A causal narrative?

source: Edward Tufte, edwardtufte.com

In a recent post I referred to the idea of a causal narrative (link). Here I would like to sketch out what I had in mind there.

Essentially the idea is that a causal narrative of a complicated outcome or occurrence is an orderly analysis of the sequence of events and the causal processes that connected them, leading from a set of initial conditions to the outcome in question. The narrative pulls together our best understanding of the causal relations, mechanisms, and conditions that were involved in the process and arranges them in an appropriate temporal order. It is a series of answers to “why and how did X occur?” designed to give us an understanding of the full unfolding of the process.

A narrative is more than an explanation; it is an attempt to “tell the story” of a complicated outcome. So a causal narrative will include a number of causal claims, intersecting in such a way as to explain the complex event or process that is of interest. And in my view, it will be a pluralistic account, in that it will freely invoke a number of causal ideas: powers, mechanisms, necessary and sufficient conditions, instigating conditions, and so forth.

Here is how I characterized a historical narrative in New Contributions to the Philosophy of History:

What is a narrative? Most generally, it is an account of the unfolding of events, along with an effort to explain how and why these processes and events came to be. A narrative is intended to provide an account of how a complex historical event unfolded and why. We want to understand the event in time. What were the contextual features that were relevant to the outcome — the settings at one or more points in time that played a role? What were the actions and choices that agents performed, and why did they take these actions rather than other possible choices? What causal processes—either social or natural—may have played a role in bringing the world to the outcome of interest? (29)

We might illustrate this idea by looking at the approach taken to contentious episodes and periods by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention. In their treatment of various contentious periods, they break the given complex period of contention into a number of mechanisms and processes, conjoined with contingent and conjunctural occurrences that played a significant causal role in the outcome. The explanatory work that their account provides occurs at two levels: the discovery of a relatively small number of social mechanisms of contention that recur across multiple cases, and the construction of complex narratives for particular episodes that bring together their understanding of the mechanisms and processes that were in play in this particular case.

We think what happens within a revolutionary trajectory can better be understood as the result of the intersection of a number of causal mechanisms. We do not offer a systematic account of all such mechanisms and their interaction in a sample of revolutionary situations. Instead, we use a paired comparison of the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 and the Chinese student rebellion of 1989 to zero in on one processes in particular: the defection of significant elements from a dominant ruling coalition. (kl 2465)

The narrative for a particular case (the Mau Mau uprising, for example) takes the form of a chronologically structured account of the mechanisms that their analysis identifies as having been relevant in the unfolding of the insurgent movement and the government’s responses. MTT give attention to “episodes” within larger processes, with the clear implication that the episodes are to some degree independent from each other and are amenable to a mechanisms analysis themselves. So a narrative is both a concatenated series of episodes and a nested set of mechanisms and processes.

Robert Bates introduces a similar idea in Analytic Narratives under the rubric of “analytic narrative”. The chief difference between his notion and mine is that his account is limited to the use of game theory and rational choice theory to provide the linkages within the chronological account, whereas I want to allow a pluralistic understanding of the kinds and levels of causes that are relevant to social processes.
Here is a brief account of what Bates and his collaborators mean by an analytic narrative:

The chapters thus build narratives. But the narratives are analytic narratives. By modeling the processes that produced the outcomes, we seek to capture the essence of stories. Should we possess a valid representation of the story, then the equilibrium of the model should imply the outcome we describe—and seek to explain. Our use of rational choice and game theory transforms the narratives into analytic narratives. Our approach therefore occupies a complex middle ground between ideographic and nomothetic reasoning. (12)

As have others, however, we seek to return to the rich, qualitative, and descriptive materials that narratives offer. And, as have others, we seek an explicit and logically rigorous account of the events we describe… We seek to locate and explore particular mechanisms that shape the interplay between strategic actors and that thereby generate outcomes. Second, most of these [other] literatures are structural: they focus on the origins and impact of alignments, cleavages, structures, and institutions. Our approach, by contrast, focuses on choices and decisions. It is thus more micro than macro in orientation. By delineating specific mechanisms and focusing on the determinants and impacts of choices, our work differs from our predecessors. (12-13)

A narrative typically offers an account of an historically particular event or process: the outbreak of a specific war, the emergence of ethnic conflict at a specific place and time, or the occurrence of a financial crisis. This places narratives on the side of particular social-science analysis. Is there a role for generalization in relation to narratives? I think that MTT would suggest that there is not, when it comes to large event groups like revolutions. There is no common template of revolutionary mobilization and regime collapse; instead, there are local and national interactions that constitute recurring mechanisms, and it is the task of the social scientist to discover the linkages and contingencies through which these various mechanisms led to revolution in this case or that. MTT try to find a middle ground between particularity and generalization:

Have we only rediscovered narrative history and applied to it a new, scientistic vocabulary? We think not. While convinced of the futility of deducing general covering laws of contention, we think our program — if it succeeds — will uncover recurring sets of mechanisms that combine into robust processes which, in turn, recur over a surprising number and broad range of episodes. (kl 3936)

In my view, anyway, a narrative describes a particular process or event; but it does so by identifying recurring processes, mechanisms, and forces that can be discerned within the unfolding of the case. So generalizability comes into the story at the level of the components of the narrative — the discovery of common social processes within the historically unique sequence of events.

“How does it work” questions

Source: Karl Ove Moene in Alternatives to Capitalism, p. 85

One of the strengths of the causal-mechanisms approach to social explanation is how it responds to a very fundamental aspect of what we want explanations to do: we want to understand how something works. And a mechanisms account answers that question.

Let’s consider an example in detail. Suppose we observe that worker-owned cooperatives (WOC) tend to respond differently to price changes for their products than capitalist-owned firms (COF) when it comes to production decisions. The WOC firm will conform to this rule: “The higher the output price, the lower will be the supply” (85), whereas the COF firm will increase employment and supply. This is referred to as the Ward problem.

We would like to know how that comes about; what are the organization’s processes and interactions that lead to the outcome. This means that we need to dig deeply into the specific processes that lead to production and employment decisions in both kinds of enterprises and see how these processes lead to different results.

The key part of the explanation will need to involve an analysis of the locus of decision-making that exists within the enterprise, and a demonstration of how the decision-making process in a WOC leads to a different outcome from that involved in a COF.

Here is how Karl Ove Moene analyzes this problem in “Strong Unions or Worker Control?” (Alternatives to Capitalism).

