Actor-based sociology


I’ve advocated many times here for the advantages of what I’ve referred to as “actor-centered” sociology. Let’s see here whether it is possible to say fairly specifically what that means. Here is an elliptical description of three aspects of what I mean by “actor-centered sociology”:

First, it reflects a view of social ontology: Social things are composed, constituted, and propertied by the activities and interactions of individual actors — perhaps 2, perhaps 300M. Second, it puts forward a constraint on theorizing: Our social theories need to be compatible with the ontology. The way I put the point is this: social theories, hypotheses, and assertions need microfoundations. Third, “actor-centered sociology” represents a heuristic about where to focus at least some of our research energy and attention: at the ordinary processes and relations through which social processes take place, the ordinary people who bring them about, and the ordinary processes through which the effects of action and interaction aggregate to higher levels of social organization.

(a) This means that sociological theory need to recognize and incorporate the idea that all social facts and structures supervene on the activities and interactions of socially constructed individual actors. It is meta-theoretically improper to bring forward hypotheses about social structures that cannot be appropriately related to the actions and interactions of individuals. Or in other words, it means that claims about social structures require microfoundations.

(b) The meta-theory of actor-centered sociology requires that all social theories, at whatever level, require a theory of the actor. Economics and ethnomethodology differ in the level of specificity they offer for their theories of the actor; but both have such a theory.  They both put forward fundamental ideas about how actors think and the mental processes that influence their actions.

(c) Actor-centered sociology suggests that careful study of local social mechanisms and behaviors is a worthwhile exercise for sociological research.  Ethnomethodology and the careful, place-based investigations offered by Goffman and Garfinkel move from the wings to the stage itself.

(d) It appears to imply that we may be able to provide an explanation of at least some higher-level social facts by showing how they emerge as a result of the workings of actors and their structured interactions. This is the aggregation-dynamics methodology (link).  Or in terms discussed elsewhere here, it is the micro-to-macro link of Coleman’s boat (link).

(e) The actor-based sociology approach seems to imply that the regularities that may exist at the level of macro-social phenomena are bound to be weak and exception-laden. Heterogeneity within and across actors — across history and across social settings — seems to imply multiple sets of attainable aggregate outcomes.  Would fascist organizations flourish in Italy after World War I? The answer is indeterminate.  There were numerous groups of social actors with important differences in their states of agency, and these groups in turn were influenced by organizations of varying characteristics. So it would be impossible to say in advance with confidence either that fascism was likely to emerge or that it was unlikely to emerge (link).

(f) The actor-centered approach suggests that we can do better sociology by being more attentive to subtle differences in agency in specific groups and times. George Steinmetz’s careful attention to the processes of formation through which colonial administrators took shape in nineteenth-century Germany illustrates the value of paying attention to the historical particulars of various groups of actors, and the historically specific circumstances in which their frames of agency were created (link). It implies that context and historical processes are crucial to sociological explanation.

(g) The actor-centered approach highlights the importance of careful analysis of the mechanisms of communication and interaction through which individuals influence each other and through which their actions aggregate to higher level social outcomes and structures.  Social networks, competitive markets, mass communications systems, and civic associations all represent important inter-actor linkages that have massively important consequences for aggregate social outcomes.

(h) Finally, the actor-centered approach has some of the advantages of the spotlight in a three-ring circus. The idea of actor-centered sociology points the spotlight to the parts of the arena where the action is happening: to the formation of the actor, to the concrete setting of the actor, to the interactions that occur among actors, to the aggregative processes that lead to larger outcomes, and to the causal properties that those larger structures come to have. 

One thing that is somewhat troubling for anyone who has been reading this blog over time is that there seems to be a glaring inconsistency in two lines of thought emphasized repeatedly here: first, that social facts require microfoundations; and second, that meso-structures can have autonomous causal properties. Are these two ideas consistent? 

In particular, one might interpret the imperative of actor-centered sociology as a particularly restrictive view of social causation: from configurations of actors to meso-level social facts.  So all the causal “action” is happening at the level of the actors, not the structures.  Dave Elder-Vass attempts to avoid this implication by arguing for emergent social causal properties (link); I’ve approached the problem by talking about relatively autonomous causal properties at the meso-level (link).  I continue to think the latter view works reasonably well.  In a post on “University as a causal structure,” for example, I think a plausible case is made for both ideas: the tenure system is causally effective in constraining individual faculty members’ behavior as well as being causally effective in influencing other structural features of the university; and every aspect of this system has microfoundations in the form of the structured circumstances of action and culturation through which the bureaucratic agents in the system behave. Or in other words: it is consistent to maintain both parts of the dilemma, actor-centered sociology and relatively autonomous meso-level social causation (link).


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