Mechanisms and intellectual movements

I am particularly interested in the idea that we can explain social outcomes by identifying the social mechanisms that (often, typically, occasionally) bring them about. I also find the evolution of science and systems of ideas to be particularly fascinating within contemporary sociology, in that this aspect of human life embraces both rationally directed thought and sociological influences. So it is very interesting to consider what we can discover about the structures, networks, and professional organizations that influence the course that a given discipline or field of research takes.

It is therefore interesting to consider the role that reference to social mechanisms has played in recent works of the sociology of science and the sociology of knowledge. A particularly good example is found in the work of sociologists like Camic, Lamont, Gross, and Frickel, and Frickel and Gross’s “General Theory of Scientific/Intellectual Movements” (2005) is a good place to start (link). Frickel and Gross put their goal in this article in this way:

The theory seeks to answer the question, under what social conditions is any particular scientific/intellectual movement, or SIM (whose nature we clarify shortly), most likely to emerge, gain adherents, win intellectual prestige, and ultimately acquire some level of institutional stability? (205)

This description evokes an explanatory goal with a causal perspective — “conditions” that make “emergence” likely. But on its face this is not a mechanisms-based approach — rather, it is more akin to a “facilitating or necessary conditions” kind of analysis of social causation. This impression is reinforced by the assertion that the theory is inductive, based on an examination of a number of case studies of SIMs aimed at identifying such conditions. (The authors also make a point of giving emphasis to failed SIMs because of the traction offered by such cases for counterfactual analysis.) They emphasize the importance of identifying common features of SIMs, in order to “mark them as objects for sociological study” (208), which implies that a precondition of sociological study is that we need to identify a social kind of entities with reasonably similar properties. This too suggests an underlying causal perspective that looks to regularities and common properties rather than causal mechanisms or causal powers.

As much of the recent discussion of critical realism makes clear, it is very important to be as explicit as possible about the assumptions we make about causation in the social sciences. So a quick review of the article may be useful in order to shed light on the kinds of causal thinking that Frickel and Gross engage in here.

To begin, what is a SIM?

The most abbreviated definition is this: SIMs are collective efforts to pursue research programs or projects for thought in the face of resistance from others in the scientific or intellectual community. (206)

So one criterion for an ensemble of thinkers and institutions to constitute a SIM in the F/G definition is that their shared intellectual program needs to challenge the status quo, the dominant way of thinking about the subject matter of concern. F/G explicitly model their analysis on the study of social movements; notice the parallel with McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s formulation in Dynamics of Contention of their central question.

Under what conditions will normally apathetic, frightened, or disorganized people explode into the streets, put down their tools, or mount the barricades? How do different actors and identities appear and transform in episodes of contention? Finally, what kinds of trajectories do these processes follow? (chapter 2)

It is interesting that F/G are quite explicit in looking for a “general theory”. What they mean by this, apparently, is an account of a limited set of social conditions whose presence or absence “explains” the success or failure of a candidate SIM at a point in time. And this in turn sounds quite a bit like the comparative method pursued by Theda Skocpol in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China: through comparative study of cases, discover a background set of social and political conditions that serve as jointly sufficient and/or necessary conditions for the occurrence of social revolution (link). (Like Skocpol, F/G make use of the probabilistic versions of sufficiency and necessity: “makes more likely” and “makes more unlikely”.) Mechanisms come into the story fairly quickly: “Our general theory insists that the precise mechanisms whereby a field’s external environment shapes a SIM must be specified” (209); but in fact, there is very little discussion of concrete mechanisms in the article.

