Causality and metaphysics

descartesduck2Advocates of the causal powers approach attach a great deal of importance to the metaphysics of causation — the sorts of properties and relations that we attribute to the kinds of things that we want to postulate. The neo-Aristotelian point of view represented by Ruth Groff and others appears to have metaphysical objections to the causal-mechanisms approach: the CM approach postulates the wrong kind of relations among entities, according to this group. So if I want to argue that mechanisms and powers are compatible, as I do, then I need to take into account the metaphysical arguments. It will be necessary to tell a story about the nature of the world that gives a place and meaning to the metaphysical premises of each theory.

The possibility of fundamental metaphysical incompatibility cannot be trivially ruled out. Consider this different kind of example: the distance between the premises of analytical Marxism and the neo-Hegelian theory of internal relations espoused by Bertell Ollman in Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (link). Even if there were the possibility of some degree of convergence in conclusions about capitalism — e.g. the likelihood of recurring crises — the two schools of thought differ fundamentally on the nature of social entities and structures. They differ in terms of their social metaphysics. Analytical Marxists take the view that the structures of capitalism are the composite effect of variously motivated individuals; so there is an underlying atomism in the ontology of AM. Causes are fully distinct from the things they affect. Ollman, by contrast, believes that we need to conceive of the structures and social relations of capitalism relationally: the wage labor relation is not an atomistic relation between capitalist and worker, but rather a mutually implicating set of relations between the two that cannot be fully separated. Here is a passage in which Ollman attempts to capture the distinctive features of Marx’s social metaphysics:

What is distinctive in Marx’s conception of social reality is best approached through the cluster of qualities he ascribes to particular social factors. Taking capital as the example, we find Marx depicting it as “that kind of property which exploits wage-labor, and which cannot increase except on condition of getting a new supply of wage-labor for fresh exploitation” (Marx and Engels, 1945, 33). What requires emphasis is that the relation between capital and labor is treated here as a function of capital itself, and part of the meaning of “capital”. This tie is extended to cover the worker as well, where Marx refers to him as “variable capital” (Marx, 1958, 209). The capitalist is incorporated into the same whole: “capital is necessarily at the same time the capitalist . . . the capitalist is contained in the concept of capital” (Marx, 1973, 512). Elsewhere, Marx asserts that “the means of production monopolized by a certain section of society”, “the products of laborers turned into independent powers”, “money”, “commodities” and even “value that sucks up the value creating powers” are also capital (Marx, 1959b, 794-5; Marx, 1958, 153; Marx, 571). What emerges from these diverse characterizations is a conception of many tied facets, whose sense depends upon the relations Marx believes to exist between its components: property, wage-labor, worker, his product, commodities, means of production, capitalist, money, value (the list can be made longer still). (Chapter 2, section ii)

This example demonstrates the possibility of a genuine and deep incompatibility between two social theories at the level of the assumptions they make about the nature of the world — their metaphysical theories.

So what about causal powers and causal mechanisms? The primary metaphysical commitment that the CP theorists advocate derives from their treatment of powers and essences — two characteristic ideas from Aristotle. A power is thought to inhere in a thing in a particularly deep way; it is not an accidental expression of the empirical properties of the thing but rather an essential and active expression of the nature of the thing. The causal powers theory comes down to the idea that things and structures have an active capacity to bring about certain kinds of effects. In Groff’s terms, things are not passive but rather active.

Here is how Tuukka Kaidesoja introduces the metaphysical framework of critical realism in relation to causality in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology. Kaidesoja finds that the concept of a causal power is fundamental to critical realism (105). A thing’s power is the characteristic of the world through which causal influence arises; without the concept of causal power, we would indeed be stranded in a Humean world of pure constant conjunction. Kaidesoja quotes Harre and Madden in these terms:

“X has the power to A” means “X (will)/(can) do A, in the appropriate conditions, in virtue of its intrinsic nature”. (Kaidesoja, 106)

So what about the metaphysics of the causal mechanisms theory? Generally speaking, advocates of the mechanisms approach have not been very interested in the metaphysical issues. They (we) are generally realist, so we postulate that there are real causal interactions. This is indeed a metaphysical position. But this family of thinkers tends to be mid-range realists: they want to understand the necessity of causal relations at one level as deriving from the real workings of the physical or social system a bit lower down; but they generally don’t seem to want to pose the ultimate question: how could any event or structure exert causal influence on another? So the causal mechanisms theorists are perhaps better described as scientific realists rather than philosophical or critical realists. They take the view that the world has the properties (approximately) that our best scientific theories attribute to things. (Could we call them “Galilean realists”?)

