How are institutions sustained, reproduced, and changed?

Institutions are “supra-individual”, in the sense that they establish a context of identity and mental-framework formation for all individuals, and they create the environment of choice for the current actions of individuals. Further, they exercise an influence that is beyond the control of any particular individual or group of individuals. But at the same time, institutions are constituted at a given time by individuals and their mental frameworks, actions, and interactions with other individuals. This is the thrust of the idea of ontological individualism. This raises an important question for sociological theory: what are the chief mechanisms through which institutions preserve their properties over time and personnel change, and what mechanisms lead to change in institutions over time?

Consider first the ways that institutions influence individuals. Institutions establish the foundations and context of action for individuals as they conduct their daily lives. Individuals at a particular moment have acquired specific mental frameworks through which they envision the environment of action that confronts them, and this mental formation is the result of various concrete institutions: family, mosque, school, military, workplace, media. Each of these institutional settings has the effect of inculcating cognitive and affective frameworks for the individual through which he or she understands the world around him and interacts with it. Likewise, individuals occupy “roles” within diverse sets of social relationships (families, kin systems, bureaucracies). They are to some degree influenced by ambient cultural and normative assumptions that have identifiable effects on their choices and practices. Further, they are located in social networks of various kinds — professional networks, expertise and educational networks, friendships, kinship networks, political affinity networks, and so on. And it is plausible to think that these “social location” features are sufficient to account for the continuity and persistence of institutions and organizations — even postulating the assumptions of ontological individualism. It is a fundamental premise of ontological individualism, however, that the behavioral influence of institutions is conveyed by individuals; institutions are not free-standing entities with their own independent ontological status.

Take the idea of a “role” within an organization. When Alice occupies the role of assistant director of purchasing in a mid-sized business, she has specific responsibilities that were conveyed to her at the time of appointment, and reinforced through continuing supervision. She has been trained in the appropriate behaviors and skills of various parts of this role — through a university program or through the organization’s training programs. She has acquired a “practice” of good business management through her education in a business school. She has a normative system that leads her to want to act efficiently and ethically within the definition of her role. At the same time, Alice is not a robot; her desires, plans, and intentions are not wholly defined by her business role and the scheme of business behavior she has internalized. So Alice’s actions within the business environment are influenced by expectations, role definition, and supervision — but they are also influenced by her own goals, desires, and commitments. Alice is not an algorithm, and her conduct is not fully subordinated to the demands of the organization or the features of her role. And knowing that, the creators of the organization have also created mechanisms to enhance conformance — active supervision, audits, separation of duties to prevent theft, continuing training, team-building exercises, etc.

These constraints and incentives surrounding Alice’s behavior as “assistant director of purchasing” are all embodied in the actions and dispositions of other individuals in the organization. Their behavior too is loosely linked to the organization’s expectations of them; but taken together, the conduct of supervisors, auditors, fellow workers, higher-level executives, and other participants create a web of interaction and feedback that creates a degree of stability for Alice’s behavior. Alice’s conduct within the company demonstrates greater consistency than it might otherwise have. It is a “house of cards”, in James Coleman’s metaphor (link), in which the stability of the structure derives from the confluence of influences of the actions of actors surrounding each individual within the organization or institution. And this in turn accounts for the relative durability and resilience of the organization through perturbance and change of personnel: as new individuals are trained and acclimated into the roles and culture of the organization, the field of action for any particular agent remains relatively unchanged.

This is the thrust of the idea of “methodological localism” — the idea that the social world is constituted by social actors who are socially constituted and socially situated. By “socially constituted” I mean to refer to the processes of mental and emotional formation through which an infant comes to be a socialized young person and adult. And by “socially situated” I refer to the set of incentives, opportunities, and constraints within the context of which the actor chooses his or her plan of action. Schools, mosques, and families provide an example of the first kind of influence, and the rules and practices of the Congress provide an example of the second kind of influence (for elected members of Congress).

This isn’t a sharp distinction, because individuals are purposive at all stages of life, and they continue to develop habits of character and behavior long into adulthood. This means that schools both shape individual children and create an environment in which they pursue their goals; and the Congress both sets pathways of incentive and constraint through which individual members act, and also continues to shape the normative and practical mentalities of the individuals who live and work within its rules. But analytically, it is important to recognize that social arrangements influence individuals at two levels: by contributing to the formation of the cognitive, emotional, and normative frameworks within the context of which they deliberate and act, and by establishing a set of rules, opportunities, and constraints that determine the likely outcomes of the various choices they may consider at particular times.

Here are a few formulations of aspects of this conception of the socially situated individual and the stability of supra-level social structures from earlier posts.

Social actors

According to methodological localism, the “molecule” of the social world is the socially constituted, socially situated actor in ongoing relationships with other social actors. (link)Social action takes place within spaces that are themselves socially structured by the actions and purposes of others—by property, by prejudice, by law and custom, and by systems of knowledge. So our account needs to identify the local social environments through which action is structured and projected: the inter-personal networks, the systems of rules, the social institutions. The social thus has to do with the behaviorally, cognitively, and materially embodied reality of social institutions. (link)