The four premises of the general theory are these:

  • Proposition 1: A SIM is more likely to emerge when high-status intellectual actors harbor complaints against what they understand to be the central intellectual tendencies of the day. (209; italics mine)
  • Proposition 2: SIMs are more likely to be successful when structural conditions provide access to key resources. (213)
  • Proposition 3: The greater a SIM’s access to various micro mobilization contexts, the more likely it is to be successful. (219)
  • Proposition 4: The success of a SIM is contingent upon the work done by movement participants to frame movement ideas in ways that resonate with the concerns of those who inhabit an intellectual field or fields. (221)

For each of these theoretical propositions they offer the sketch of an idea about what the mechanisms are that might support this factor. For example, concerning proposition 1, they maintain that “grievance” is a necessary condition for the emergence of an SIM because it puts potential adherents in a state of psychological readiness for mobilization. Another mechanism they cite for the emergence and mobilization of an SIM is the sudden entry into a field of non-traditional practitioners — for example, women or African-American scholars entering the field of urban studies in the 1960s who found that prevailing wisdom failed to do justice to their own experiences. And on the resources point, F/G refer to the job market, academic organizations, and funding sources, and sketch out how favorable conditions with regard to these structural features can facilitate the success of a SIM. This is, at least in sketch, a mechanisms analysis.

The mechanisms associated with Proposition 3 are encapsulated in the notion of “micromobilization”. Like Tilly in his analysis of the counter-revolution in The Vendee, F/G hold that the success of a SIM is influenced by the strength or weakness of the various organizations and networks through which it is able to spread its message and its mobilization efforts at the grassroots level. They mention laboratories, conferences, research retreats, and academic departments (219). Once one or more advocates of the given SIM has a position of influence in one of these centers, he or she is enabled to influence and mobilize other scholars to the SIM.

The mechanisms associated with Proposition 4 pick up on the rhetorical side of intellectual work.  We might unsympathetically refer to this aspect of the development of a SIM as the marketing campaign it pursues. In order to influence prospective adherents to an intellectual movement it is necessary to provide “messages” that resonate with them. (Fritz Ringer’s analysis of the German mandarins between the wars in The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 seems to illustrate this mechanism; a few highly effective reactionary authors caught the wave of pessimism that was present in German culture between the wars, and this seems to have had an important effect on the development of social science thinking in the period.) This factor has to do with effective framing of issues and research questions:

Fundamental to framing, and underlying and connecting to the three other dimensions we describe shortly, is the notion of intellectual identity. We see intellectual identity as one of the crucial links between micro, mess, and macro levels of analysis in the sociology of ideas. (222)

It is possible to take issue with the notion that there is a general theory on offer here. I would rather call the analysis provided here an account of some generalizations about the causal conditions that facilitate or impede intellectual movements. The phrase “general theory” makes the effort seem more comprehensive than it actually aims to be. What this treatment lacks (by design) is a micro- or meso-level account of how specific institutions, identity features, resource sources, and networks have played out in specific instances of intellectual change. (The contributions to Camic, Gross, and Lamont’s Social Knowledge in the Making do this in a variety of ways.)

But consider Chuck Tilly’s frequent critique of a similar effort in contentious politics studies: it is the underlying mechanisms and processes, not the general similarities and common conditions, that provide real insight into the explanation of episodes of contentious action. Tilly argues that there is a great deal of variation across episodes; but we can nonetheless discover some common underlying mechanisms and processes. And this would suggest that a more meso-level might be helpful in the study of SIMs as well. Or putting it in other terms, more attention to mechanisms and less emphasis on general conditions might provide more insight into the phenomena of intellectual movements.

There is one final observation that appears relevant here. The “social mechanisms” approach itself might be classified as a SIM in the making. This intellectual movement involves a relatively small group of practitioners embedded within specific centers of institutional influence; it emerged from dissatisfaction with the received view of causation in the social sciences; and it is involved in a struggle for resources and prestige in the field of the philosophy of social science, both in Europe and North America. (For that matter, much the same could be said for critical realism.)

Finally, I am keeping my eyes open for meso-level social mechanisms in the sociology literature, and so I was curious in reading through this piece again whether any of the mechanisms postulated here were meso-meso. It seems that they are not. Rather, the social mechanisms mentioned generally proceed from a structure or institution to individual behavior (meso-micro) or from individual behavior to a meso- or macro-level outcome (progress of the SIM). But if this is correct, then the explanatory work offered here conforms to the downward and upward struts of Coleman’s boat, not the type 4 causation from meso to meso that Coleman precludes (link). This makes the analysis perhaps more compatible with the strictures of analytical sociology that the authors might have guessed (link).

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