Curiously enough, this contrast seems to have a lot to do with the quibble I raised for Ruth Groff in the earlier post: whether powers should be thought to be “irreducible”. Scientific realists would say they are not irreducible; rather, we can eventually arrive at a theory (molecular, genetic, economic, psychological, rational choice, physical) that displays the processes and mechanisms through which the ascribed power flows from the arrangement and properties of the thing.

On this standpoint, powers are attributions we make to things when we don’t know quite enough about their composition to work out the physics (or sociology) of the underlying mechanisms. They do attach to the entity or structure in question, surely enough; but they do so in virtue of the physical or sociological composition of the entity, not because of some inherent metaphysical property.

We might try to reconcile these two perspectives with a few simple ideas:

  1. Entities and structures at a range of levels of being have causal powers: active capacities to influence other entities and structures.
  2. Whenever we identify a causal power of a thing, it is always open to us to ask how this power is embodied; what it is about the inner constitution of the entity that gives it this power.
  3. When we succeed in arriving at a good scientific answer to this question, we will have shown that the power in question is not irreducible; it is rather the consequence of a set of mechanisms set in play by the constitution of the entity.

So the discovery of a given causal power of a thing is not a metaphysical fundamental; it is rather an empirical scientific discovery that invites analysis into its underlying composition.

More on meso causation

A recent post considered the question, do organizations have causal powers? There I argued that they do, in a number of ways. Here I’d like to return to these claims and see how they disaggregate onto subvening circumstances, including especially patterns of individual and group activity. The italicized phrases are extracted from the earlier post.

  • First, the rules and procedures of the organization may themselves have behavioral consequences that lead consistently to a certain kind of outcome.

How do rules and procedures causally affect the behavior of the actors who participate in them? (a) Through training and inculcation. The new participant is exposed to training processes designed to lead him/her to internalize the procedures and norms governing his/her function. (b) Through formal enforcement. Supervisors are institutionally charged to enforce the rules through direct observation and feedback. (c) Through the normative example of other participants, including informal sanctions by non-supervisors for “wrong” behavior. (d) Through positive incentives administered by supervisors and mid-level functionaries. Each of these avenues for influencing the behavior of an actor within an organization depends on the actions and motivations of other actors within the organization. So we have the recursive question, what factors influence the behavior of those actors? And the answer seems to be: all actors find themselves within a dynamic system of behavior by other actors, frequently maintaining an equilibrium of reproduction of the rules and roles.

  • Second, different organizational forms may be more or less efficient at performing their tasks, leading to consequences for the people and higher-level organizations that are depending on them.

Institutions designed to do similar work may differ in their functioning because of specific differences in the implementation of roles and processes within the organization. This is a system characteristic of the particular features and interactions of the rules and processes of the organization, along with the expected behaviors of the participants. It is also a causal characteristic: implementing system A results in greater efficiency at X than implementing B. The underlying causal reality that needs explanation is how it comes to pass that participants carry out their roles as prescribed–which takes us back to the first thesis.

  • Third, the discrepancy between what the rules require of participants and what the participants actually do may have consequences for the outputs of the organization.

This causal claim highlights the difference between formal and informal procedures and practices within an organization. Informal practices can be highly regular and reproducible. In order to incorporate their implications into our analysis of the workings of the organization we need to accurately understand them; so we need to do some organizational ethnography to identify the practices of the organization. But in principle, the logic of explanation we provide on the basis of informal practices is exactly the same as those offered on the basis of the formal rules of the organization.

  • Fourth, the specific ways in which incentives, sanctions, and supervision are implemented differentiate across organizations.