Formation and constitution of individual actors

How are individuals formed and constituted? Methodological localism gives great importance to learning more about how individuals are formed and constituted—the concrete study of the social process of the development of the self. Here we need better accounts of social development, the acquisition of worldview, preferences, and moral frameworks, among the many other determinants of individual agency and action. What are the social institutions and influences through which individuals acquire norms, preferences, and ways of thinking? How do individuals develop cognitively, affectively, and socially? (link)
It is often useful to pay attention to the details and the differences that we find in the historical setting of important social processes and outcomes and the forms of mentality these create: the specific forms of education received by scientists, the specific social environment in which prospective administrators were socialized, the specific mental frameworks associated with this or that historically situated community. These details help us to do a much better job of understanding how the actors perceived social situations and how they chose to act within them. (link)

Institutions and norms

An institution, we might say, is an embodied set of rules, incentives, and opportunities that have the potential of influencing agents’ choices and behavior. An institution is a complex of socially embodied powers, limitations, and opportunities within which individuals pursue their lives and goals. A property system, a legal system, and a professional baseball league all represent examples of institutions. Institutions have effects that are in varying degrees independent from the individual or “larger” than the individual. Each of these social entities is embodied in the social states of a number of actors—their beliefs, intentions, reasoning, dispositions, and histories. Actors perform their actions within the context of social frameworks represented as rules, institutions, and organizations, and their actions and dispositions embody the causal effectiveness of those frameworks. And institutions influence individuals by offering incentives and constraints on their actions, by framing the knowledge and information on the basis of which they choose, and by conveying sets of normative commitments (ethical, religious, interpersonal) that influence individual action. (link)

Social action takes place within spaces that are themselves socially structured by the actions and purposes of others—by property, by prejudice, by law and custom, and by systems of knowledge. So our account needs to identify the local social environments through which action is structured and projected: the inter-personal networks, the systems of rules, the social institutions. The social thus has to do with the behaviorally, cognitively, and materially embodied reality of social institutions. An institution is a complex of socially embodied powers, limitations, and opportunities within which individuals pursue their lives and goals. A property system, a legal system, and a professional baseball league all represent examples of institutions. (link)

The reality of institutions

It is important to emphasize that ML affirms the existence of social constructs beyond the purview of the individual actor or group. Political institutions exist—and they are embodied in the actions and states of officials, citizens, criminals, and opportunistic others. These institutions have real effects on individual behavior and on social processes and outcomes—but always mediated through the structured circumstances of agency of the myriad participants in these institutions and the affected society. This perspective emphasizes the contingency of social processes, the mutability of social structures over space and time, and the variability of human social systems (norms, urban arrangements, social practices, and so on). (link)

House of cards

Anyone who accepts that social entities and forces rest upon microfoundations must agree that something like Coleman’s recursive story of self-reinforcing patterns of behavior must be correct. But this does not imply that higher-level social structures do not possess stable causal properties nonetheless. The “house-of-cards” pattern of interdependency between auditor and worker, or between server and client, helps to explain how the stable patterns of the organization are maintained; but it does not render superfluous the idea that the structure itself has causal properties or powers. (link)

Margaret Archer on social change

In Late Modernity: Trajectories towards Morphogenic Society Margaret Archer and several talented collaborators attempt to lay out a framework of thinking that will permit them to better conceptualize the nature of change the modern social world. The book continues a process of reflection and collaboration that began last year with the publication of Social Morphogenesis. Ultimately the aim is to create a full theory of “morphogenic society” based on Archer’s concepts of morphostasis and morphogenesis. The idea of a morphogenic society is the notion that something important has happened historically to change the relationship between stasis and genesis (structure and agency) in the social world, and that the modern world embodies a significantly different kind of social change than earlier epochs. (Here is a discussion of Social Morphogenesis (link), and here is an earlier discussion of Archer’s theory of morphogenesis (link).)

Here is a helpful statement of Archer’s general approach in her current work:

Both the celebration of contingency and the importance attached to acceleration are hostile to the morphogenetic approach, as a framework for explanation that generically examines the sequence {structural / cultural conditioning → social interaction → structural / cultural elaboration or stasis}. This entails examining the specific ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘whom’ and ‘how’ of particular changes or instances of morphogenesis / morphostasis. Instead, both ‘liquidity’ and ‘acceleration’ theorists eschew such specification and the ultimate aim of detecting underlying ‘generative mechanisms’ in favour of talking metaphorically about ‘flows’ and ‘speed’. Thus, both ignore the growing predominance of positive feedback over negative feedback (morphogenesis over morphostasis) as the rock-bottom mechanism that makes considering the advent of Morphogenic society (in multiple forms) worthy of being entertained — the agnostic aim of this series of books. (Late Modernity, kl 178)

This passage captures the core of the morphogenetic approach. Archer is consistent in referring to these three “moments” of the M/M sequence, which she breaks into three phases T1, T2-T3, T4:

T1 structural / cultural conditioning →
T2-T3 social interaction →
T4 structural / cultural elaboration or stasis

At the risk of over-simplifying, we might summarize her view in these terms. Her view is that each phase involves constraints on action and interaction. T1 involves the large structural and cultural contexts in which individuals take shape and act. T2-T3 involves the interactions of individuals who bear interests and group identities and who strive to bring about outcomes that favor those interests and identities. And T4 represents a new formation (elaboration) of a complex of structural and cultural constraints. (It is striking how closely this summary resembles the theory of strategic action fields put forward by Fligstein and McAdam; link.)

An important line of criticism that comes through this volume is a persistent critique of unanalyzed ideas about speed and acceleration. “The modern world changes rapidly”; what does that tell us if we haven’t specified the dimensions and clocks according to which we measure the speed of a process? So the language of speed is simply uninformative, according to Archer and her collaborators.

