A catalogue of social mechanisms

In an earlier post I made an effort at providing the beginnings of an inventory of social mechanisms from several areas of social research. Here I’d like to go a little further with that idea in order to see how it plays into good thinking about social-science methodology.

Some Types of Social Mechanisms
Coordinated action
Social appropriation
Boundary activation
Competition for power
Prisoners’ dilemma
Free rider behavior
Selective benefits
Selective coercion
Conditional altruism
Audit and accounting
Employee training
Morale building
Altruistic enforcement
Person-to-person transmission
Subliminal transmission
Stereotype threat
Ministry direction
Market for lemons
Democratic decision making
Producers’ control
Soft budget constraint
Agenda setting
Cyclical voting
Log rolling
Regulatory organizations
Influence peddling
Secret police files
Spectacular use of force
Control of communications systems


Interpersonal network
Transport networks

Flash trading
Interlocking mobilization
Overlapping systems of authority (Brenner)
Non-linear networks

These mechanisms have been collected from a wide range of social scientists and researchers — Charles Tilly, Robert Axelrod, Elinor Ostrom, George Akerlof, Robert Bates, Mancur Olson, Mayer Zald, John Ferejohn, Janos Kornai, Claude Steele, and Charles Perrow, to name a few.

There are at least two kinds of questions we need to ask about a collection like this.

First, where do the entries come from? What kinds of scientific inquiry are required in order to establish that things like these are indeed mechanisms found in the social world?

The most general answer to this question concerning discovery is that much research in the various disciplines of the social sciences is specifically directed at working out the contours of mechanisms like these. Political scientists who focus on legislatures and the US Congress have become expert on identifying and validating the institutional and voting mechanisms through which legislative outcomes come to effect. Organizational sociologists study the inner workings of a range of organizations and are able to identify and validate a wide range of mechanisms at work within these organizations. Economic anthropologists and theorists study the ways in which economic transactions are conducted in a range of human settings. Social psychologists identify many of the ways that individuals acquire normative beliefs and transmit them to other individuals. The greatest difficulty in constructing a table like this is not at the level of identifying mechanisms that might be included; it is the problem of limiting the number of mechanisms identified to a more or less manageable number. There is some reason to fear that social scientists have identified thousands of mechanisms in their research, not dozens.

And second, what role does a table like this play in the conduct of research in the social sciences?

Craver and Darden argue that biologists often approach novel phenomena with something like this table in the backs of their heads — an inventory of known causal mechanisms in the domain of biology. From there they attempt to solve the puzzle: what combination of known mechanisms might be concatenated in order to reproduce the observed phenomenon?

Strikingly enough, this description of a heuristic for arriving at an explanatory analysis of a situation has a lot in common with the way that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly proceed in Dynamics of Contention. (Here is a more developed analysis of their mechanisms-based approach; link.) MT&T argue that there is a relatively manageable list of social mechanisms that can be observed in many cases of social contention. And they approach new instances with the idea that we may be able to understand the dynamics of the case by teasing out the workings of some of those mechanisms. It seems that MT&T are involved in both parts of the inquiry — discovery and isolation of recurring mechanisms of contention, and application of these discoveries to the explanation of specific episodes of contention.

For example, they introduce their case studies in Part III of the book in these terms:

Part III of the study takes up three distinct literatures regarding contention — revolution, nationalism, and democratization — in view of the paths our quest has followed. The goal of that concluding section is to emphasize the commonalities as well as the differences in those forms of contention through an examination of the explanatory mechanisms and political processes we have uncovered in Parts I and II. (kl 511)

And a few paragraphs later:

Let us insist: Our aim is not to construct general models of revolution, democratization, or social movements, much less of all political contention whenever and wherever it occurs. On the contrary, we aim to identify crucial causal mechanisms that recur in a wide variety of contention, but produce different aggregate outcomes depending on the initial conditions, combinations, and sequences in which they occur. (kl 519)

Here is how they summarize their attempt to explain particular episodes of social contention. They focus on a “number of loosely connected mechanisms and processes”:

  • A mobilization process triggered by environmental changes and that consists of a combination of attribution of opportunities and threats, social appropriation, construction of frames, situations, identities, and innovative collective action.
  • A family of mechanisms still to be elucidated around the processes of actor and identity constitution and the actions that constitute them.
  • A set of mechanisms often found in trajectories of contention that recurs in protracted episodes of contention, competition, diffusion, repression, and radicalization. (kl 941)

And this body of social mechanisms is taken to provide a basis for historically grounded explanations of the forms of contention observed in specific cases.

This seems to parallel fairly closely the intellectual process that Craver and Darden describe in the case of biology: create an inventory of common causal mechanisms and analyze new cases by trying to see to what extent some of those known mechanisms can be discerned in the new material.

This account of an important type of social science research resonates well with a broad range of social science disciplines. It aligns with Robert Merton’s notion of “theories of the middle range” in the social sciences, and the idea of developing a toolbox of patterns of social behavior on the basis of which to explain specific episodes. Rather than looking for general theories on the basis of which to unify wide swaths of the social world under a deductive explanatory system, this mechanisms-based approach suggests coming at social explanation piecemeal: finding the components and sub-processes of observed social ensembles, on the basis of which we can explain some aspects of the behavior of those ensembles.

We might usefully consider two additional questions. First, is there a theoretically useful way of classifying social mechanisms (formation of the individual actor, collective action, communication, repression, collective decision making, …)? Can our catalogue provide content-relevant “chapters”? We might argue that a good taxonomy of social mechanisms actually provides a way of theorizing the main dimensions of social activity and organization. And second, are there more fundamental things we can say about how some or many of these mechanisms work? Does a good theory of the actor and a good theory of social organizations suffice to account for the workings of a great many of these mechanisms? If we respond affirmatively to this question, then once again we may have made a small degree of progress towards offering a somewhat more general theory of the social world.

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