Methods of causal inquiry

This diagram provides a map of an extensive set of methods of causal inquiry in the social sciences. The goal here is to show that the many approaches that social scientists have taken to discovering causal relationships have an underlying order, and they can be related to a small number of ontological ideas about social …

The functionality of artifacts

We think of artifacts as being "functional" in a specific sense: their characteristics are well designed and adjusted for their "intended" use. Sometimes this is because of the explicit design process through which they were created, and sometimes it is the result of a long period of small adjustments by artisan-producers and users who recognize …

Mechanisms, singular and general

Let's think again about the semantics of causal ascriptions. Suppose that we want to know what  caused a building crane to collapse during a windstorm. We might arrive at an account something like this: An unusually heavy gust of wind at 3:20 pm, in the presence of this crane's specific material and structural properties, with …

New thinking about causal mechanisms

Anyone interested in the topic of causal mechanisms will be interested in the appearance of Stuart Glennan and Phyllis Illari's The Routledge Handbook of Mechanisms and Mechanical Philosophy. Both Glennan and Illari have been significant contributors to the past fifteen years of discussion about the role of mechanisms in scientific explanation, and the Handbook is …

Causal diagrams and causal mechanisms

There is a long history of the use of directed causal diagrams to represent hypotheses about causation. Can the mathematics and graphical systems created for statistical causal modeling be adapted to represent and evaluate hypotheses about causal mechanisms and outcomes? In the causal modeling literature the structure of a causal hypothesis is something like this: …

Meanings and mechanisms

image: photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the University of Michigan, 1962 There are two large categories of factors that are fundamental to understanding social processes -- meanings and mechanisms. I’ve given a preponderance of attention to the importance of social causal mechanisms within historical and social explanation (link). We explain a social outcome …

Microfoundations and mechanisms

The topics of microfoundations and causal mechanisms have come up frequently in this work. The microfoundations thesis maintains that social attributions and explanations based on macro-level entities and structures depend upon pathways at the level of the individual actors through which the entities and processes are maintained. The causal mechanisms thesis maintains that the best …

Large causes and component causal mechanisms

Image: Yellow River, Qing Dynasty Image: Free and Slave States, United States 1850 One approach to causal explanation involves seeking out the mechanisms and processes that lead to particular outcomes. McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly illustrate this approach in their treatment of contentious politics in Dynamics of Contention, and the field of contentious politics is in …

Social mechanisms and ABM methods

One particularly appealing aspect of agent-based models is the role they can play in demonstrating the inner workings of a major class of social mechanisms, the group we might refer to as mechanisms of aggregation. An ABM is designed to work out how a field of actors of a certain description, in specified kinds of …

Heuristics for a mechanisms-based methodology

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? …

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