More specifically, Archer and her colleagues take issue with the metaphor of “liquid modernity” as a way of understanding the contemporary world.  (Here is my earlier discussion of Zygmunt Bauman’s development of this idea; link.) Archer takes aim at the intuition that the contemporary social world is highly contingent and plastic (a central theme of a number of earlier postings here). She criticizes “liquid modernity” in these terms:

Labile ‘flows’ comprehensively displaced and replaced the determinate (not deterministic) influences of social structure and cultural systems on tendential change or stability. As structure and culture were pulverised under the tidal bore of liquidity, so was agency condemned to serial self-reinvention. (kl 166)

Archer’s complaint against liquid modernity (LM), then, is what she takes to be its extreme version of plasticity on the part of structures, cultures, and actors. LM views the individual as a free-styler, pursuing fleeting purposes and impulses within fast-changing circumstances, with the result of a form of chaotic Brownian motion in the social world.

She prefers substantive analysis of the social world organized around the poles of morphostasis (the mechanisms that preserve the properties of a social structure or cultural feature) and morphogenesis (the generative mechanisms of change that work to disrupt and change the existing structure and cultural elements). Both are critical and persistent features of the social world, and it is absurd (she believes) to imagine that modernity consists exclusively of morphogenesis unbound (7).

Archer puts the central question of her current work (and that of her active collaborators) in these terms:

Is some degree of enduring stability necessary amidst intensifying social change? Do agents and actors need this in order to plan their own lives and the courses of action they will take in the social order? (kl 152)

Of course the answer to this question, when considered in its most extreme version, is “yes”, for reasons much the same as those that led Kant to believe that the categories of space, time, and causation were necessary synthetic apriori. If there were no continuing stability in the social world from one hour to the next, then planning and action would be impossible. The harder question is this: how much stability is necessary for intelligible action within the social world? And the answer seems to be, rather less than Archer believes.

An important complexity in Archer’s account of stability is the fact that she believes that the processes of change (morphogenesis) can create their own conditions of stability and continuity that transcend the traditional forms inherited from the morphogenetic past. So the opposition is not between morphostasis and morphogenesis, but between activity and various forms of stability, both morphostasis and morphogenesis. “The alternative — not always recognized — is that there are forms of ‘stabilization’ produced by morphogenesis itself that furnish an equally adequate (and more consonant) basis for planning activities” (14). And this turns out to be a point to which Archer attaches a great deal of importance (19).

Several contributions to the volume are particularly noteworthy, in addition to Archer’s own introduction and her substantive contribution on “The Generative Mechanism Re-configuring Late Modernity”.

First, Douglas Porpora’s contribution to the volume (“Contemporary Mechanisms of Social Change”) is a valuable extension of the framework. Porpora relates the morphostasis/morphogenesis approach (MM) to Marx’s famous aphorism concerning structure and agency (78). Here is my own reflection on Marx’s aphorism in a post on actor-centered history (link):

In Marx’s famous contribution to the philosophy of history, he writes that “men make their own history; but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” And circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act. It is an important circumstance that a given time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.

On this line of thought, history is a flow of human action, constrained and propelled by a shifting set of environmental conditions (material, social, epistemic). There are conditions and events that can be described in causal terms: enabling conditions, instigating conditions, cause and effect, … But here my point is to ask the reader to consider whether this language of cause and effect does not perhaps impose a discreteness of historical events that does not actually reflect the flow of history very well. History is continuous and analog; causal structures are discontinuous and digital.

What all of this suggests to me is an alternative way of thinking about history that has a different structure from the idea of history as a stream of causes and effects. This approach might be called “actor-centered history”: we explain an epoch when we have a story about what people thought and believed; what they wanted; and what social and environmental conditions framed their choices. It is a view of history that sounds more like composing a biography of a complex individual than it does telling the story of a bridge collapse. And it is a view that gives close attention to states of knowledge, ideology, and agency, as well as institutions, organizations, and structures. (Little, Understanding Society link)

This short reflection on actor-centered history seems to have significant affinities with the morphogenetic approach.

Porpora provides an analysis of four large causal mechanisms of social change in his piece:
  • capitalism
  • information, globalization, flows and networks
  • world inter-state dynamics
  • the environment and its effects
And he believes that these large causes work conjuncturally to bring about many of the large processes of change that we witness in the modern world: “Change derives from a conjuncture of different mechanisms, some but not all of which can be traced back to capitalist relations” (88).
Pierpaolo Donati’s contribution, “Morphogenic Society and the Structure of Social Relations”, is also of interest. Donati focuses on the nature of social relations as the “connectors that mediate between agency and social structure” (143). Though he does not use the terminology, it is possible to regard his work here as an effort to provide some of the microfoundations of the processes of morphogenesis that are postulated by Archer’s approach. Donati refers to the social relation as the “molecule of the social” (153), a concept that I’ve turned to in my explication of the idea of methodological localism (link). This volume, like its companion, Social Morphogenesis, is an impressive demonstration of the value of collaborative research in social theory and the philosophy of social science. It is evident that the contributors to the two volumes have developed their ideas in interaction with each other, and the framework has acquired a great deal of substance and coherence as a result.

Mohamed Cherkaoui on the micro-macro debate

The eminent French sociologist Mohamed Cherkaoui addresses the problem of delineating the micro-macro distinction in several works. Since Cherkaoui’s empirical research on social stratification and the educational system seems often to bridge between micro and macro, his views are of interest.

