Let’s imagine that I’m a young sociologist or political scientist who has gotten interested in the social-mechanisms debates, and I’d like to frame my next research project around a set of heuristics that are suggested by the mechanisms approach. What might some of those heuristics look like? What is a “mechanisms-based methodology” for sociological research? And how would my research play out in concrete terms? Here are a few heuristics we might consider.
- Identify one or more clear cases of the phenomenon I’m interested in understanding
- Gain enough empirical detail about the cases to permit close examination of possible causal linkages
- Acquaint myself with a broad range of social mechanisms from a range of the social sciences (political science, economics, anthropology, public choice theory, critical race studies, women’s studies, …)
- Attempt to segment the phenomena into manageable components that may admit of separate study and analysis
- Use the method of process-tracing to attempt to establish what appear to be causal linkages among the phenomena
- Use my imagination and puzzle-solving ability to attempt to fit one or more of the available mechanisms into the phenomena I observe
- Engage in quasi-experimental reasoning to probe the resulting analysis: if mechanism M is involved, what other effects would we expect to be present as well? Do the empirical realities of the case fit these hypothetical expectations?
These heuristics represent in a rough-and-ready way the idea that there are some well understood social processes in the world that have been explored in a lot of empirical and theoretical detail. The social sciences collectively provide a very rich toolbox of mechanisms that researchers have investigated and validated. We know how these mechanisms work, and we can observe them in a range of settings. This is a realist observation: the social world is not infinitely variable, and there is a substrate of activity, action, and interaction whose workings give rise to a number of well understood mechanisms. Here I would include free rider problems, contagion, provocation, escalation, coercion, and log-rolling as a very miscellaneous set of exemplars. So if we choose to pursue a mechanisms-based methodology, we are basically following a very basic intuition of realism by asking the question, “how does this social phenomenon work in the settings in which we find it?”.
So how might a research project unfold if we adopt heuristics like these? Here is a striking example of a mechanisms approach within new-institutionalist research, Jean Ensminger’s account of bridewealth in the cattle-herding culture of Kenya (Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African Society). First, some background. The cattle-herding economic regime of the Orma pastoralists of Kenya underwent substantial changes in the 1970s and 1980s. Commons grazing practices began to give way to restricted pasturage; wage labor among herders came to replace familial and patron-client relations; and a whole series of changes in the property system surrounding the cattle economy transpired as well. This is an excellent example for empirical study from a new-institutionalist perspective. What explained the particular configuration of norms and institutions of the earlier period? And what social pressures led to the transition towards a more impersonal relationship between owners and herders? These are questions about social causation at multiple levels.
Ensminger examines these questions from the perspective of the new institutionalism. Building on the theoretical frameworks of Douglass North and others, she undertakes to provide an analysis of the workings of traditional Orma cattle-management practices and an explanation of the process of change and dissolution that these practices underwent in the decades following 1960. The book puts forward a combination of close ethnographic detail and sophisticated use of theoretical ideas to explain complex local phenomena.
How does the new institutionalism approach help to explain the features of the traditional Orma cattle regime identified by Ensminger’s study? The key institutions in the earlier period are the terms of employment of cattle herders in mobile cattle camps. The traditional employment practice takes the pattern of an embroidered patron-client relation. The cattle owner provides a basic wage contract to the herder (food, clothing, and one head of cattle per year). The good herder is treated paternally, with additional “gifts” at the end of the season (additional clothing, an additional animal, and payment of the herder’s bridewealth after years of service). The relation between patron and client is multi-stranded, enduring, and paternal.
Ensminger understands this traditional practice as a solution to an obvious problem associated with mobile cattle camps, which is fundamentally a principal-agent problem. Supervision costs are very high, since the owner does not travel with the camp. The owner must depend on the herder to use his skill and diligence in a variety of difficult circumstances—rescuing stranded cattle, searching out lost animals, and maintaining control of the herd during harsh conditions. There are obvious short-term incentives and opportunities for the herder to cheat the employer—e.g. allowing stranded animals to perish, giving up on searches for lost animals, or even selling animals during times of distress. The patron-client relation is one possible solution to this principal-agent problem. An embedded patron-client relation gives the herder a long-term incentive to provide high-quality labor, for the quality of work can be assessed at the end of the season by assessment of the health and size of the herd. The patron has an incentive to cheat the client—e.g. by refusing to pay the herder’s bridewealth after years of service. But here the patron’s interest in reputation comes into play: a cattle owner with a reputation for cheating his clients will find it difficult to recruit high-quality herders.
This account serves to explain the evolution and persistence of the patron-client relation in cattle-camps on the basis of transaction costs (costs of supervision). Arrangements will be selected that serve to minimize transaction costs. In the circumstances of traditional cattle-rearing among the Orma the transaction costs of a straight wage-labor system are substantially greater than those associated with a patron-client system. Therefore the patron-client system is selected.
This analysis identifies mechanisms at two levels. First, the patron-client relation is the mechanism through which the endemic principal-agent problem facing cattle owners is solved. The normal workings of this relation give both patron and client a set of incentives that leads to a stable labor relation. The higher-level mechanism is somewhat less explicit, but is needed for the explanation to fully satisfy us. This is the mechanism through which the new social relationship (patron-client interdependency) is introduced and sustained. It may be the result of conscious institutional design or it may be a random variation in social space that is emulated when owners and herders notice the advantages it brings. Towards the end of the account we are led to inquire about another higher-level mechanism, the processes through which the traditional arrangement is eroded and replaced by short-term labor contracts.
This framework also illustrates the seventh heuristic above, the use of counterfactual reasoning. This account would suggest that if transaction costs change substantially (through improved transportation, for example, or through the creation of fixed grazing areas), that the terms of employment would change as well (in the direction of less costly pure wage-labor contracts). And in fact this is what Ensminger finds among the Orma. When villages begin to establish “restricted grazing areas” in the environs of the village, it is feasible for cattle owners to directly supervise the management of their herds; and in these circumstances Ensminger finds an increase in pure wage labor contracts.
What are the scientific achievements of this account? There are several. First, it takes a complicated and detailed case of collective behavior and it makes sense of the case. It illuminates the factors that influence choices by the various participants. Second, it provides insight into how these social transactions work (the mechanisms that are embodied in the story). Third, it begins to answer — or at least to pose in a compelling way — the question of the driving forces in institutional change. This too is a causal mechanism question; it is a question that focuses our attention on the concrete social processes that push one set of social behaviors and norms in the direction of another set of behaviors and norms. Finally, it is an empirically grounded account that gives us a basis for a degree of rational confidence in the findings. The case has the features that we should expect it to have if the mechanisms and processes in fact worked as they are described to do.
A final achievement of this account is very helpful in the context of our efforts to arrive at explanations of features of the social world. This is the fact that the account is logically independent of an effort to arrive at strong generalizations about behavior everywhere. The account that Ensminger provides is contextualized and specific, and it does not depend on the assumption that similar social problems will be solved in the same way in other contexts. There is no underlying assumption that this interesting set of institutional facts should be derivable from a general theory of behavior and institutions. Instead, the explanation is carefully crafted to identify the specific (and perhaps unique) features of the historical setting in which the phenomenon is observed.
(Here is a nice short article by David Collier on the logic of process-tracing; link. And here is an interesting piece by Aussems, Boomsma, and Snijders on the use of quasi-experimental methods in the social sciences; link.)