Does the microfoundations principle imply reductionism?

My philosophy of social science has always and consistently maintained the idea that social facts depend on the activities and beliefs of individuals. There is no social “stuff” that exists independently from individual actors. I have encapsulated that idea in the form of the “microfoundations” principle: any claim about the characteristics or causal powers of social entities must be compatible with there being microfoundations for those properties and powers at the level of the actor.

At the same time, I also believe that there is an appropriate domain for social science: the exploration of the features and powers of the social world. I don’t believe that methodology should force the sociologist to become a psychologist or to shift his/her attention to the micro level.

Are these two premises compatible? Or does the microfoundations principle actually entail reductionism? Does it imply that explanations couched at the level of social vocabulary are incomplete and derivative, and that the real explanation must be found at the level of the micro-activities of individuals?

I attempt to resolve this apparent dilemma by distinguishing between strong and weak versions of the microfoundations principle: “social explanations must provide microfoundations for their assertions about social properties and powers” versus “social explanations must be compatible with there being microfoundations for their assertions about social powers and properties.” The weak version reflects an appropriate stipulation based on what we know about the ontology of the social world, whereas the strong version is a kind of explanatory reductionism that is unjustified.

My position, then, is that sociology is a special science in Fodor’s sense, and that sociologists both can and do treat their domain as relatively autonomous.

Several commentators allege that my commitment to microfoundations — which is unwavering — vitiates my ability to claim relative explanatory autonomy for the meso level. Some don’t like my distinction between weak and strong microfoundations, and others think that commitment to MF means explanations have to proceed through explicit discoveries of the MF pathways.

My position is intended to exactly parallel physicalism in cognitive science: we are committed to the idea that all cognitive processes are somehow or other embodied and carried out by the central nervous system. But we are not obliged to actually perform that reduction in offering a hypothesis and explanation at the level of cognitive systems. 

Even more prosaically: we believe that the properties of metals depend upon the quantum properties of subatomic particles. Does anyone seriously believe that civil engineers aren’t giving real explanations of bridge failures when they refer to properties like tensile strength, compression indices, and mechanisms like metal fatigue? We can observe and measure the metal’s properties without being forced to provide a quantum mechanical deduction. 

One observer writes that “Little’s examples actually confirm that meso-level mechanisms work only through micro-level processes.” Yes, and I likewise confirm that cognitive processes work only through neural events and material properties work only through quantum physics. But I don’t accept that this demonstrates that the higher level cannot be treated as having real causal properties. It does have those properties; and we simply reaffirm the point that somehow or other those properties are embodied in the lower level elements. This isn’t a new idea; it was contained in Jerry Fodor’s “Special Sciences” article years ago. If the argument is generally a bad one then we are forced to undo a lot of work in cognitive science. If it is generally compelling but inapplicable to social entities then we need to know why that is so in this special case of a special science.

To be clear, I too believe that there is a burden of proof that must be met in asserting a causal power or disposition for a social entity — something like “the entity demonstrates an empirical regularity in behaving in such and such a way” or “we have good theoretical reasons for believing that X social arrangements will have Y effects.” And some macro concepts are likely cast at too high a level to admit of such regularities. That is why I favor “meso” social entities as the bearers of social powers. As new institutionalists demonstrate all the time, one property regime elicits very different collective behavior from its highly similar cousin. And this gives the relevant causal stability criterion. Good examples include Robert Ellickson’s new-institutionalist treatment of Shasta County and liability norms and Charles Perrow’s treatment of the operating characteristics of technology organizations. In each case the microfoundations are easy to provide. What is more challenging is to show how these social causal properties interact in cases to create outcomes we want to explain.

The best reason I am aware of to doubt stable causal powers for social entities is founded on the point that organizations and institutions are too plastic to possess enduring causal properties over time. I’ve made this argument myself on occasion. But researchers like Kathleen Thelen in The Evolution of Institutions demonstrate that there are in fact some institutional complexes that do possess the requisite stability. 

So I continue to believe both things: that statements about social entities and powers must be compatible there being microfoundations for these properties and powers; and that it is theoretically possible that some social structures have properties and powers that are relatively autonomous, in the sense that we can allude to those properties and powers in explanations without being obliged to demonstrate their microfoundations.

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