Cherkaoui’s analysis is presented in English primarily in three places, “The individual and the collective” (European Review 11:4 (2003)), “Macrosociology-microsociology” (International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Elsevier (2001), 9117-22), and “Micro-Macro Transitions: Limits of Rational Choice Theory in James Coleman’s ‘Foundations of Social Theory'” (link).

First, here is his paraphrase of the distinction as it is usually interpreted:

In essence, microsociology refers to the sociology of the individual, in isolation from his interactive groups. The macro level refers to the generality of persons in a situation. (I-C, 489)

A sociologist operates on the micrological level when he seeks to set up empirically the existence and measure the strength of the relation between the educational attainment and the occupational status of individuals. Whatever statistical analysis is used, this statement remains on the micro level inasmuch as it assumes that individuals are independent from each other in the same way that educational levels and professions are independent. (I-C, 490)

Fundamentally, he is asserting that “micro” is equated with “isolated purposive individual.” Cherkaoui is critical of this approach to sociological research because it deliberately ignores “interdependence” — the fact that individuals and their social properties are related to the behavior and properties of other individuals. Individuals must be treated in context; they should not be “de-contextualized” by sociological studies.

This criticism seems to be valid for a subset of social theorists, including especially those who proceed on the basis of the assumptions of rational choice theory (including James Coleman; see Cherkaoui’s critique of Coleman here). But it is not valid for another important group of “micro-sociologists”, including especially Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel and advocates of ethnomethodology. These sociologists look at the individual; but they are fully committed to doing so in a thick and contextualized way. We don’t find any isolated individuals in Goffman and Garfinkel; rather, we find waiters, inmates, jurors, professors, and disaffected young people; and we find careful sociological observation of their behavior within specific institutional and normative contexts. An actor-centered sociology does not have to be based on a rational-choice model of the actor, and it isn’t forced to ignore interactions and relationships among actors as they go through their social lives. So one quick rebuttal to Cherkaoui’s argument is that “micro”-sociology does not equate to “isolated individual”-sociology. (This is the point of my own construct of “methodological localism”, looking at individuals as socially situated and socially constituted; link.) Actor-centered sociology is not the same as decontextualized methodological individualism (link).

Now let’s turn to the more extensive treatment is the entry in the International Encyclopedia.

Macrosociology generally refers to the study of a host of social phenomena covering wide areas over long periods of time. In contrast, microsociology would rather focus on specific phenomena, involving only limed groups of individuals such as family interactions or face-to-face relations. The theories and concepts of macrosociology operate on a systemic level and use aggregated data, whereas those of microsociology are confined to the individual level. (M-M, 9117)

In this essay Cherkaoui identifies three basic approaches to the micro-macro relation.

V1. The first is macro-centered; sociology looks for causal relations between one set of macro facts and another. “[The first approach] … consists of analyzing the relations between a given social phenomenon and indepdendent social factors” (9117). This approach tends to disregard the micro; it is oblivious to the need for micro-foundations and lower-level mechanisms.

V2. The second attempts to explain macro characteristics on the basis of the aggregate effects of the micro characteristics. “The second procedure consists of collecting observations at an infrasystemic level and developing hypotheses on the basis of such units (individuals, groups, institutions), with the purpose of explaining systemic relations through an appropriate synthesis of these observations” (9118). This approach conforms to the logic represented by Coleman’s Boat. It presents the problem of social explanation as one of aggregation of social phenomena from the behavior of rational actors at the micro level.

V3. The third is what we might call “formal-structural”: it explains characteristics at the macro level by analyzing the structure and organization of the macro system. Here it is the nature and topology of the positions within the social structure that are of interest. “The third approach … is to analyze the effects due to the nature of the positions and distributions of certain variables on the behavior of the system’s component units without formulating hypotheses about individuals” (9118). This is reminiscent of what Thomas Schelling referred to as the “mathematics of musical chairs” in Micromotives and Macrobehavior. It is the characteristics of the workings (functioning) of the social system that provide the basis of social explanation.

Cherkaoui sums up his view of the relation between micro-sociology and macro-sociology in these terms:

The macrostructuralist project [V1] is limited to certain aspects of social reality. It cannot, any more than any other theory, offer a solution to the problem of the links between the micro and the macro. While the rational choice theory [V2] presents an undeniable advantage over other theories, it cannot serve as a universal solution: presenting it as unconditionally valid makes it vulnerable to the same dangers other theories have encountered. As for functionalism [V3], its error was to yield to the temptation of hegemony; it claimed the title of general theory of social systems, when some of its principles are only valid for particular, tightly circumscribed domains. This means that there is a right way of using functionalism and normative theories, just as there is a wrong way of using such strong, all-encompassing theories. There can be no single solution to the problem of the links between micro- and macrosociology, any more than there can be a single mode for explaining all phenomena (the first of these problems being only an aspect of the second). (9120)

Cherkaoui’s critique of Coleman is also relevant to this issue, since Coleman proceeds with explanations moving from micro to macro; or from rational actors to social properties.