A production cooperative with worker control is defined somewhat restrictively as follows:

  1. Productive activities are jointly carried out by the members (who in this case are the workers).
  2. Important managerial decisions reflect the desires of the members, who participate in some manner in decision making.
  3. The net income (income after expenses) is divide among the members according to some formula.
  4. The members have equal rights, and important decisions are made democratically by one person, one vote. (84)

A capitalist firm acts differently:

  1. Productive activities are carried out by wage laborers and directed by management controlled by the owners.
  2. Important managerial decisions reflect the desires of the owners of the enterprise.
  3. Producers are paid a wage set by the labor market. The net income is assigned as profits to the owners.
  4. Producers have no right of decision-making in production decisions.

The assumption is that decision-makers in both settings will make decisions that maximize their income — in other words, narrow egoistic economic rationality. In the assumptions used here for the cooperative, this implies that decision-making will aim at adjusting employment and production to the point where “marginal productivity (VMP) equals the net income per member (NIM)” (85). These quantities are represented in the graph above. Here is the reasoning:

What happens if the output price increases? In real terms, net income per member increases, because the fixed costs deflated by the output price decreases. Hence the NIM curve in Figure 5.1 shifts upwards, while the marginal productivity curve remains in place. As a consequence, the optimal number of members in the coop decreases and the firm’s supply decreases the higher the output price. [Hence the coop lays off excess workers.] (85-86)

(Actually, this is what should happen in the long term. Moene goes on to show that the coop would not behave this way in the short run; but he acknowledges that the economic reasoning is correct. So for the sake of my example, let’s assume that the coop behaves as Ward argues.)

The mechanism that distinguishes the behavior of the two kinds of firm is easy to specify in this case. The mechanism of individual decision-making based on rational self-interest is in common in the two types of firms. So the explanation doesn’t turn on the mechanism of economic rationality per se. What differs across the cases is the collective decision-making process and the interests of the actors who make the decisions in the two cases. The decision-making mechanisms in the two cases are reflected in principles 2-4. The coop embodies a democratic social-choice rule, whereas the capitalist firm embodies a dictatorship choice rule (in Kenneth Arrow’s sense — one actor’s preferences decide the outcome). A democratic decision about production levels leads to the reduction-of-output result, whereas a dictatorship decision about production levels leads to the increase-of-output result in these circumstances. And in turn, we are able to say that the phenomenon is explained by reference to the mechanism of decision-making that is embodied in the two types of firms — democratic decision making in the coop and autocratic decision making in the capitalist firm.

This is a satisfying explanation because it demonstrates how the surprising outcomes are the foreseeable results of the differing decision processes. It identifies the mechanisms that lead to the different outcomes in the different circumstances.
This example also illustrates another interesting point — that a given mechanism can be further analyzed into one or more underlying mechanisms and processes. In this case the underlying mechanism is the postulated model of action at the individual level — maximizing of self-interest. If we postulated a different action model — a conditional altruism model, for example — then the behavior of the system might be different.
(I think this is a valid example of a mechanisms-based social explanation. Others might disagree, however, and argue that it is actually a deductivist explanation, reasoning from general characteristics of the “atoms” of the system (individual actors) to aggregate properties (labor-expelling collective decisions).)

Neighborhood effects

 

In Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect Robert Sampson provides a very different perspective on the “micro-macro” debate. He rejects the methodologies associated both poles of the debate: methodological individualism (“derive important social outcomes from the choices of rational individuals”) and methodological structuralism (“derive important social outcomes from the features of large-scale structures like globalization”). Instead, he argues for the causal importance of a particular kind of “meso” — the neighborhood. He takes the view that neither “bottom-up” or “top-down” sociology will suffice. Instead, we need to look at processes at the level of socially situated individuals.

In this book I proposed an alternative to these two perspectives by offering a unified framework on neighborhood effects, the larger social organization of urban life, and social causality in general…. Contrary to much received wisdom, the evidence presented in this book demands attention to life in the neighborhoods that shape it. (357)

I argue that we need to treat social context as an important unit of analysis in its own right.  This calls for new measurement strategies as well as a theoretical framework that do not treat the neighborhood simply as a “trait” of the individual. (60)

Sampson offers his own instantiation of Coleman’s Boat to illustrate his thinking:

But unlike Coleman (and like the argument I offered in an earlier post about meso-level explanation; link), Sampson allows for the validity of type-4 causal mechanisms, from “neighborhood structure and culture” to “rates of social behavior”. So neighborhoods are not simply outcomes of individual choices and behavior; they are social ensembles that exert their own causal powers.

Sampson offers an articulated methodology for the study of the social life of a city, in the form of ten principles. These include:

  1. Focus on social context
  2. Study contextual variations in their own right
  3. focus on social-interactional, social psychological, organizational, and cultural mechanisms of social life
  4. integrate a life-course focus on neighborhood change
  5. look for processes and mechanisms that explain stability
  6. embed in the study of neighborhood dynamics the role of individual selection decisions
  7. go beyond the local
  8. incorporate macro processes 
  9. pay attention to human concerns with public affairs 
  10. emphasize the integrative theme of theoretically interpretive empirical research while maintaining methodological pluralism (67-68)

The heart of “neighborhood sociology” can be summarized, Sampson asserts, in a few simple themes:

First, there is considerable social inequality between neighborhoods, especially in terms of socioeconomic position and racial/ethnic segregation.  

Second, these factors are connected in that concentrated disadvantage often coincides with the geographic isolation of racial minority and immigrant groups.  

Third, a number of crime- and health-related problems tend to come bundled together at the neighborhood level and are predicted by neighborhood characteristics such as the concentration of poverty, racial isolation, single-parent families, and to a lesser extent rates of residential and housing instability.  

Fourth, a number of social indicators at the upper end of what many would consider progress, such as affluence, computer literacy, and elite occupational attainment, are also clustered geographically. (46)

This set of themes asserts a series of important correlations between neighborhood features and social outcomes. The hard question is to identify the social mechanisms that underlie these correlations. “It is from this idea that in recent decades we have witnessed another turning point in the form of a renewed commitment to uncovering the social processes and mechanisms that account for neighborhood (or concentration) effects. Social mechanisms provide theoretically plausible accounts of how neighborhoods bring about change in a given phenomenon” (46).

