Meso causes and microfoundations

In earlier posts I’ve paid attention to the need for microfoundations and the legitimacy of meso-level causation. And I noted that there seems to be a prima facie tension between the two views in the philosophy of social science. I believe the two are compatible if we understand the microfoundations thesis as a claim about social ontology and not about explanation, and if we interpret it in a weak rather than a strong way. Others have also found this tension to be of interest. The September issue of The Philosophy of the Social Sciences provides a very interesting set of articles on this set of issues.

Particularly interesting is a contribution by Tuukka Kaidesoja, “Overcoming the Biases of Microfoundations: Social Mechanisms and Collective Agents” (link). Here are the four claims advanced in the article:

  1. The mechanism approach to social explanation does not presuppose a commitment to the individual-level microfoundationalism.
  2. The microfoundationalist requirement that explanatory social mechanisms should always consists of interacting individuals has given rise to problematic methodological biases in social research.
  3. It is possible to specify a number of plausible candidates for social macro-mechanisms where interacting collective agents (e.g. formal organizations) form the core actors.
  4. The distributed cognition perspective combined with organization studies could provide us with explanatory understanding of the emergent cognitive capacities of collective agents. (abstract)

I agree with many of Kaidesoja’s criticisms of what he calls individual-level microfoundationalism (IMF). I also agree with his preference for the weak “rationalist” conception of emergence (along the lines of Mario Bunge) rather than the strong conception associated with Niklas Luhman (link). However, I want to continue to maintain that there is a different version of microfoundationalism that is not vulnerable to the criticisms he offers — what I call the “weak” version of microfoundations. (This is explicated in several earlier posts; link.) On this approach, claims about higher-level entities need to be plausibly compatible with there being microfoundations at the individual level (an ontological principle), but I deny that we always need to provide those microfoundations when offering a social explanation (an explanatory principle). And in fact, Kaidesoja seems to adopt a very similar position:

By contrast, in many explanatory studies on large-scale macro-phenomena, it is sufficient that we have a general understanding how the collective agents of this kind function (e.g., how collective-decisions are typically made in the organizations that are the components of the relevant macro-mechanism) and empirically grounded reasons to believe that the macro-phenomenon of interest was causally generated by the interactions of this kind of collective agents with emergent powers…. Of course, it is always possible to zoom in to a particular collective agent and study the underlying mechanisms of its emergent causal powers, but this type of research requires the uses of different methods and data from the explanatory studies on large-scale macro- phenomena. (316)

So it is the in-principle availability of lower-level analyses that is important, not the actual provision of those accounts. Or in other words, K is offering a set of arguments designed to establish the explanatory sufficiency of at least some meso- and macro-level causal accounts (horizontal) rather than requiring that explanations should be vertical (rising from lower levels to higher levels). This is what I want to refer to as “relative explanatory autonomy of the meso-level.”

Kaidesoja’s position is a realist one; he couches his analysis of causation in terms of the idea of causal powers. Here is Kaidesoja’s description of the idea of causal powers:

In general terms, causal powers of complex entities include their dispositions, abilities, tendencies, liabilities, capacities, and capabilities to generate specific type of effects in suitable conditions. Each particular entity (or powerful particular) possesses its powers by virtue of its nature, which in turn can typically be explicated in terms of the intrinsic relational structure of the entity. (302)

This position provides an answer to one of the questions recently posed here: are causal powers and causal mechanisms compatible? I think they are, and Kaidesoja appears to as well.

One important nuance concerns the kinds of higher-level social structures that Kaidesoja offers as examples. They all involve collective actors, thus assimilating social causal power to intentional action. But the category of macro social factor that possess causal powers is broader than this. There are credible examples of social powers that do not depend on any kind of intentionality. Most of the examples offered by Charles Perrow, for example, of organizations with causal powers depend on features of operation of the organization, not its functioning as a quasi-intentional agent.

Also interesting in the article is Kaidesoja’s gloss on the idea of distributed cognition. I’m not receptive to the idea of collective social actors is a strongly intentionalist sense (link), but K makes use of the idea of distributed cognition in a sense that seems unobjectionable to people who think that social entities ultimately depend on individual actors. K’s interpretation doesn’t imply commitment to collective thoughts or intentions. Here is a clear statement of the idea:

An important implication of the above perspectives is that they enable one to ascribe emergent cognitive capacities to social groups and to study the underlying mechanisms of these capacities empirically (e.g., Hutchins 1995; Theiner and O’Connor 2010). This nevertheless requires that we reconsider our received concept of cognition that ties all cognitive capacities to individual organisms (e.g., human beings), since groups obviously lack system-level consciousness or brains as distinct from those of their individual members.  (317)

Now, drawing on organization studies (e.g., Scott and Davis 2003), I suggest that formal organizations (in short, organizations) can be understood as social groups that are designed to accomplish some (more or less clearly specified) goal or goals, and whose activities are planned, administrated, and managed by their members (or some subgroup of their members such as managers). Examples of organizations include schools, business firms, universities, hospitals, political parties, and governments. (318)

This is a conception of “cognition” that doesn’t imply anything like “collective minds” or group intentions, and seems unobjectionable from an ontological point of view.

This is a very nice piece of work in the philosophy of social science, and it suggests that it will be worthwhile to spend time reading Kaidesoja’s recent book, Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology (Ontological Explorations), as well.

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