My third and last remark is that in Coleman’s thinking, as in that of many rational choice theorists, explanation remains purely speculative. With a few exceptions, such as the historical example of “live and let live” borrowed from Ashworth, we do not have sufficient empirical data on the social processes leading to norm emergence. Suppose we acknowledge that norms are intentionally produced and that individuals, who initiate and maintain them, benefit from behaving in compliance with norms for fear of punishment; suppose that the externalities produced by actions are among the conditions for norm emergence; suppose further that we acknowledge that bilateral exchange or the market are not able to regulate behavior. All these conditions, and the theorem of norm existence, are still no more than primitive propositions for a simulation model that could only generate theoretical data. (98)

An important implication of this passage, and the analysis offered in the first two articles, is that there is no simple answer to the question, what is the relation between micro and macro in the social world? Here is Cherkaoui’s alternative to Coleman’s Boat in application to Weber’s theory of the Protestant Ethic. This diagram indicates a substantially more complex relationship between macro and micro causal factors. And it stipulates causal processes that move back and forth between higher and lower levels of social organization and action.

(Here is an interesting interview with Cherkaoui conducted by Hamid Berrada (in French).)


Social embeddedness and methodological localism

Methodological localism emphasizes two ways in which actors are socially embedded. Actors are socially situated and socially constituted.

Socially situated. In any given situation individuals are embedded within a set of social relations and institutions that create opportunities and costs for them. They have friends and enemies, they have bosses and workers, they have neighbors and co-religionists, they have families. All of these relations and institutions serve to constitute the environment within which they make plans and perform their actions. This complex setting of opportunities and regulative systems falls at the center of research for the new institutionalism (Brinton and Nee 1998, The New Institutionalism in Sociology; Ostrom 1990, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action ). And, as the new institutionalists rightly insist, there are very important variations across social space in the details of the workings of institutions and social networks. Two adjacent California counties may have slightly different rules of livestock liability; and these rule differences will lead to different patterns of behavior by ranchers (Ellickson 1986, “Of Coase and Cattle”; link). We might call this the “structure” factor.

Socially constituted. The second form of social embeddedness is deeper and more persistent. The individual’s values, commitments, emotions, social ideals, repertoires of action, scripts of behavior, and ways of conceiving of the world are themselves the products of a lifetime of local social experiences. Individuals are socialized throughout their childhoods and adult lives into specific ways of thinking and acting, and the mosaic of these experiences serves to constitute the moral, emotional, and practical characteristics of the individual’s social-cognitive system. The way the individual thinks about the social world is itself a feature of his/her social setting. Moreover, the mechanisms of socialization—schools, religious institutions, military experience, playgrounds, families—are themselves concrete social phenomena that are amenable to empirical sociological investigation, and they too are locally embodied. If we want to know why affluent Pakistani teenagers applauded on Facebook the murder of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer for his opposition to harsh blasphemy laws, then we need to look in detail at the ways in which the political and religious attitudes of this segment of Pakistani society took shape (link). We might call this the “identity” factor.

These two aspects of embeddedness provide the foundation for rather different kinds of social explanation and inquiry.  The first aspect of social embeddedness is entirely compatible with a neutral and universal theory of the agent — including rational choice theory in all its variants.  The actor is assumed to be configured in the same way in all social contexts; what differs is the environment of constraint and opportunity that he or she confronts.  This is in fact the approach taken by most scholars in the paradigm of the new institutionalism, it is the framework offered by James Coleman in Foundations of Social Theory, and it is also compatible with what analytical sociologists refer to as “structural individualism”. It also supports the model of “aggregative” explanation — explain an outcome as the result of the purposive actions of individuals responding to opportunities and constraints.

The second aspect, by contrast, assumes that human actors are to some important degree “plastic”, and they take shape in different ways in different social settings.  The developmental context — the series of historically specific experiences the individual has as he/she develops personality and identity — leads to important variations in personality and agency in different settings. So just knowing that the local social structure has a certain set of characteristics — the specifics of a share-cropping regime, let us say — doesn’t allow us to infer how things will work out. We also need to know the features of identity, perception, motivation, and reasoning that characterize the local people before we can work out how they will process the features of the structure in which they find themselves. This insight suggests a research approach that drills down into the specific features of agency that are at work in a situation, and then try to determine how actors with these features will interact socially and collectively.

If both actors and structures differ substantially across social settings, then there are many possible pathways that interactions and processes can take. Suppose for the sake of example that there are three “types” of actors:

  1. prudent, self-interested, calculating
  2. strongly attached to religious duty
  3. strongly attached to norms of social solidarity and perceived fairness

Now suppose we are interested in working out the likely consequences of a certain social situation — let us say, a call for a workers’ strike in resistance to the company’s cutting wages. Mancur Olson’s classic argument in The Logic of Collective Action considers exactly this kind of case based on assumptions reflecting the first form of agency, and he concludes that collective action will fail. So the prediction is that the call for a strike will fail. But what if a significant number of workers are type-3 actors? In this case the likelihood of successful collective action is much greater, because organizers can demonstrate that all workers are better off if the group maintains solidarity, and that it is unfair to withhold support while others are coming forward. This argument doesn’t affect the type-1 actor; but it does motivate the type-3 actor.

So what are the social circumstances in which we are likely to find type-3 actors rather than type-1 actors? It has sometimes been maintained that miners have a high degree of solidarity relative to other groups of workers. They have shared circumstances of risk underground that make them viscerally aware of their dependence on the support of others; they have a culture of songs and stories that favor solidarity; and they have a history of successful collective action. So the argument is that children who grow up in this environment confront a converging set of influences that amplify the “solidarity” functions of agency and damp down the “me-first” functions. Miner communities, then, cultivate a particular kind of actors. (A book that tries to do a more careful job of evaluating miners’ solidarity is Roy Church and Quentin Outram, Strikes and Solidarity: Coalfield Conflict in Britain, 1889-1966, reviewed here.)


detail: Lynn Cazabon photo

The philosophy of social science encompasses several important tasks, and key among them is to provide theories of social ontology and social explanation. What is the nature of social entities? What is needed in order to substantiate a claim of social causation? What constitutes an acceptable social explanation?

