Social powers?

I am one of those people who think that causal claims are the foundation of almost all explanations. When we ask for an explanation of something, we generally want to know why and how it came to be, and this means looking into its causal history. Moreover, I have believed for many years that this means looking for a set of causal mechanisms whose workings contribute to the outcome. And I subscribe to the anti-Humean idea that a causal relation involves some kind of necessity from cause to effect — there is something in the substrate that necessitates the transition from cause to effect. The cause forces the effect to occur. (These ideas were first expressed in Varieties of Social Explanation.)

This means that my philosophy of social science has affinities to both large bodies of thought about causation today — mechanisms and powers. The connection to mechanisms is explicit. The connection to powers is less direct but no less genuine. Essentially it comes down to the idea of necessity — the idea that the properties of the causing thing, in the setting under consideration, actively produce its effects. This is what Ruth Groff refers to as an anti-passivist philosophy of causation.

One thing that makes me a little nervous about the current powers literature, though, is a kind of essentialism that it often seems to bring along. Rom Harré expressed this in his early formulations: it is the essential properties of a thing that create its causal powers. Here is how Stephen Pratten describes Harré’s view (link):

Causal powers are, for Harré and Madden, properties of concrete powerful particulars which they possess in virtue of their essential natures.They analyse the ascription of causal powers to a thing in the following way: ‘ “X has the power to A” means “X will/can do A, in the appropriate circumstances in virtue of its intrinsic nature” ‘ (1975: 86).

And current powers theorists make similar claims. But I don’t think things have an essential nature in any rigorous sense. So I’d rather see a powers theory whose formulation avoids reference to essential characteristics.

This is particularly important in the realm of the greatest interest to me, the social world. I believe that social entities are plastic and heterogeneous, and I don’t think there are social kinds in a strong metaphysical sense. This entails that social entities do not have essential properties. So if powers theory depends on essentialism, then it seems not to apply in my understanding of the nature of the social world.

Fortunately essentialism is not essential! We can formulate an account of the causal powers of a social thing in terms of its contingent and changing properties and we don’t have to hypostatize social things.

The way this works is that we do understand how the substrate of causal interconnection works in the social world. Social causation always works through the thoughts and actions of socially situated purposive actors. Individuals form representations of the world around them, both social and natural, they form relationships with other actors, and they act accordingly. So social structures acquire causal powers by shaping and incentivizing the individuals they touch.

So when we say that a certain social entity, structure, or institution has a certain power or capacity, we know what that means: given its configuration, it creates an action environment in which individuals commonly perform a certain kind of action. This is the downward strut in the Coleman’s Boat diagram (link).

This construction has two important consequences. First, powers are not “irreducible” — rather, we can explain how they work by analyzing the specific environment of formation and choice they create. And second, they are not essential. Change the institution even slightly and we may find that it has very different causal powers and capacities. Change the rules of liability for open range grazing and you get different patterns of behavior by ranchers and farmers (Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes).

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