This is one of the key insights of the “new institutionalism.” The specific design of the institution in terms of opportunities and incentives presented to participants makes a large difference in actors’ behavior, and consequently a large difference to the system-level performance of the institution. Tweaking the variable of the level in the organization’s hierarchy that needs to sign off on expenditures at a given level has significant effects on behavior and system properties. On the one hand, higher-level sign-off may serve to restrain spending. On the other hand, it may make the organization more unwieldy in responding to opportunities and threats.

  • Fifth, the organization has causal powers with respect to the behavior of the individuals involved in the organization.

This factor parallels thesis 1 but is meant to refer to longterm effects on behavior and personality. The idea here is that immersion in a particular organization and its culture creates a distinctive social psychology in the people who experience it. They may acquire habits of thought, ways of responding to new circumstances, higher or lower levels of trust of others, and so forth, in ways that influence their behavior in the broader society. The idea of an “organization man” falls in this category of influence. The organization influences the individual’s behavior, not just through the immediate system of rewards and punishments, but through its ability to shape his/her more permanent social psychology.

There are only two fundamental causal paths identified here. The causal properties of the organization are embodied in the patterns of coordinated actions undertaken by the actors who are involved; and these orderly patterns create system effects for the organization as a whole that can be analyzed in abstraction from the individuals whose actions constitute the micro-level of the social entity.

The most obvious causal property of an organization is bound up in the function of the organization. An organization is developed in order to bring about certain social effects: reduce pollution or crime, distribute goods throughout a population, provide services to individuals, seize and hold territory, disseminate information. These effects occur as a result of the coordinated activities of people within the organization. When organizations work correctly they bring about one set of effects; when they break down they bring about another set of effects. Here we can think about organizations in analogy with technology components like amplifiers, thermostats, stabilizers, or surge protectors. This analogy suggests we think about the causal powers of an organization at two levels: what they do (their meso-level effects) and how they do it (their micro-level sub-mechanisms).


Steinmetz on colonialism

George Steinmetz offers a comparative sociology of colonialism in The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa.  More specifically, he wants to explain differences in the implementation of “native policy” within German colonial regimes around the turn of the twentieth century.  He finds that there are significant differences across three major instances of German colonialism (Samoa, Qingdao, Southwest Africa), and he wants to know why. (For example, the Namibia regime was much more violent than the Samoa or Qingdao examples.) This is a causal question, and Steinmetz is one of the most talented sociologists of his cohort in American sociology. So it is worth looking at his reasoning in detail.

One reason this is interesting to me is that it seems to represent a hard case for the perspective of analytical sociology (linklink), with its goal of providing an overarching model of all valid sociological explanations. On its face, Steinmetz’s analysis doesn’t look much like Coleman’s boat — identify a macro pattern of interest, look for the actors whose behavior gives rise to the pattern, and try to identify individual-level circumstances that cause the pattern through the individuals’ actions.  So let’s look in a little bit of detail at the explanations that Steinmetz offers.

Here are the guiding research goals for Steinmetz’s study.

Social theorists have often treated colonialism as a monolithic object, a uniform condition. Yet even a cursory overview of the historical literature indicates that colonialism is actually an extremely capacious category, encompassing everything from pillage and massacre in the Spanish conquest of the New World to the peaceful coexistence between British rulers and Chinese subjects in late colonial Hong Kong. The colonies that made up the German overseas empire, which lasted from 1884 until the end of World War I, exemplify the enormous variability even within the more delimited category of modern colonialism. This specifically modern variant of European colonialism, as opposed to the early modern (or earlier) forms, is my focus in this book.  I have selected three colonies to illustrate the wide spectrum of colonial native policy, which I will argue below, was the core activity of the modern colonial state.  These colonies are German Southwest Africa, forerunner of modern-day Namibia; German Samoa, precursor of the contemporary nation-state of Samoa; and Kiaochow, a colony that consisted of the city of Qingdao and its surrounding hinterland in China’s Shandong Province. (1)