This is a fascinating and methodologically innovative piece of urban sociology. Sampson’s use of large data sets to establish some of the intriguing neighborhood patterns he identifies is highly proficient, and his efforts to place his reasoning within a more theoretically sophisticated framework of multi-level social mechanisms is admirable. In an interesting twist, Sampson shows how it is possible to expand on the very costly video-based methodology of the original PHDCN study by making use of Google Street View to do systematic observations of neighborhoods in Chicago and other cities (361).

(Here is an earlier post on Sampson’s ideas about neighborhood effects.)

Path dependency and contingency

Historical outcomes are rarely determined by some set of antecedent conditions. Instead, the outcome that occurs is the result of an extended series of events and conditions, each stage of which is subject to substantial contingency and conjunctures. This is most visible in the occurrence of large, dramatic events like stock market crashes, peasant uprisings, and wars. But it is also true in more mundane occurrences — scandals, resignations, and insolvencies, for example.

The idea of path dependency is chiefly relevant in application to particular events and happenings. But there are large social structures that display path dependency as well. These examples amount to structuring conditions that persist for a long time and further condition other historical developments. Their emergence is contingent, and other directions were feasible in the early stage. But once the structure is in place it creates its own conditions for persistence. Because the Interstate highway program privileged automobile transport over rail in the 1950s, it is now difficult to create a financially viable passenger rail system in the United States.

Examples of historical developments that display significant path dependency include the choice of major technologies (internal combustion engines versus electric vehicles, alternating current rather than direct current as the long-distance power transmission standard, the QWERTY keyboard versus other more efficient arrangements), major infrastructures (rail rather than canal in the late nineteenth century, personal automobile rather than passenger rail in the mid-twentieth century), and the division of tasks and specialization across adjacent professions (social workers, psychiatrists). In each of these cases there is a contingent first step that could have led in another direction, and then an accumulated resistance to reverting to the other choice (substantial social investment already committed to the first option, substantial development of the knowledge systems required for the first option but not the second, substantial social power invested in individuals and organizations that have a vested interest in maintaining the first option, etc.). (Tom Hughes refers to these factors as “technological momentum” in Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930.) It isn’t impossible to retrace steps and adopt the alternative solution — but it is very difficult and uncommon.

James Mahoney has done useful work in explicating this concept in “Path dependence in historical sociology” (link). Here is how he describes his own position:

In this article, I argue that path dependence characterizes specifically those historical sequences in which contingent events set into motion institutional patterns or event chains that have deterministic properties. The identification of path dependence therefore involves both tracing a given outcome back to a particular set of historical events, and showing how these events are themselves contingent occurrences that cannot be explained on the basis of prior historical conditions. (507-508)

Mahoney identifies two basic mechanisms that are associated with path dependency:

First, some path-dependent investigators analyze self-reinforcing sequences characterized by the formation and long-term reproduction of a given institutional pattern. (508)
A second basic type of path-dependent analysis involves the study of reactive sequences. Reactive sequences are chains of temporally ordered and causally connected event. (509)

Here are the three features Mahoney finds to be critical.

I suggest that all path-dependent analyses minimally have three defining features. First, path-dependent analysis involves the study of causal processes that are highly sensitive to events that take place in the early stages of an overall historical sequence. (510)
Second, in a path-dependent sequence, early historical events are contingent occurrences that cannot be explained on the basis of prior events or “initial conditions.” (511)
Third, once contingent historical events take place, path-dependent sequences are marked by relatively deterministic causal patterns or what can be thought of as “inertia” – i.e., once processes are set into motion and begin tracking a particular outcome, these processes tend to stay in motion and continue to track this outcome. (511)

Mahoney’s work here represents a great example of careful, detailed analysis that crosses the categories of methodology, theory, and philosophy. This is how we make progress in the social sciences — by taking theories and concepts seriously and providing careful, logical analysis of the ways these concepts express important features of the historical process.

The idea of path dependency invokes the intersection of two important intuitions which are in tension with each other. The first is the sense of contingency that study of important historical transitions instills. The second is the idea that explanation involves generalizing across cases. If a case is wholly particular, then it is hard to find anything explanatory in studying it. Careful analysis of the concept of path dependency has the potential of offering a higher-level resolution of these intuitions about the historical process.

Does the microfoundations principle imply reductionism?

My philosophy of social science has always and consistently maintained the idea that social facts depend on the activities and beliefs of individuals. There is no social “stuff” that exists independently from individual actors. I have encapsulated that idea in the form of the “microfoundations” principle: any claim about the characteristics or causal powers of social entities must be compatible with there being microfoundations for those properties and powers at the level of the actor.

At the same time, I also believe that there is an appropriate domain for social science: the exploration of the features and powers of the social world. I don’t believe that methodology should force the sociologist to become a psychologist or to shift his/her attention to the micro level.

Are these two premises compatible? Or does the microfoundations principle actually entail reductionism? Does it imply that explanations couched at the level of social vocabulary are incomplete and derivative, and that the real explanation must be found at the level of the micro-activities of individuals?

I attempt to resolve this apparent dilemma by distinguishing between strong and weak versions of the microfoundations principle: “social explanations must provide microfoundations for their assertions about social properties and powers” versus “social explanations must be compatible with there being microfoundations for their assertions about social powers and properties.” The weak version reflects an appropriate stipulation based on what we know about the ontology of the social world, whereas the strong version is a kind of explanatory reductionism that is unjustified.

My position, then, is that sociology is a special science in Fodor’s sense, and that sociologists both can and do treat their domain as relatively autonomous.

Several commentators allege that my commitment to microfoundations — which is unwavering — vitiates my ability to claim relative explanatory autonomy for the meso level. Some don’t like my distinction between weak and strong microfoundations, and others think that commitment to MF means explanations have to proceed through explicit discoveries of the MF pathways.

My position is intended to exactly parallel physicalism in cognitive science: we are committed to the idea that all cognitive processes are somehow or other embodied and carried out by the central nervous system. But we are not obliged to actually perform that reduction in offering a hypothesis and explanation at the level of cognitive systems. 

Even more prosaically: we believe that the properties of metals depend upon the quantum properties of subatomic particles. Does anyone seriously believe that civil engineers aren’t giving real explanations of bridge failures when they refer to properties like tensile strength, compression indices, and mechanisms like metal fatigue? We can observe and measure the metal’s properties without being forced to provide a quantum mechanical deduction. 

