Are there meso-level social causes?

Social structures and other social “things” are ontologically peculiar in some ways. Most especially, they are abstract, distributed, and non-material. We can’t put a culturally dominant food aversion or a group prejudice in a box and weigh it. And yet many of us want to say that social structures are “real”, not merely theoretical constructs.

One important aspect of something’s being real is that it has causal powers: the specific properties of the thing bring about differences in the world on the behavior of other things. This is a version of the interventionist theory of causation associated with Jim Woodward: change something about C and you bring about a change in E (link).

So let’s consider this question: Can meso-level social structures have meso-level effects?

Of course meso-level structures have effects — on individuals. The fact that there are laws and enforcement mechanisms governing highway speed has some effect on drivers’ behavior. The question here is whether it is legitimate to postulate causal powers for structures whose effects are realized in other meso-level structures. And I want to explore the affirmative answer to the question: it is legitimate and coherent to assert meso-meso causal interactions, and we sometimes have empirical evidence to support such assertions.

(It would be possible, of course, to take the view that social structures are epiphenomenal and have no causal properties whatsoever. On that approach, what seems to be the effect of the legal system on individual behavior is really just the aggregate effect of the many individuals involved in the legal system. I don’t find this view at all compelling, however.)

My question is relevant to two groups of sociological theorists, each of whom thinks the answer is trivial and obvious — but in opposite directions. The new methodological individualists, represented by analytical sociology, think the answer is trivially “no”, because social causation proceeds always and exclusively through actions and interactions of individuals (link). This is the fundamental idea underlying Coleman’s Boat as a model of the relationship between macro and micro.  And a range of anti-individualists — Giddens, Elder-Vass, Archer — believe it is self evident from everyday experience that causal structures do have causal powers, and that it is a waste of time to defend the notion (link). It is obvious.

My position is a precarious one. On the one hand I advocate an actor-centered approach to sociology and the social sciences. I defend the idea that social claims need microfoundations in a specific (weak) sense. And on the other hand I believe that structures have a degree of stability that permits us to couch causal claims in terms of those structures directly, rather than needing to supplement those claims with disaggregated foundations at the level of the individual. So I argue for the idea that we can sometimes regard causal powers of social entities as “relatively autonomous” from individual-level facts.

By meso-level structures I mean to refer to things like these:

  • National Science Foundation
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • IBM corporation
  • German paramilitary organizations 1930
  • German ideology of cultural despair 1910
  • Islamic norms of Zakat

In each case there are numerous actors assigned to roles, governed by rules defining their activities, and leading to a certain kind of functioning in the broader social environment.

Generically I would define a meso-level structure as —

A composite of individuals and roles that incorporates a set of rules and norms for internal and external actors, and that possesses procedures of inculcation and enforcement through which internal and external actors are brought to comply with the rules and norms (to some degree).

I would define a normative system as …

a set of rules, norms, and expectations embodied in a population of actors and meeting a threshold level of success in coordinating and constraining behavior.

We have a number of sociological concepts that capture social items at this level: organization, bureaucracy, institution, normative community, social network, communications system, legal system, civil war, military coup, advocacy group.

It is evident that social entities often incorporate elements of several of these kinds of things. Organizations and structures often incorporate or depend upon normative systems, and normative systems often generate organizations and institutions that convey their impact to the young and adult actors.
What about other mid-level social nouns — ethnic group, electorate, financial crisis, …? These strike me as being compounds of a miscellaneous set of social things — there are bits of organizations, normative systems, affinity groups, and social networks in each of them. The concept of assemblage seems to fit these nouns well.

The “meso” qualifier is a bit more difficult to specify. It is intended to focus our attention on mid-level social arrangements, between actors and global institutions like the US state, global Islam, and the world trading system. The intuitive idea is straightforward. These are the smaller-scale, lower-level social arrangements or units of which macro structures are composed. Bert Leuridan makes an effort to offer a more specific definition based on causal roles.

So I have a simple but important question in mind here. Is it ever legitimate to assert something like this:

  • Meso structure X produced changes in meso structure Y,

without being obliged to demonstrate the individual-level pathways through which this effect is thought to have come about? Is a type 4 causal claim ever supportable (link)?

The question I am posing is related to the idea of the methodological individualism associated with James Coleman. Basically the idea propounded by Coleman and more recently by the analytical sociologists is that all social properties, including causal powers, work through the activities of individuals, and we need ideally to replace claims that appear to attribute causal powers to structures with theories that disaggregate these powers onto the patterned activities of individuals. This is a reductionist theory.

Other theorists, notably Dave Elder-Vass, want to assert that social structures have “emergent” properties and powers (link). An emergent property according to E-V, is one that is possessed by the aggregate but not by the composing units. On this account, there are causal properties of structures that cannot be represented as the aggregate effect of individual actors.

My own approach depends on a line of reasoning long familiar in the special sciences. It is anti-reductionist, in that it denies that we need to derive higher-level properties from lower-level properties. It accepts the compositional ontology: social structures are composed of individual actors. But it asserts explanatory autonomy for theoretical statements about mid-level mechanisms (linklinklink).

One particularly direct way of supporting the idea that structures have meso effects is to establish correlations at that level for a few examples. But this isn’t the only way we establish causation in other areas of the sciences. We do experiments (“remove X and observe whether Y persists”), we analyze the outcomes of “natural” experiments, we do comparative studies, and we engage in process tracing of particular cases. We even engage in theoretical analysis to try to determine what causal powers a certain entity ought to be expected to have given its constitution.

So it seems that there is ample room for sociologists to assert and investigate the causal properties of social structures. And given appropriate attention to the principle of microfoundations, we have a social ontology that supports the legitimacy of such claims as well.

A related question is whether there are “mechanisms” that operate at the meso level, or whether all social mechanisms must operate at the individual level (as Hedstrom and the AS world believe).  I will return to this question.

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