Mechanisms according to analytical sociology

One of the distinguishing characteristics of analytical sociology is its insistence on the idea of causal mechanisms as the core component of explanation. Like post-positivists in other traditions, AS theorists specifically reject the covering law model of explanation and argues for a “realist” understanding of causal relations and powers: a causal relationship between x and y exists solely insofar as there exist one or more causal mechanisms producing it generating y given the occurrence of x. Peter Hedström puts the point this way in Dissecting the Social:

A social mechanism, as defined here, is a constellation of entities and activities that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about a particular type of outcome. (kl 181)

A basic characteristic of all explanations is that they provide plausible causal accounts for why events happen, why something changes over time, or why states or events co-vary in time or space. (kl 207)

The core idea behind the mechanism approach is that we explain not by evoking universal laws, or by identifying statistically relevant factors, but by specifying mechanisms that show how phenomena are brought about. (kl 334)

A social mechanism, as here defined, describes a constellation of entities and activities that are organized such that they regularly bring about a particular type of outcome. (kl 342)

So far so good. But AS ads another requirement about causal mechanisms in the social realm that is less convincing: that the only real or credible mechanisms are those involving the actions of individual actors. In other words, causal action in the social world takes place solely at the micro level. This assumption is substantial, non-trivial, and seemingly dogmatic. 

Sociological theories typically seek to explain social outcomes such as inequalities, typical behaviours of individuals in different social settings, and social norms. In such theories individuals are the core entities and their actions are the core activities that bring about the social-level phenomena that one seeks to explain. (kl 356)

Although the explanatory focus of sociological theory is on social entities, an important thrust of the analytical approach is that actors and actions are the core entities and activities of the mechanisms explaining plaining such phenomena. (kl 383)

The theory should also explain action in intentional terms. This means that we should explain an action by reference to the future state it was intended to bring about. Intentional explanations are important for sociological theory because, unlike causalist explanations of the behaviourist or statistical kind, they make the act ‘understandable’ in the Weberian sense of the term.’ (kl 476)

Here is a table in which Hedström classifies different kinds of social mechanisms; significantly, all are at the level of actors and their mental states.

The problem with this “action-level” requirement on the nature of social mechanisms is that it rules out as a matter of methodology that there could be social causal processes that involve factors at higher social levels — organizations, norms, or institutions, for example. (For that matter, it also rules out the possibility that some individual actions might take place in a way that is inaccessible to conscious knowledge — for example, impulse, emotion, or habit.) And yet it is common in sociology to offer social explanations invoking causal properties of things at precisely these “meso” levels of the social world. For example:

Each of these represents a fairly ordinary statement of social causation in which a primary causal factor is an organization, an institutional arrangement, or a normative system.

It is true, of course, that such entities depends on the actions and minds of individuals. This is the thrust of ontological individualism (linklink): the social world ultimately depends on individuals in relation to each other and in relation to the modes of social formation through which their knowledge and action principles have been developed. But explanatory or methodological individualism does not follow from the truth of ontological individualism, any more than biological reductionism follows from the truth of physicalism. Instead, it is legitimate to attribute stable causal properties to meso-level social entities and to invoke those entities in legitimate social-causal explanations. Earlier arguments for meso-level causal mechanisms can be found herehere, and here.

This point about “micro-level dogmatism” leads me to believe that analytical sociology is unnecessarily rigid when it comes to causal processes in the social realm. Moreover, this rigidity leads it to be unreceptive to many approaches to sociology that are perfectly legitimate and insightful. It is as if someone proposed to offer a science of cooking but would only countenance statements at the level of organic chemistry. Such an approach would preclude the possibility of distinguishing different cuisines on the basis of the palette of spices and flavors that they use. By analogy, the many approaches to sociological research that proceed on the basis of an analysis of the workings of mid-level social entities and influences are excluded by the strictures of analytical sociology. Not all social research needs to take the form of the discovery of microfoundations, and reductionism is not the only scientifically legitimate strategy for explanation.

(The photo above of a moment from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is relevant to this topic, because useful accident analysis needs to invoke the features of organization that led to a disaster as well as the individual actions that produced the particular chain of events leading to the disaster. Here is an earlier post that explores this feature of safety engineering; link.)


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