One observer writes that “Little’s examples actually confirm that meso-level mechanisms work only through micro-level processes.” Yes, and I likewise confirm that cognitive processes work only through neural events and material properties work only through quantum physics. But I don’t accept that this demonstrates that the higher level cannot be treated as having real causal properties. It does have those properties; and we simply reaffirm the point that somehow or other those properties are embodied in the lower level elements. This isn’t a new idea; it was contained in Jerry Fodor’s “Special Sciences” article years ago. If the argument is generally a bad one then we are forced to undo a lot of work in cognitive science. If it is generally compelling but inapplicable to social entities then we need to know why that is so in this special case of a special science.

To be clear, I too believe that there is a burden of proof that must be met in asserting a causal power or disposition for a social entity — something like “the entity demonstrates an empirical regularity in behaving in such and such a way” or “we have good theoretical reasons for believing that X social arrangements will have Y effects.” And some macro concepts are likely cast at too high a level to admit of such regularities. That is why I favor “meso” social entities as the bearers of social powers. As new institutionalists demonstrate all the time, one property regime elicits very different collective behavior from its highly similar cousin. And this gives the relevant causal stability criterion. Good examples include Robert Ellickson’s new-institutionalist treatment of Shasta County and liability norms and Charles Perrow’s treatment of the operating characteristics of technology organizations. In each case the microfoundations are easy to provide. What is more challenging is to show how these social causal properties interact in cases to create outcomes we want to explain.

The best reason I am aware of to doubt stable causal powers for social entities is founded on the point that organizations and institutions are too plastic to possess enduring causal properties over time. I’ve made this argument myself on occasion. But researchers like Kathleen Thelen in The Evolution of Institutions demonstrate that there are in fact some institutional complexes that do possess the requisite stability. 

So I continue to believe both things: that statements about social entities and powers must be compatible there being microfoundations for these properties and powers; and that it is theoretically possible that some social structures have properties and powers that are relatively autonomous, in the sense that we can allude to those properties and powers in explanations without being obliged to demonstrate their microfoundations.

Ordinary and theoretical knowledge of capitalism

John Levi Martin argues in The Explanation of Social Action, among other things, that we need to understand the social world through the ways it is experienced by participants. “Sociology and its near kin have adopted an understanding of theoretical explanation that privileges ‘third-person’ explanations and, in particular, have decided that the best explanation is a ‘causal’ third-person explanation, in which we attribute causal power to something other than flesh-and-blood individuals” (kl 75). He thus criticizes sociological theorizing because it is third-person and aims to explain social arrangements in terms foreign to the participants. 

But this is really what the act of “theorizing” always involves, and why it is important. The social world always exceeds the vision of the participants, and though Levi Martin cringes at the thought, there are in fact distant, unseen structures and systems that constrain local experience. The role of theory — one role, anyway — is to discover in thought what some of those systemic processes and forces are. “Capitalism,” “trading system,” “sugar-cotton-slave nexus,” “finance capital,” and “bourgeois ideology” are all theoretical formulations designed to connect the dots — to draw attention to the systems within which everyday experience takes place. And those systems exist and have consequences for individuals at all levels of agency — beliefs, assumptions, purposes, incentives, and constraints. 

It is of course true that social entities at every level require microfoundations. So it isn’t quite right to say that social entities convey effects through something other than flesh-and-blood individuals. But this does not mean that they do no convey effects onto individuals and local arrangements that are beyond the ken of the local actors.

Take the complex of ideas associated with Marx’s conception of materialism as an example, and put yourself in a particular historical setting–say British factory expansion in the 1830s and 1840s. Participants at every location had perceptions and ways of talking about their experiences. The recently “freed” factory worker in Manchester had his perspective; the dockworker in London had his; the “putting-out” spinner had hers; the Caribbean slave had his and hers; and likewise the baker, the tailor, and the candlestick maker. For that matter, Marx, Engels, and Carlyle were participants too, and they made their own efforts to conceptualize and explain their experience. They wanted to say what was going on. 

But here is the crucial point; none of them really got it. They got parts of the story — the harsh conditions in the factory, the swirl of new finance activity, the overseers’ whip, the living conditions in slums in Birmingham, Manchester, and London, the stench of the River Irk, and much else. But none was in a position to perceive the relationships among these social locations. 

These are all fragments of the picture, and as Marx insisted in Capital when he discussed commodity fetishism — some of these perspectives conceal rather than expose the system of social relations that was emerging. It took something else in order to cognize “emerging capitalist urban industrial society”. Carlyle did his part (he coined the phrase, the “cash nexus”); so did Engels and Marx; and so have Gramsci and Wallerstein. Theorizing was necessary in order to transform the partial and sometimes mystifying bits of ordinary experience into a more revealing system-level understanding. The worker perceives the temporal coercion of the factory; but he and she do not perceive the larger social structures that explained that system of organization. 

Is the participant-level even the right perspective from which to try to identify an explanation? I don’t think so. Were conditions in this factory harsh because this owner was hostile or cruel towards these particular workers? No, rather because the competitive environment of profitability and accumulation created an inexorable race to the bottom. So we can’t explain this factory’s working conditions by referring to specific features of this factory and its owner. This logic is spelled out very clearly in Capital, and it is a system-level characteristic.

Here is what Levi Martin has to say about this line of argument, early in ESA. He paraphrases the argument in these words:

Actors may see the little picture — particularities that while undeniable are still ignorable — but they do not produce the sweeping abstractions that have important implications across many domains of social life. It is these general abstracts that, when linked in some system, deserve the credit of behing “theory, and the more surprising the implications — the less they agree with the particular, everyday knowledge of actors — the more brilliant the theory is if confirmed. (kl 104).

It is plain that L-M does not accept this move from the particular local knowledges to a more abstract “theory” that connects the dots. He favors instead a mode of theorizing that derives from phenomenology:

Phenomenology in this sense is the study of how every-day people orient themselves to the world and how they determine what needs to be done. (kl 152)

But it is likely that no one within the emerging factory system in Manchester or Birmingham would have experienced the system-level factors that shaped the emergence of that system. The self-conception of the capitalist factory owner is “modernizer,” “bringer of better life prospects to immigrant Irish peasants,” or “contributor to a new Britain” — not “cog in a system of profit-maximizing competition where to lose one’s footing in pushing costs down is to drown.”