What I try to account for in this book — my “explanandum” — is colonial native policy. Four determining structures or causal mechanisms were especially important in each of these colonies: (1) precolonial ethnographic discourses or representations, (2) symbolic competition among colonial officials for recognition of their superior ethnographic acuity, (3) colonizers’ cross-identification with imagos of the colonized, and (4) responses by the colonized, including resistance, collaboration, and everything in between.  Two other mechanisms influenced colonial native policy to varying degrees: [5] “economic” dynamics related to capitalist profit seeking (plantation agriculture, mining, trade, and smaller-scale forms of business) and [6] the “political pressures generated by the international system of states. (2)

This book does not attempt to identify any singular, general model of colonial rule.  Indeed, general theory and general laws are widely recognized as implausible goals in the social sciences.  Historians have always preferred complex, overdetermined, conjunctural accounts, but sociologists and some other social scientists have been reluctant to abandon the chimerical goals of parsimony and “general theory.” Rather than attempt to use colonial comparisons to fabricate a uniform model of the colonial state, I will seek instead to identify a limited set of generative social structures or mechanisms and to track the ways they interacted to provide ongoing policies. Even though each instance of colonial native policy was shaped by a different constellation of influences, the four primary mechanisms named above were always present and efficacious to varying degrees. (3)

Note that Steinmetz proceeds here in a clearly comparativist fashion (three cases with salient similarities and differences); and he proceeds with the language of causal mechanism in view.  The comparativist orientation implies a desire to identify causal differences across the cases that would account for the differences in outcomes in the cases.  He suggests later in the analysis that all six factors mentioned here are causally relevant; but that the general structural causes (5 and 6) do not account for the variation in the cases.   These structural factors perhaps account for the similarities rather than the differences across the cases. But Steinmetz emphasizes repeatedly that general theories of colonialism cannot account for the wide variation that is found across these three cases.  “The patterns of variation among these three colonies are as puzzling as is the sheer degree of heterogeneity” (19).

So what kind of account does Steinmetz offer for the four key mechanisms he cites?  Consider first factor (2) above, the idea that the specifics of colonial rule depended a great deal on the circumstances of the professional and ideological “field” within which colonial administrators were recruited and served.  (Here is a posting on Bourdieu’s concept of “field”; link.)  “Social fields are organized around differences — differences of perception and practice.  It is difficult to imagine what sorts of materials actors could use in their efforts to carve out hierarchies of cultural distinction if they were faced with cultural formations as flat and uniform as Saidian ‘Orientalism'” (45-46).  The idea here is that the particular intellectual and professional environment established certain points of difference around which participants competed. These dividing lines set the terms of professional competition, and prospective colonial administrators as well as functioning administrators needed to establish their program for governance around a distinctive package of these assumptions.

Was the colonial state characterized by common perceptions of distinction and stakes of conflict? German colonial administrators did in fact compete for a specific form of cultural distinction within the ambit of the colonial state, and this struggle guided each individual toward particular kinds of native policy.  … The colonial stage thus became an exaggerated version of imperial Germany’s three-way intraelite class struggle. (48, 49)

This mechanism is a fairly clear one; and it provides a promising basis for explaining some of the otherwise puzzling aspects of colonial rule and native policy.  It derives, fundamentally, from Bourdieu’s theories of social capital.  Consider an analogy with current military policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Suppose there are two large ideas of strategy in the air, counter-insurgency and state-building.  Suppose that each of these frameworks of thought has resonance with different groups of powerful political leaders within the government.  And suppose that senior military commanders are interested in establishing their credentials as effective strategists.  It makes sense to imagine that there may be a competition for choosing on-the-ground strategies and tactics that align with the grand strategy the theater commander thinks will further his long-range career success the best.

This mechanism is consistent with an agent-centered theory of explanation: actors (administrators or generals) are immersed in a policy environment in which conflicting ideas about success are debated; the actors seek to align their actions to the framework they judge to be most likely to prevail (and preserve their careers).  No one wants to be the last Curtis LeMay in Vietnam when the prevailing view back home is “winning hearts and minds.”  The explanation postulates a social fact — the prevalence of several intellectual frameworks about the other, several ethnographic discourses; and the individual’s immersion in these discourses permits him or her to act strategically in pursuing advantageous goals.