The concept of microfoundations is relevant to each of these domains. A microfoundation is:

a specification of the ways in which the properties and structure of a higher-level entity are produced by the activities and properties of lower-level entities.

In the case of the social sciences, this amounts to:

a specification of the ways that properties, structural features, and causal powers of a social entity are produced and reproduced by the actions and dispositions of socially situated individuals.

This concept is relevant to social ontology in this way. Social entities are understood to be compositional; they are assemblages constituted and maintained by the mentality and actions of individuals. So providing an account of the microfoundations of a structure or causal connection — say a paramilitary organization or of the causal connection between high interest rates and the incidence of alcohol abuse — is a specification of the composition of the social-level fact. It is a description of the agent-level relationships and patterns of behavior that cohere in such a way as to bring about the higher-level structure or causal relationship.

The concept of microfoundations is directly relevant to explanation. If we assert a causal or explanatory relation between one social entity or condition and another, we must be prepared to offer a credible sketch of the ways in which this influence is conveyed through the mentalities and actions of individuals.

Much turns, however, on what precisely we mean to require of a satisfactory explanation: a full specification of the microfoundations in every case, or a sketch of the way that a given social-level process might readily be embodied in individual-level activities. If we go with the first version, we are licensing a fair amount of autonomy for the social-level explanation; whereas if we go with the second version, we are tending towards a requirement of reductionism from higher to lower levels in every case. I am inclined to interpret the requirement in the first way; it doesn’t seem necessary to disaggregate every claim like “organizational deficiencies at the Bhopal chemical plant caused the devastating chemical spill” onto specific individual-level activities. We understand pretty well, in a generic way, what the microfoundations of organizations are, and it isn’t necessary to provide a detailed account in order to have a satisfactory explanation.


The ontological position associated with microfoundationalism falls in the general area of methodological individualism and reductionism, in that it insists on the compositional nature of the social. However, there is a recursive aspect of the theory that distinguishes it from strict reductionism. The individuals to which microfoundations are traced are not a-social; rather, their psychology, beliefs and motives are constituted and shaped by the social forces they and others constitute. So the microfoundational account of the workings of a paramilitary organization may well refer to the locally embodied effects of that organization on the current psychology of the members of the organization; and their behavior in turn reproduces the organization in the next iteration. This is why I prefer the idea of methodological localism over that of methodological individualism (link).

The theory of microfoundations is also very consistent with the idea of social mechanisms. When we ask about the microfoundations of a social process, we are asking about the mechanisms that exist at a lower level that create and maintain the social process.


One way of motivating the theory of microfoundations is to observe that it is a prescription against “magical thinking” in the social realm. There is no “social stuff” that has its own persistent causal and structural characteristics; rather, all social phenomena are constituted by patterns of behavior and thought of populations of individual human beings. And likewise, social events and structures do not have inherently social causal properties; rather, the causal properties of a social structure or event are constituted by the patterns of behavior and thought of the individuals who constitute them and nothing else.

The theory of supervenience is often invoked to express the idea that social entities and properties are constituted by individuals. (Jaegwon Kim is the primary creator of the theory of supervenience in the philosophy of mind; Supervenience and Mind: Selected Philosophical Essays.) This basic idea is expressed as:

No difference at level N without some difference at lower level K.

The advantage of the theory of supervenience is that it provides a way of recognizing the compositional nature of higher-level entities without presupposing explanatory reductionism from one level to the lower level.

The explicit idea of microfoundations appears to have been first developed in the domain of microeconomics; there it referred to the necessity of deriving macroeconomic phenomena from the premises of rational economic behavior (Weintraub, Microfoundations: The Compatibility of Microeconomics and Macroeconomics). (Here is an interesting article by van den Bergh and Gowdy on recent analysis of the microfoundations debate in economics.) Maarten Jansen describes the theory of microfoundations in economics in his entry in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law:

The quest to understand microfoundations is an effort to understand aggregate economic phenomena in terms of the behavior of individual economic entities and their interactions. These interactions can involve both market and non-market interactions. The quest for microfoundations grew out of the widely felt, but rarely explicitly stated, desire to stick to the position of methodological individualism …, and also out of the growing uneasiness among economists in the late 1950s and 1960s with the co-existence of two subdisciplines, namely microeconomics and macroeconomics, both aiming at explaining features of the economy as a whole. Methodological individualism, as explained in the entry on the topic, is the view according to which proper explanations in the social sciences are those that are grounded in individual motivations and their behavior.

The idea of microfoundations is now important in many areas of the social sciences, including especially sociology and political science. Particularly important were ideas formulated by James Coleman in Foundations of Social Theory. Coleman doesn’t use the term “microfoundations” explicitly in this work, but his analysis of the relationship between the macro and the micro seems to imply a requirement of providing microfoundations as a condition on good explanations in the social sciences. The Coleman boat (link) seems to be a graphical way of representing the microfoundations of a macro-level fact.