So how do distant, impersonal social forces impinge on local experience? This is the nexus that draws the greatest skepticism from Levi Martin. But it isn’t particularly difficult to answer. Take the rapid development of tenements and slums that Engels describes in The Condition of the Working Class in England. The expansion of trade, rapidly rising demand for finished goods, and the workings of financial markets are the distal causes that shaped the choices of capitalists, city fathers, and legislators, and these choices compounded to the misery described by Engels. This is the value of Immanuel Wallerstein’s work; he helps demonstrate these distal relations and systemic interrelationships (The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, With a New Prologue).  And I don’t think that Wallerstein’s work is at all incompatible with an actor-centered, microfoundational view of social causation.

Response to Little by John Levi Martin

[John Levi Martin accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion of his Explanation of Social Action (link).  John is professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and author of Social Structures in addition to ESA.  Thanks, John!]

Response to Little
by John Levi Martin

The Explanation of Social Action (henceforward, ESA) is a book about the explanation of social action. It argues that there are fundamental instabilities in what seems to be the dominant approach to such explanation in the social sciences, which it terms explanation via third person causality (TPC). TPC is when we attempt to explain the action of persons (say, they vote for a Republican) using entities that are not themselves persons, and attribute causal power to such entities (say, income and authoritarianism cause Republican voting). Examinations of TPC are wrecked if the recipients of the causal force willfully “select” themselves to be exposed to causes. ESA is not the first book to point to the instabilities that result, but previous arguments do not seem to have affected the progression of the social sciences, which operate on the Warner Brothers’ principle that even if you have run off a cliff and there is nothing under your feet, you will not actually fall so long as you do not look down.

As said above, ESA is a book about the explanation of social action—it does not claim to cover everything that social scientists find interesting and important. However, one of the problems with the contemporary approach to the social sciences is that cases of social action are disguised in ways that lead to confusion. Thus Little writes that ESA’s scope fails to include “‘Why?’ questions [that] involve understanding the workings of institutions and structures.” Such questions—e.g., “why did the decision-making process surrounding the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger go so disastrously wrong?”—Little says, “admit of causal explanations. And they are not inherently equivalent to explanations of nested sets of social actions.”

Were this the case, the arguments of ESA would indeed be less damaging. But it is not at all obvious that such “workings of institutions and structures” are not “equivalent to…sets of social actions.” While “workings of institutions and structures” is a fine figure of speech for approximate purposes, speaking more exactly, institutions do not work, or cause, or act, or think. Institutions are nothing other than sets of actions—“patterns of repeated conduct.” When we ignore this, we produce unstable explanations.

Indeed, Little’s example is enlightening. Consider Vaughan’s justly famous The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. This is a wonderful piece of research. But when Vaughan boils things down to a (general) sociological conclusion, it seems of the form “institutional culture caused this decision to be of this sort.” As I am sure a number of people have pointed out, as institutional culture is itself nothing other than the pattern of social action that takes place in the institutional setting, this is to take the pattern of action, pull out one part, put it by itself, draw a line from the rest of the pattern to this one part, and write “causes” on the line. This is a very confusing way of proceeding and formally like the case (treated in ESA) of explaining someone’s favoring of an authoritarian policy by saying that it was “caused” by his authoritarianism. It is taking a tautology and adding a mystical confusion in the form of “causality.” Vaughan’s arguments in detail are important, but we would do better to return to Peirce, James and Dewey and to examine the formation of habits than to posit some new realm of “institutions and structures” with their own causality.

The problems with our desperate belief in causation even where it adds nothing but confusion is best seen in the line of work emphasized by Little on causal “mechanisms.” I did not devote any of ESA to a critique of these ideas in part because I believed that my general points were best made without “going negative,” because I believed that Tilly’s approach to explanation was an improvement over most others, and because of my great admiration for and gratitude to Charles Tilly. This opened space for confusion.

Tilly identifies recurring patterns of social action and calls these “mechanisms” because they can be envisaged as discrete parts of a clockwork that, assembled in a certain way, will produce a certain result. In itself, this is a laudable endeavor; the word “mechanism” to describe the pattern nicely highlights the modular nature of these explanatory nuggets, at the cost of some misleading imagery. But to call these accounts “causal” and to argue that this demonstrates the stability of TPC seems very puzzling. For the mechanisms themselves are nothing other than patterns of action. They do not explain the action, they are it.

For example, Tilly lists “coalition formation between segments of ruling classes and constituted political actors that are currently excluded from power” (henceforward, CFBSORCACPACEFP) as a “mechanism” tending to “cause” democratization. Speaking loosely, this is all well and good, but it cannot be seen as a successful form of TPC. For this requires us to imagine some form of CFBSORCACPACEFP that is forced upon persons as opposed to arising from their own actions (a relation between CFBSORCACPACEFP and democracy interpreted in motivational terms would not support the doctrine of the existence of TPC). Certain cases are more like this extreme scenario and others less like, but no case can perfectly satisfy this vision, because it requires action without action. The more seriously we take the causal language, the sillier or crazier our thoughts become.

In sum, our “run fast and don’t look down” strategy has led us to take outcomes (what happens) and reify them into causes (these are “constraints” and “structures”), and to take patterns of actions and claim that they are not patterns of action at all, but something else that in fact causes these actions. We are akin to meteorologists unwilling to abandon the idea that there really are Winds (e.g., the Zephyr) with their own causal properties, and who abuse any colleagues so simplistic as to insist that to make any scientific progress, they will need to produce accurate models for compressible gasses and then scale up. ESA is about how we might start.

Levi Martin on explanation

John Levi Martin’s The Explanation of Social Action is a severe critique of the role of “theory” in the social sciences. He thinks our uses of this construct follow from a bad conception of social explanation: we explain something by showing how it relates (often through law-like processes) to something radically different from the thing to be explained. But Levi Martin adopts one strand of Weber’s conception of sociology — “the science of meaningful social action” (kl 92) — and advocates a fundamentally different conception of sociological thinking. Let us explain why social things happen in terms of the ways that ordinary people understand their actions and meanings. Levi thinks the usual approach is Cartesian, in that it presupposes a radical separation between the individual who acts and the considerations that explain his/her action.

Sociology and its near kin have adopted an understanding of theoretical explanation that privileges “third-person” explanations and, in particular, have decided that the best explanation is a “causal” third-person explanation, in which we attribute causal power to something other than flesh-and-blood individuals. (kl 75)

His own approach is anti-cartesian — explanans and explanandum are on the same level.