We can often begin to understand why one strand of precolonial discourse rather than another guided colonial practice once we know who was put in charge of a given colony. (54)

So this illustrates the way that factors (1) and (2) work in Steinmetz’s explanation.  What about (3)?  This falls in the category of what Steinmetz calls “symbolic and imaginary identifications” (55).  Here Steinmetz turns away from conscious calculation and jockeying on the part of the colonial administrator in the direction of a non-rational psychology. Steinmetz draws on psychoanalytic theory and the theories of Lacan here. But it remains an agent-centered analysis.  Steinmetz refers to elements of mentality as an explanation of the administrators’ behavior, and their possession of this mentality needs its own explanation.  But what proceeds from the assumption of this mentality is straightforward; it is a projection of behavior based on a theory of the mental framework of the actor.

The fourth factor in Steinmetz’s analysis turns to the states of agency of the colonized.  Here he refers to strategies of response by the subject people to the facts of colonial rule, ranging from cooperation to resistance.

Resistance is located on the opposite side from cooperation. Colonized peoples were able to modulate and revise native policies. By signing up as a native policeman one might be able to temper colonial abuses of power. More frontal forms of resistance could bring a regime of native policy to an abrupt halt and force the colonial state to seek a new approach. (66)

This aspect of the story too is highly compatible with a microfoundations approach; it is straightforward to see how social mobilization theory can be fleshed out in ways that make it an agent-centered approach.

Here is how Steinmetz sums up his account:

The colonial state, I have argued here, can best be understood as a kind of field, one that is structured around opposing principles and interests and around conflict over specific stakes.  Actors in the field of the colonial state competed to accumulate ethnographic capital.  This field’s internal heterogeneity and the fact that a field is “a space of possibilities” with an “immense elasticity” meant that colonial policy was never a smooth, continuous process but was prone to sudden shifts in direction. The relative autonomy of the colonial government from the metropolitan state and its independence from other fields in terms of its definition of symbolic capital meant that it was, in fact, a kind of state, even if political theorists have paid little attention to it. Just as it is impossible to generalize about the contents of ethnographic discourse or the policies of the colonial state,neither can one characaterize the “mind of the colonizer” in general terms, except to say that it was as complex and internally contradictory as the subjectivity of the colonized. (517-518)

It should also be noted that a great deal of Steinmetz’s account is not explanatory, but rather descriptive and narrative.  He provides detailed accounts of the history and behavior of the colonial regimes in these three settings, and much of the value of the book indeed derives from the research underlying these descriptive accounts.

So Steinmetz’s account seems to have several important characteristics.  First, it is interested in providing a contextualized explanation of differences in nominally similar outcomes (different instances of German colonial rule).  Second, it is interested in providing an account of the causal mechanisms that shaped each of the instances, in such a way as to account for their differences.  Third, the mechanisms that he highlights are largely agent-centered mechanisms.  Fourth, the account deliberately highlights the contingency of the developments it describes.  Individuals and particular institutions play a role, as well as historical occurrences that were themselves highly contingent.  And finally, there is a pervasive use of collective concepts like field, ideology, worldview, and ethnography that play a crucial causal role in the story.  These concepts identify a supra-individual factor.  But each of them can be provided with a microfoundational account.  So Steinmetz’s analysis here seems to be largely consistent with microfoundationalism.  It diverges from analytical sociology in one important respect, however: Steinmetz does not couch his explanatory goals in terms of the idea of deriving social outcomes from individual-level actions and relations.  Rather, it is for the reader to confirm that the mechanisms cited do in fact have appropriate microfoundations.

(Steinmetz discusses his theoretical approach to colonialism in his interview included in the “interviews” page. Here is an appreciative review of The Devil’s Handwritinglink.)

Social explanation and causal mechanisms

To explain a social outcome or regularity, we need to provide an account of why and how it came about; and this means providing a causal analysis in terms of which the explanandum appears as a result.

Having a causal theory of a realm requires having an ontology: what kinds of things exist in this realm, and how do they work? Along with others, I offer a social ontology grounded in the actions and relations of socially constituted actors, which I refer to as methodological localism (link). (This is also the ontology asserted by the programme of “analytical sociology”;  link.)

