Response to Little by Tuukka Kaidesoja

[Tuukka Kaidesoja accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion (link) of his recent article in Philosophy of the Social Sciences, “Overcoming the Biases of Microfoundations: Social Mechanisms and Collective Agents”. Currently Kaidesoja works as a post-doctoral researcher at the Finnish Academy Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland.He is the author of Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology.  Thanks, Tuukka!]

Daniel Little defends “the theoretical possibility of attributing causal powers to meso-level social entities and structures.” I agree that meso-level social entities like groups and organizations have causal powers that are not ontologically reducible to the causal powers of their components or the aggregates of the latter. In addition, Little argues for “the idea of an actor-centered sociology, according to which the substance of social phenomena is entirely made up of the actions, interactions, and states of mind of socially constituted individual actors.” Though I like the idea of actor-centered sociology, I have problems with the view that “the substance of social phenomena is entirely made up of the actions, interactions, and states of mind of socially constituted individual actors.”

The latter view can also be stated in terms of the ontological microfoundations of social facts insofar as these microfoundations are thought to consist of socially constituted individuals, their actions and interactions. Thus, in Little’s view, the ontologically microfoundational level in social research is always the individual-level even though it is not required that “our explanations proceed through the microfoundational level.” This is because there are good sociological explanations that refer to causal relations at the meso-level and do not specify the microfoundations of these relations. In addition, Little argues that sociological theories cannot be reduced to theories about individuals. This view presupposes a concept of theory-reduction that is used in philosophy of mind by Jerry Fodor and others. I will come back to this later.

Now, I believe that the ontologically microfoundational role of the individual-level can be questioned from two directions. Firstly, it can be argued that, in addition to human individuals, artifacts and technologies built and used by people belong to the microfoundations of the causal powers of many social entities. On this view, then, organizations are not just “structured groups of individuals” but structured groups of human individuals and the artifacts (e.g. strategy papers, organizational charts, written codes of conduct, archives, computers, soft-ware programs, data bases, mobile phones and so on) that are used by individuals in their social interactions. One reason for including artifacts (with causal powers and affordances of their own) as proper parts of some social entities (e.g. organizations) is that human members of these entities need them in order to coordinate their interactions as well as to make collective decisions and, perhaps more controversially, to create and maintain collective (or transactive) memories.

Secondly, I believe that there are interesting sub-individual cognitive capacities and processes that are potentially important in understanding of some social phenomena. For example, the phenomenon of contextual priming in social cognition (i.e. a cognitive process in which the presence of certain events and people automatically activates our internal knowledge of and affects towards them that are relevant in responding to the situation) as well as unconscious imitation of behavior of strangers may well be important factors in explaining some social phenomena. I think that it would be misleading to say that cognitive processes of this kind belong to the individual-level due to the fact they take place at the subconscious level of cognitive processing.

I think that both of these points question the view that the individual-level should be considered as the ontologically microfoundational in the context of social research. My intention is not, however, to deny the importance of human individuals and their actions and interactions to any plausible social ontology.

Finally, I want to indicate that, in addition to the concept of theory-reduction used in the context of philosophy of mind, there is a different concept of “mechanistic reductive explanation” developed by Mario Bunge, William Wimsatt and others. When combined with causal powers theory, this concept is interesting since it enables one to argue not only that social entities have (weakly) emergent causal powers that are ontologically irreducible to the causal powers of their parts (and their aggregates), but also that these causal powers, their emergence and endurance, may well be mechanistically explainable in terms of the causal powers, relations and interactions of the components of social entities (e.g. human individuals and their artifacts). It should be emphasized that this view does not entail that social scientific theories that refer to social entities with emergent causal powers should be conceptually reducible to (or deductively derivable from) the theories that refer to the components of these entities. Rather, it is compatible with the view that theories about human beings, artifacts and social entities are continually developed at different levels of organization; conceptually adjusted to each other; and sometimes connected via mechanistic reductive explanations. This kind of perspective to ontological emergence and mechanistic reductive explanations allows, too, that the outcomes of macro-level social events and processes can be legitimately explained by referring to the interactions of the meso-level social entities (with emergent causal powers).

Thanks for the great blog!


2 responses

  1. Thanks for this exchange! I would like to add some further questions concerning Dan’s microfoundations requirement, e.g.: Aren’t we providing all of the time all kinds of explanations and causal claims, without knowing the underlying mechanisms or foundations (cf. Kincaid 1997)? Why would we have this requirement specifically for “social” explanations? What does this requirement mean in practice; when are microfoundations satisfactorily stipulated in order for a macro-explanation to be satisfactory? I have discussed some of these issues in this paper:

  2. Pingback: Guest post by Jeroen Van Bouwel: On microfoundations and macrofoundations « Understanding Society

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