The main argument of this book may be succinctly put as follows: the social sciences (in part, but in large part) explain what people do, and they explain what it means to carry out such an explanation. (kl 14)

Rather than drawing on examples from the law-based natural sciences, he prefers to understand actors in their own terms, and he offers the example of three antecedent theories:

But there are alternatives. I trace three, all of which dissented from the Cartesian dualism underlying the Durkheimian approach. These are the Russian activity school (with Vygotsky the prime example), the German Gestalt school (with Kohler the prime example), and the American pragmatist school (with Dewey the prime example). All point to a serious social science that attempts to understand why people do what they do, a science that while rigorous and selective (as opposed to needing to “examine everything”) is not analytic in the technical sense of decomposing unit acts into potentially independent (if empirically interrelated) components. (kl 147)

I like Levi Martin’s work quite a bit, and wrote earlier on his approach to social structures in his Social Structures (2009). But here I do not finding his reasoning as persuasive. 

First, his account leaves out a vast proportion of what many social scientists are interested in explaining — why did fascism prevail in Germany and Italy, why were East Coast dock worker unions corrupt while West Coast dock workers were political, why do young democracies fall prey to far-right nationalist movements, why did the decision-making process surrounding the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger go so disastrously wrong? These Why questions involve understanding the workings of institutions and structures, and they admit of causal explanations. And they are not inherently equivalent to explanations of nested sets of social actions. 

Second, L-M’s polemic against current ideas of social explanation assumes there are only two choices in play: correlational studies of associated variables and actor-level explanations of why people behave as they do. But this is incorrect. The new institutionalism in sociology, for example, explains outcomes as the result of a socially embedded system of rules that produce a characteristic set of actions on the part of participants. Institutional differences across settings lead to significantly different outcomes. And the causal-mechanisms approach to explanation (Tilly) identifies meso-level social mechanisms that can be seen to aggregate into identifiable social processes. L-M’s polemic against “causalism” is, in my perception, directed against an untenable regularity-based theory of causation; but the causal-mechanism approach provides a far more defensible theory of social causation and explanation. 

Third, his current account is mono-thematic: the only thing that counts is what is in the head of the participant. But this seems wrong in two ways: first, we are often interested in social facts that are not social actions in Weber’s sense. And second, sometimes factors that the individuals themselves have not conceptualized are critical to understanding what is going on.

I also find that Levi Martin gives the causal mechanisms approach a wholly unfair dismissal. The CM approach is actually an alternative way of disaggregating social explanations and de-dramatizing the quest for unifying theories of the social world. The CM approach brings forward a heterogeneous view of the workings of a social world that is itself heterogeneous and multi-factoral. It is a mid-level theory of explanation, not a generalization-worshipping theory of explanation. So I believe that much of what Levi says in favor of his own approach can be said with equal force about the CM theory. 

Moreover, CM theory too is an actor-centered approach to social explanation. The mechanisms to which sociologists in this tradition appeal work through the choices and actions of individuals. But CM also recognizes that there are relatively stable structures and relations that influence individual action and that have consequences for yet other meso-level factors. The CM approach asks a great fundamental question: through what processes and mechanisms did the social phenomenon in question take place? And crucially, there is no reason to expect the participants to conceptualize or understand these mechanisms and institutions. So there is a proper place for the hypotheses and constructs of the observer and theoretician after all. 

One way to put these criticisms is to suggest that the book is mis-titled. The title offers a comprehensive theory of social explanation, but it doesn’t in fact succeed in providing any such thing. And it gives the impression that there is only one legitimate mode of social explanation — something that most sociologists would reject for good reasons.

In fact, the book is not so much a theory of explanation as it is a theory of the actor: what she knows, what she wants, how she chooses, and how she acts. It is a theory that draws upon American pragmatism and phenomenology. And the implication for “explanation” is a very simple lemma: “Explanations of social actions need to be couched in terms of the real experiences and cognitive-practical setup of the actors.” Here is the title I would have preferred: “Towards a More Adequate Theory of the Human Actor”.

Here, then, is the heart of my assessment of The Explanation of Social Action: L-M reduces the many explanatory tasks of the social sciences to just one — the explanation of meaningful social actions by individuals. There is more to sociology than that, and identifying causal structures and mechanisms is a legitimate sociological task that has no place in L-M’s conceptual space here. But as a contribution to the topic to which it is really directed — the attempt to formulate a more adequate theory of the actor — I believe it is a major contribution.

Neighborhood effects as meso-causes

A very interesting and current sociological study of “meso”-social causation can be found in the literature on neighborhood effects over the past 15 years or so. Robert Sampson and various colleagues have offered striking new analyses and arguments that establish the importance of geo-social neighborhoods on the occurrence of a variety of important social behaviors.  And their thinking represents a concrete, empirically rigorous and theoretically well developed effort to probe the effects and mechanisms that link neighborhood to resident.

Sampson, Morenoff and Gannon-Rowley provide a review of this literature in “Assessing ‘Neighborhood Effects’: Social Processes and New Directions in Research” (link). Sampson’s contribution to the Demeulenaere volume, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms, makes explicit the connection of this line of argument to issues about causation and methodological individualism that have been important to the analytical sociology movement.

Here is the preliminary definition of “neighborhood” upon which Sampson et al depend:

Robert Park and Ernest Burgess laid the foundation for urban sociology by defining local communities as “natural areas” that developed as a result of competition between businesses for land use and between population groups for affordable housing. A neighborhood, according to this view, is a subsection of a larger community—a collection of both people and institutions occupying a spatially defined area influenced by ecological, cultural, and sometimes political forces (Park 1916, pp. 147–154). Suttles (1972) later refined this view by recognizing that local communities do not form their identities only as the result of free-market competition. Instead, some communities have their identity and boundaries imposed on them by outsiders. Suttles also argued that the local community is best thought of not as a single entity, but rather as a hierarchy of progressively more inclusive residential groupings. In this sense, we can think of neighborhoods as ecological units nested within successively larger communities. (“Assessing,” 445)

What Sampson and his co-authors want to discover is how sociologists have begun to identify and measure features of “neighborhoods” that are not simply aggregate features of individual behaviors, and how they have attempted to identify causal relations between these meso-level neighborhood characteristics and individual-level behaviors and outcomes.  They are particularly interested in health outcomes and other forms of disadvantage for children and adolescents, or what they term “problem-related or health-compromisingbehaviors among children and adolescents” (448): “infant mortality, low birthweight, teenage childbearing, dropping out of high school, child maltreatment, and adolescent delinquency” (446).