A second mode of explanation of the behavior of social systems entails examining processes internal to the system, involving its component parts, or units at a level below that of the system. The prototypical case is that in which the component parts are individuals who are members of the social system. In other cases the component parts may be institutions within the system or subgroups that are part of the system. In all cases the analysis can be seen as moving to a lower level than that of the system, explaining the behavior of the system by recourse to the behavior of its parts. This mode of explanation is not uniquely quantitative or uniquely qualitative, but may be either. … I call [this] the internal analysis of system behavior. (2)

Coleman’s view here is complex, though, and isn’t entirely unambiguous. Consider this qualification a few pages later, which refers unexpectedly to “emergent phenomena” and intermediate levels of explanatory mechanisms between the macro and the micro:

Those readers familiar with debates and discussions on methodological holism and methodological individualism will recognize that the position taken above on explanation is a variant of methodological individualism. But it is a special variant. No assumption is made that the explanation of systemic behavior consists of nothing more than individual actions and orientations, taken in aggregate. The interaction among individuals is seen to result in emergent phenomena at the system level, that is, phenomena that were neither intended nor predicted by the individuals. Furthermore, there is no implication that for a given purpose an explanation must be taken all the way to the individual level to be satisfactory. The criterion is instead pragmatic. (5)

Other more explicit advocates of the microfoundations principle are Jon Elster, John Roemer, Adam Przeworski, and other contributors to the theories of analytical Marxism (Analytical Marxism). Here is how I attempted to synthesize some of this thinking in 1994:

Marxist thinkers have argued that macro-explanations stand in need of microfoundations: detailed accounts of the pathways by which macro-level social patterns come about. These theorists have held that it is necessary to provide an account of the circumstsances of individual choice and action that give rise to aggregate patterns if macro-explanations are to be adequate. Thus in order to explain the policies of the capitalist state it is not sufficient to observe that this state tends to serve capitalist interests; we need to have an account of the processes through which state policies are shaped or controlled so as to produce this outcome. (“Microfoundations of Marxism,” reprinted in D. Little, Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation, 4)

As noted in a prior post, the idea of microfoundations is also a core constituent of the methodology of analytical sociology (Peter Hedström, Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology).

In short, a fairly wide range of social science research today embraces the general idea of providing microfoundations for macro-level assertions. And this seems to be a very reasonable requirement, given what we know about how social entities, processes, and forces are composed.

Dissecting the social


The past dozen years or so have witnessed the emergence of a distinctive approach to the social sciences that its practitioners refer to as “analytical sociology.” Peter Hedström’s Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology (2005) serves as a manifesto for the approach, and Pierre Demeulenaere, ed., Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms, and Peter Hedström and Peter Bearman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology provide substantive foundations for several areas of research within this approach.  And the European Network of Analytical Sociologists provides an institutional framework within which research approaches and findings can be shared (link).

Hedström describes the analytical sociology approach in these terms:

Although the term analytical sociology is not commonly used, the type of sociology designated by the term has an important history that can be traced back to the works of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sociologists such as Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville, and to prominent mid-twentieth-century sociologists such as the early Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton. Among contemporary social scientists, four in particular have profoundly influenced the analytical approach.  They are Jon Elster, Raymond Boudon, Thomas Schelling and James Coleman. (kl 113)

One important characteristic of the analytical approach is that it aims to gain understanding by dissecting the social phenomena to be explained.  To dissect, as the term is used here, is to decompose a complex totality into its constituent entities and activities and then to bring into focus what is believed to be its most essential elements. (kl 65)

And here is how Hedström and Bearman describe the approach in the Handbook:

Analytical sociology is concerned first and foremost with explaining important social facts such as network structures, patterns of residential segregation, typical beliefs, cultural tastes, common ways of acting, and so forth. It explains such facts not merely by relating them to other social facts — an exercise that does not provide an explanation — but by detailing in clear and precise ways the mechanisms through which the social facts under consideration are brought about.  In short, analytical sociology is a strategy for understanding the social world. (3-4)

Two interrelated aspects are of particular importance: the explanatory principles guiding the approach and the type of explanatory factors being evoked. Analytical sociology explains by detailing mechanisms through which social facts are brought about, and these mechanisms invariably refer to individuals’ actions and the relations that link actors to one another. (4)

In my assessment, AS rests on three central ideas.

First, there is the idea that social outcomes need to be explained on the basis of the actions of individuals.  This position is referred to variously as methodological individualismmethodological localism, or microfoundationalism.  It is often illustrated by reference to “Coleman’s Boat” in James Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory (1994:8) describing the relationship that ought to exist between macro and micro social phenomena:



The diagram indicates the relationship between macro-factors (Protestant religious doctrine, capitalism) and the micro factors that underlie their causal relation (values, economic behavior).  Here are a few of Hedström’s formulations of this ontological position:

In sociological inquiries, however, the core entity always tends to be the actors in the social system being analyzed, and the core activity tends to be the actions of these actors. (kl 106)

To be explanatory a theory must specify the set of causal mechanisms that are likely to have brought about the change, and this requires one to demonstrate how macro states at one point in time influence individuals’ actions, and how these actions bring about new macro states at a later point in time. (kl 143)

Further, Hedström is drawn to a broad version of rational-choice theory — what he calls the “Desire-Belief-Opportunity theory”.

Desires (D), beliefs (B) and opportunities (O) are the primary theoretical terms upon which the analysis of action and interaction will be based.  … The desires, beliefs and opportunities of an actor are here seen as the proximate causes of the actor’s action. (kl 507)

This is a variant of rational choice theory, because the actor’s choice is interpreted along these lines: given the desires the actor possesses, given the beliefs he/she has about the environment of choice, and given the opportunities he/she confronts, action A is a sensible way of satisfying the desires. It is worth pointing out that it is possible to be microfoundationalist about macro outcomes while not assuming that individual actions are driven by rational calculations. Microfoundationalism is distinct from the assumption of individual rationality.

