philosopher Renate Mayntz also takes up issues on mechanistic explanation in the social sciences. Her 2009 book,Sozialwissenschaftliches Erklären, is a volume of essays on the philosophy of social science and social science methodology that address issues about mechanisms as well as the macro-micro link. Here is a rough translation of the table of contents:

Renate Mayntz, Sozialwissenschaftliches Erklären

1. Social science knowledge interests and cognitive capabilities: An Introduction
2. Research methods and cognitive potential: natural and social sciences in comparison
3. Invitation to shadow boxing: sociology and modern biology

4. Rationality in Social Science Perspective
5. Causal reconstruction: theoretical statements in actor-centered institutionalism
6. Social mechanisms in the analysis of social macro-phenomena
7. Individual action and social events: The micro-macro problem in social science
8. Emergence in Philosophy and Social Theory (in English)
9. Embedded Theorizing: Perspectives on Globalization and Global Governance (in English)

Mayntz’s critical review article on the mechanisms literature appeared in 2004 in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, and is available online here.

Also worth mentioning is recent work by Petri Ylikoski, including his excellent University of Helsinki 2001 dissertation,Understanding Interests and Causal Explanation (link). The dissertation is available online and provides an excellent basis for understanding many of the issues concerning causal explanation as they arise within the analytical sociology framework.

Each of these theorists relates directly or indirectly to the framework of analytical sociology and usually to Peter Hedstrom’s group directly. Barbera was a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, where he worked closely with Hedstrom. Schmid demonstrates a close knowledge of Hedstrom’s work and of the analytical sociology perspective more generally, and Hedstrom is one of the philosophers he focuses on in his book (3.6). Schmid also has sections on Mayntz, Boudon, and Esser, key figures in the literature of analytical sociology. Ylikoski has published co-authored papers with Hedstrom following the completion of his dissertation.


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