A key fact about neighborhoods and larger communities in the United States is the salience of race and poverty in residential patterns; neighborhoods are usually characterized by a concentration of racial groups and income groups.  And high-poverty, high-racial-minority neighborhoods are frequently characterized by high-negative-health outcomes.  But this is a mere correlation; what are the causal linkages between a neighborhood’s characteristics and the health and behavioral outcomes of its residents?  In other words, they want to know something about the mechanisms through which these meso-level properties influence the individual resident:

During the 1990s, a number of scholars moved beyond the traditional fixation on concentrated poverty and began to explicitly theorize and directly measure how neighborhood social processes bear on the well-being of children and adolescents. Unlike the more static features of sociodemographic composition (e.g., race, class position), social processes or mechanisms provide accounts of how neighborhoods bring about a change in a given phenomenon of interest (Sorensen 1998, p. 240). (447)

A more recent contribution from Sampson appears in the Demeulenaere volume discussed in several earlier posts, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms.  The essay is called “Neighborhood effects, causal mechanisms and the social structure of the city,” and it makes an explicit attempt to line up the neighborhood-effect literature with some of the issues of analytical sociology.  Most important is the fact that neighborhood effects are thought to be “emergent” or autonomous with respect to the individual characteristics of the people who make up the population.

Sampson’s effort in this essay is to give a satisfactory definition of “neighborhood,” to indicate some ways of measuring or describing neighborhood-level properties (what he refers to as “ecometrics”, in analogy with “psychometrics”), and to reflect on some possible mechanisms that might work from this level of analysis to the individual level of the people who make up the neighborhood.

Here is how Sampson characterizes “neighborhood” in this piece:

I begin with a general definition of neighborhood as a variably interacting population of people and institutions in a common place. Neighborhoods form a mosaic of overlapping ecological units (e.g. blocks, streets) that vary in size, boundaries and social organizational features. (228-229)

It is the intersection of practices and social meanings with spatial context that is at the root of neighborhood effects. (230)

And he offers a somewhat different definition of social mechanism from those provided in the existing literature:

I conceptualize a social mechanism as a plausible contextual process that accounts for a given phenomenon, in the ideal case linking putative causes and effects. (230)

Sampson has quite a bit of interesting perspective on the topic of “levels” of social analysis and social causation.  Neighborhood effects are fairly proximate — local social facts influencing local individual behavior. But Sampson believes that there are plausible mechanisms linking much more distant social conditions or circumstances to the local level as well. For example:

It is not just city-level processes that are at stake — national and global forces can influence place stratification…. How do we go about documenting the extra-local layers of this kind of “macro-level” neighborhood effect?  … Even calls for analytical sociology are not terribly helpful, focused as they are on the relation of micro and macro (in this case neighborhood) levels, as opposed to higher order structures. What is needed is a truly systemic approach that seeks to theorize and study empirically the “articulation” function of the local community vis-a-vis the larger social world — how organizations and social networks differentially connect local residents to the cross-cutting institutions that organize much of modern economic, political and social life. (235)

Sampson explicitly parts company with “Coleman’s boat”, offering a multi-level and multi-dimensional causal model of “neighborhood structure, social-spatial mechanisms, and crime rates” (Figure 11.1; 236).

Unlike most research intentions on neighborhood effects to claim a hierarchical or “top down” primacy of neighborhoods over the individual, I have considered “side to side,” “bottom up” and “bird’s eye” orientations along with issues of measurement, social causality, methodological individualism, extra-local spatial processes, percepts as causation, and selection bias all as a way to address what I consider a modified analytic sociology “Coleman project”. (244)

Despite the real promise of analytical sociology, I conclude that methodological individualism would do well to grant social context and macro-level factors an equal forum in theories of neighborhood effects. (245)

Ultimately, then, higher-order processes that induce structure at the neighborhood level require a different way of thinking than the individualist and largely micro-level approaches of existing experimental paradigms. (245)

Sampson’s work, with a handful of different collaborators, is a very impressive example of the possibility of bringing together very rigorous quantitative methods with a social realist’s interest in causal mechanisms and a non-reductionist’s willingness to assign causal powers to supra-individual structures and conditions.  The systematic effort to introduce methods for observing and measuring “neighborhood-level” characteristics — what they call ecometrics — is a valuable addition to the toolbox for sociological analysis at a range of levels of social activity.

Many of these issues are presented in greater detail in Sampson’s very interesting book, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.

Recent thinking about scientific explanation

Recent thinking about scientific explanation

What do we want from a scientific explanation?  Is there a single answer to this question, or is the field of explanation fundamentally heterogeneous, perhaps by discipline or by research community? Do biologists explain outcomes differently from physicists or sociologists? Is a good explanation within the Anglo-American traditions of science also a good explanation in the German or Chinese research communities? Is the idea of a scientific explanation paradigm-dependent?

For several decades in the twentieth century there was a dominant answer to this question, that was an outgrowth of the tradition of logical positivism and examples from the natural sciences. This theory of explanation focused on the idea of subsumption of an event or regularity under a higher-level set of laws. The deductive-nomological theory of explanation specified that an outcome is explained when we have produced a deductively valid argument with premises that include at least one general law and that lead to a description of the event as conclusion. Carl Hempel was the most prominent advocate for this theory (Aspects of Scientific Explanation), but it was widely accepted throughout the philosophy of science in the 1950s and 1960s.  The “covering law” model was a core dogma for the philosophy of science for several decades.

The D-N theory was subject to many kinds of criticisms, including the obvious point that much explanation involves phenomena that are probabilistic rather than deterministic.  Hempel introduced the inductive version of the D-N model to cover probabilistic-statistical explanation, along these lines. An argument provides a scientific explanation of E if it provides at least one probabilistic law and a set of background conditions such that, given the law and conditions, E is highly probable.  This model was described as the “Inductive-Statistical” model (I-S model).  Wesley Salmon’s Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World falls within this tradition but offers important refinements, including his formal definition of causal relevance.

In each case the motivation for the theory of explanation is a plausible one: we explain an event when we show how it was necessary [or highly probable] in the circumstances, given existing conditions and relevant laws of nature. On the logical positivist approach, an explanation is an answer to a “why necessary” question: why did this event occur? In this conception of explanation the idea of necessity or probability is replaced with the idea of deductive or inductive derivability — a syntactic relationship among sets of sentences.

