Neil Gross on mechanisms

Neil Gross offers a friendly amendment to the growing literature on social mechanisms within sociology in “A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms” (link). He offers general support for the framework, but criticizes the main efforts at specifying what a social mechanism is. (James Mahoney makes a major effort to capture the main formulations in “Beyond Correlational Analysis”; link. Mahoney identifies 24 statements, all somewhat different.) Gross argues that the existing formulations are too tightly wedded to the metaphor of a physical mechanism — for example, the cogs, gears, and springs of a clock. And the existing frameworks are too dependent on the assumption of rational actors, rather than a more fluid and relational understanding of social action. In some respects his arguments converge with those of Andrew Abbott considered in an earlier post.

The account of social mechanisms that Gross puts forward is a “pragmatist” theory. Here is how he puts the point in the paper’s abstract.

Building on the insight increasingly common among sociological theorists — that action should be conceptualized in terms of social practices — I mobilize ideas from the tradition of classical American pragmatism to develop a more adequate theory of mechanisms. (358)

Gross praises the mechanisms approach for its ability to go beyond positivism in the philosophy of social science — the general idea that social explanations depend on discovering strong social laws.  But he finds the literature to be amorphous when it comes to definitions.  He identifies five main themes:

  1. Mechanisms as not necessarily observable structures or processes
  2. Mechanisms as observable processes that do not require the positing of motives
  3. Mechanisms as lower-order social processes
  4. Mechanisms as triggerable causal powers
  5. Mechanisms as transforming events (359-361)
Out of these themes Gross extracts a degree of consensus:
  1. Social mechanisms are causal in that they mediate between cause and effect.
  2. Social mechanisms unfold in time.
  3. Social mechanisms are general, although in varying degrees.
  4. Because a social mechanism is an intermediary process, it is necessarily composed of elements analyzed at a lower order of complexity or aggregation than the phenomenon it helps explain. (361-363)
He believes these four points capture the “theoretical consensus” that exists among the main expositions of the idea of a social mechanism.  He then identifies several points of difference among these accounts:
  1. Methodological individualism versus social ontologism.
  2. Formal versus substantive mechanisms.
  3. Analytical versus realist models. (363-364)
Now, finally, his own specific definition:

A social mechanism is a more or less general sequence or set of social events or processes analyzed at a lower order of complexity or aggregation by which — in certain circumstances — some cause X tends to bring about some effect Y in the realm of human social relations.  This sequence or set may or may not be analytically reducible to the actions of individuals who enact it, may underwrite formal or substantive causal processes, and may be observed, unobserved, or in principle unobservable. (364)

A key part of Gross’s critique of existing expositions of the social mechanisms approach, largely within the framework of analytical sociology, is the reliance these researchers make on the framework of rational choice theory.  Gross believes this is too narrow an understanding of human action, and therefore serves poorly as a foundation for our thinking about real social mechanisms.  Gross prefers a “pragmatist” understanding of action and actors, one that is closer to the field of symbolic interactionism than to economics.  This approach links action to “practices” and habits more fundamentally than to means-end rationality and goal-seeking behavior.  “Pragmatists maintain that instrumental rationality itself, when it does appear, is a kind of habit, a way that some humans can learn to respond to certain situations, and that we should be as interested in the historical processes by which the habit of rationality — in its various forms — develops and is situationally deployed as we should be in its effects” (367).
Gross brings these ideas about action and practice into the mechanisms framework with this basic idea.

Pragmatists would view social mechanisms as composed of chains or aggregations of factors confronting problem situations and mobilizing more or less habitual responses. (368)

This approach understands action as more fluid and interactive than deliberative and pre-planned.  And it emphasizes the contingency of interactions with other actors that influence the development and unfolding of the swirl of activity and the constitution of the actor him/herself.

Fundamentally Gross’s critique comes down to a plea for a better understanding of social action itself, and of the actor, than the mechanisms approach is inclined to offer.  And the framework within which to conceptualize action that he prefers is one that derives from inter-action, spontaneity, and adjustment as much as (more than?) the deliberative and calculating processes postulated by rational-actor models.
I think that Gross’s approach is fairly consonant with that taken by Chuck Tilly and Doug McAdam in various places.  McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly emphasize the “relational” nature of social action in Dynamics of Contention.  And here is a nice statement of McAdam’s summary view of social action in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970.

One of the virtues of the perspective sketched here is that it is as amenable to the analysis of routine as to that of contentious politics.  Too often analysts have reified the distinction between routine politics and social movements, revolutions and the like, and have wound up proposing separate theories to account for the two phenomena.   Since I see the latter as almost always growing out of and often transforming the former, I am motivated to propose a framework that is equally adept at explaining both. (xvii)

The account of contentious politics that McAdam favors considers four ideas:

  1. Exogenous change processes.
  2. Interpretive processes and the collective attribution of opportunity/threat.
  3. Appropriation of existing organizational space and routine collective identities.
  4. Innovative collective action and the onset of contention. (xvii-xxviii)

This account emphasizes much of Gross’s agenda as well: adaptiveness, contingency, a fluid definition of action through inter-action with other actors, and the significance of culture and identity in action.


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