This entails, basically, that we need to understand all higher-level social entities and processes as being composed of the activities and thoughts of individual agents at a local level of social interaction; we need to be attentive to the pathways of aggregation through which these local-level activities aggregate to higher-level structures; and we need to pay attention to the iterative ways in which higher-level structures shape and influence individual agents.  Social outcomes are invariably constituted by and brought into being by socially constituted, socially situated individual actors (methodological localism). Both aspects of the view are important. By referring to “social constitution” we are invoking the fact that past social arrangements have created the social actor. By referring to “social situatedness” we invoke the idea that existing social practices and rules constrain and motivate the individual actor. So this view is not reductionist, in the sense of aiming to reduce social outcomes to pre-social individual activity.

We also want to refer to supra-individual actors — firms, agencies, organizations, social movements, states. The social sciences are radically incomplete without such constructs. But all such references are bound by a requirement of microfoundations: if we attribute intentionality to a firm, we need to be able to sketch out an account of how the individuals of the firm are led to act in ways that lead to the postulated decision-making and action (link).

So, then: what is involved in asserting that social circumstance A causally produces social circumstance B? There are, of course, numerous well developed answers to this question: statistical inference based on correlations of occurrences, conditional probabilities, and necessary-sufficient condition analysis. My view, however, is that there is a more basic meaning of causation: A caused B iff there is a sequence of causal mechanisms leading from A to B. This approach is especially suitable for the social realm because, on the one hand, there are few strong statistical regularities among social outcomes, and on the other, it is feasible to identify social mechanisms through a variety of social research methods — comparative analysis, process tracing, case studies, and the like.

The social mechanisms approach (and the scientific realism that lies behind it) goes back at least as early as the late 1980s. An early statement of the view was presented in my Varieties Of Social Explanation: An Introduction To The Philosophy Of Social Science in 1991.  Mario Bunge and Jon Elster took similar positions. The view took a large step forward, on the theory side, with the publication of Hedstrom and Swedberg’s Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory (1998), and on the empirical research side with the publication of McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s Dynamics of Contention (2001). There are important differences; theorists within analytical sociology largely favor methodological individualism and mechanisms grounded in rational individuals, whereas Tilly and his colleagues favor “relational” mechanisms. But in each case the model of agent-centered explanations that either require microfoundations or are plainly compatible with such a requirement.  (Here is a recent post on causal mechanisms.)

Several social scientists have anticipated this approach through their own concrete analysis of aggregation phenomena.  A good illustration is Thomas Schelling.  His work presents a large number of examples of mundane social outcomes that he explains on the basis of simple individual-level choices and an aggregation mechanism (Micromotives and MacrobehaviorChoice and Consequence). Features of organized crime, traffic patterns, segregation, and dying seminars all come in for treatment.  Schelling demonstrates in concrete terms what sorts of things we can identify as “social mechanisms” and traces them back to the circumstances of action of individuals in social situations.

The framework of social mechanisms as a basis for social explanation raises an important question about the role and scope of generalizability that we expect from a social explanation. Briefly, the mechanisms identified here show a degree of generalizability; as McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly assert, social mechanisms can be expected to recur in other circumstances and times. But the event itself is one-of-a-kind. This is a familiar feature of Tilly’s way of thinking about contentious events as well: the American Civil War was a singular historical event. But a good explanation will invoke mechanisms that recur elsewhere. We shouldn’t expect to find general theories of civil wars; but our explanations of particular civil wars can invoke quasi-general theories of mid-level mechanisms of conflict and escalation. (Here is a recent posting on general and specific causal claims.)

Another important methodological question for this approach to social explanation is the issue of explaining general statistical patterns in social life.  What if we want to explain something more quantitative — say a gradually rising divorce rate or the finding that co-habitants before marriage have higher divorce rates than non-co-habitants? On the social mechanisms approach, we would want two things. First, we would like an agent-level mechanism that explains the statistic; and second, we would like to find a common cause if the phenomenon is similar in several countries.

Finally, the actor-based mechanisms approach invites an area of study which is now being referred to as “aggregation dynamics” (linklink).  We need to have theories and tools that permit us to aggregate different micro-level processes over time into meso- and macro-outcomes, taking into account the complexity of causal interactions in a dynamic process.  The tools of agent-based modeling are relevant here (link).