A different approach to explanation turns to the idea of causation.  We provide an explanation of an event or pattern when we succeed in identifying the causal conditions and events that brought it about.  This approach can be tied to the D-N approach, if we believe that all causal relations are the manifestation of strict or probabilistic causal regularities.  But not all D-N explanations are causal, and not all causal explanations invoke regularities.  Derivability is no longer the criterion of explanatory success, and explanation is no longer primarily a syntactic relation between sets of sentences.  Instead, substantive theories of causal powers and properties are the foundation of scientific explanation.  A leading exponent of this view is Rom Harré in Harré and Madden, Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity. Nancy Cartwright’s Nature’s Capacities and Their Measurements is also an important contribution to this view.  And J. L. Mackie’s The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation is an important contribution as well.  The causal approach retains the idea that explanation involves showing why an event is necessary or probable, but it turns from derivability from statements of laws of nature, to theories of causal powers and properties. 

The causal mechanisms approach to explanation continues the insight that explanations involve demonstrating why an event occurred; but this approach moves even farther away from the idea of a causal law, replacing it with the idea of a discrete causal mechanism.  On this approach, we explain an event when we identify a series of causal interactions that lead from some antecedent condition to the outcome of interest.  Hedstrom and Swedborg’s Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory presents aspects of this theory of explanation in application to the social sciences.  One benefit of the social mechanisms approach is that it also provides a basis for answering “how possible” questions: if our puzzlement is that an outcome has occurred that seems inherently unlikely, we can provide an account of a set of causal mechanisms that transpired to bring it about.

The chief line of dispute in the traditions mentioned so far is between the “general laws” camp and the “causal powers” camp.  Both are committed to the idea that explanation involves showing how an outcome fits into the ways the world works; but the general laws approach presumes that law-like regularities are fundamental, whereas the causal approach presumes that causal powers and mechanisms are fundamental.

So what has developed in the theory of explanation in the past twenty years? Quite a bit. A recent collection of essays coming largely from the Scandinavian tradition of the philosophy of science is quite helpful in orienting readers to recent developments. This is Johannes Persson and Petri Ylikoski’s 2007  Rethinking Explanation. Quite a number of the contributions are worth reading carefully.  But Jan Faye’s “Pragmatic-Rhetorical Theory of Explanation” is a good place to start.  Faye distinguishes among three basic approaches to the theory of explanation: formal-logical, ontological, and pragmatic.  The formal-logical approach is essentially the H-D and I-S approaches described above.  The ontological approach is the causal-powers approach described above.  The pragmatic approach is in a sense the most important recent contribution to the theory of explanation, and represents a significant re-focusing of the debates in post-empiricist philosophy of science. Here is how Faye describes the pragmatic approach to explanation-theory:

The pragmatic view sees scientific explanations to be basically similar to explanations in everyday life. It regards every explanation as an appropriate answer to an explanation-seeking question, emphasising that the context of the discourse, including the explainer’s interest and background knowledge, determines the appropriate answer. (44)

And why should we consider a pragmatic approach?  Faye offers eight reasons:

First, we have to recognise that even within the natural sciences there exist many different types of accounts, which scientists regard as explanatory. (46)

Second, if one is looking for a prescriptive treatment of explanation, I see no reason why the social sciences and the humanities should be excluded from such a prescription. If they are included, the prescriptive account must include intentional and interpretive explanations, i.e., accounts providing information about either motives or meanings. (47)

Third, the meaning of a why-question alone does not determine whether the answer is relevant or not. (47)

Fourth, John Searle has correctly argued that the meaning of every indicative sentence is context-dependent. He does not deny that many sentences have literal meaning, which is traditionally seen as the semantic content a sentence has independently of any context. (49)

Fifth, many explanations take the form of stories. Arthur Danto has argued that what we want to explain is always a change of some sort. When a change occurs, we have one situation before and another situation after, and the explanation is what connects these two situations. This is the story. (50)

Sixth, a change always takes place in a complex causal field of circumstances each of which is necessary for its occurrence. Writers like P.W. Bridgman, Norwood Russell Hanson, John Mackie, and Bas van Fraassen have all correctly argued that events are enmeshed in a causal network and that it is the salient factors mentioned in an explanation that constitute the causes of that events. (50)

Seventh, the level of explanation depends also on our interest of communication. In science an appropriate nomic or causal account can be given on the basis of different explanatory levels, and which of these levels one selects as informative depends very much on the rhetorical purposes. (51)

Eight, scientific theories are empirically underdetermined by data. It is always possible to develop competing theories that explain things differently and, therefore, it is impossible to set up a crucial experiment that shows which of these theories that yields the correct account of the data available. (52)

Faye then goes on to analyze scientific explanation as a speech act. We need to understand the presuppositions and purposes that the explainer and the listener have, before we can say much about how the explanation works. 

Petri Ylikoski’s contribution to the volume, “The Idea of Contrastive Explanandum,” picks up on one particular but pervasively important feature of the rhetorical situation of explanation, the idea of contrast.  When we ask for an explanation of an outcome, often we are not asking simply why it occurred, but rather why it occurred instead of something else.  And the contrastive condition is crucial.  If we ask “why did the Prussian army win the Franco-Prussian War?”, the answer we give will be very different depending on whether we understand the question as:

“Why did the Prussian army [rather than the French army] win the Franco-Prussian War?”

or:

“Why did the Prussian army win [rather than fighting to stalemate] the Franco-Prussian War?”

So scientific explanation is context-dependent in at least this important respect: we need to understand what the question-asker has in mind before we can provide an adequate explanation from his/her point of view. As Henrik Hallsten puts it in his contribution, “What to Ask of an Explanation-Theory”,

To summarize: Any explanation-theory must [do] justice to the distinction between objective explanatory relevance and context dependent explanatory relevance or provide good arguments as to why this distinction should not be upheld. (16)

So perhaps the most important recent developments in the theory of scientific explanation fall in a few categories.  First, there has been substantial work on refining the idea of causal explanation (link).  Second, philosophers have reinforced the idea that explanation has pragmatic and rhetorical aspects that cannot be put aside in favor of syntactic and substantive features of explanation. And third, there is more recognition and acceptance of the idea that explanatory models and standards may reasonably differ across disciplines and research areas.  In particular, the social and historical sciences are entitled to offer explanatory frameworks that are well adapted to the particular kinds of why and how questions that are posed in these fields.   In each case the philosophy of science has made a very great deal of progress since the state of the debates about explanation that transpired in the 1960s.