Second is the idea that social actors are socially situated and socially constructed; the values, perceptions, emotions, and modes of reasoning of the actor are influenced by social institutions, and their current behavior is constrained and incented by existing institutions. (This position has a lot in common with the methodological localism that I’ve defended.) Practitioners of analytical sociology are not reductionist about social behavior, at least in the way that economists tend to be; they want to leave room conceptually for the observation that social structures and norms influence individual behavior and that individuals are not unadorned utility maximizers. (Gary Becker’s effort to explain much of social life on the basis of the premise of maximizing utility is an example of the reductionist tendency of purist rational choice theory; Uncommon Sense: Economic Insights, from Marriage to Terrorism.) In the Hedström-Bearman introduction to the Handbook they put the point this way:

Structural individualism is a methodological doctrine according to which social facts should be explained as the intended or unintended outcomes of individuals’ actions. Structural individualism differs from traditional methodological individualism in attributing substantial explanatory importance to the social structures in which individuals are embedded. (4)

This is a direction of thought that is not well advanced within analytical sociology, but would repay further research.  There is no reason why a microfoundational approach should not take seriously the causal dynamics of identity formation and the formation of the individual’s cognitive, practical, and emotional frameworks.  These are relevant to behavior, and they are plainly driven by concrete social processes and institutions.

Third, and most distinctive, is the idea that social explanations need to be grounded in a hypothesis about the concrete social causal mechanisms that constitute the causal connection between one event and another. Mechanisms rather than regularities or necessary/sufficient conditions provide the fundamental grounding of causal relations and need to be at the center of causal research.  (This is a position developed and discussed many times in this blog; thread.) This approach has several intellectual foundations, but one is the tradition of critical realism and some of the ideas developed by Roy Bhaskar (A Realist Theory of Science). Hedström advocates for a theory of causal explanation that is grounded in the idea of a causal mechanism:

The position taken here, rather, is that mechanism-based explanations are the most appropriate type of explanations for the social sciences.  The core idea behind the mechanism approach is that we explain a social phenomenon by referring to a constellation of entities and activities, typically actors and their actions, that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about the type of phenomenon we seek to explain. (kl 65)

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

In addition to these three orienting frameworks for analytical sociology, there is a fourth characteristic that should be mentioned.  This is the idea that the tools of computer-based simulation of the aggregate consequences of individual behavior can be a very powerful tool for sociological research and explanation.  So the tools of agent-based modeling and other simulations of complex systems have a very natural place within the armoire of analytical sociology.

In short, analytical sociology is a compact, clear approach to the problem of understanding social outcomes.  It lays the ground for the productive body of research questions associated with the “aggregation dynamics” research program (link).  There is active, innovative research being done within this framework of ideas, especially in Germany, Sweden, and Great Britain.  And its clarity permits, in turn, the formulation of rather specific critiques from researchers in other sociological traditions who reject one or another of the key components.  (This is the thrust of Andrew Abbott’s article on mechanisms, discussed previously.)

(An earlier post described John Levi Martin’s effort to show how social structures come to be as the result of the accretion of patterns of individual social interaction.  Where Levi Martin proceeds from micro to macro through aggregation, Hedström proceeds from macro to micro through disaggregation (or dissection, in his words). But both are fundamentally interested in analyzing the micro-macro link.)




Making structures

John Levi Martin’s Social Structures (2009) takes an innovative approach to the question, “where do structures come from?” His approach is aggregative: he wants to see how institutions and structures accrete from features of individual relationships. (Here is an earlier post on Aggregation Dynamics.) He writes in the Preface:

More generally, the structures we see around us — up to and including the state organizations that first inspired analogies to organismic structures — in most cases also developed from smaller components. These components in turn may be residues of a shattered former large-scale structure, or, more interestingly, they may have been generated from even smaller units, namely interpersonal relationships. Could we reconstruct the process, at least analytically, whereby individual relationships combine to form structural units, and these structural units then aggregate to form large-scale structures? (kindle loc 71)

This book is thus an attempt to begin an analysis of the structural tendencies inherent in certain forms of relationships, and their eventual consequences up to and including some of the structures that first impressed Spencer and the other organismic thinkers. (kindle loc 113)

There is a cumulative logic to L-M’s account of structures, from local (cliques, pecking orders) to meso (patron-client systems, serfdom) to macro (command army, political party). In this way L-M attempts to deliver on the promise of giving an aggregative account of social structures at every level, stemming from patterns of individual interaction. Like Thomas Schelling, he wants to show how important features of macro social structures emerge from features of individual agency and interaction; and further, he wants to derive some of the dynamic properties of these higher-level configurations.

Here is how Levi Martin characterizes an institution:

An institution exists when interactants subjectively understand the formal pattern in terms of the content of the relationships. (kl 167)

In other words, an institution (in this sense, anyway), codifies and formalizes individual relationships, with a recursive effect backwards onto the participants.  He illustrates this concept through a brief discussion of “marriage” as an institution. “This content my be seen as the translation of the formal characteristics of marriage as a set of dyads into a subjective sense of what marriage ‘is all about’: trust, commitment, exclusivity, and so on” (kl 167).

This is a somewhat atypical conception of institutions. His conception of social structure is also somewhat unique:

To preserve such a distinct sense of “structure,” I propose that we begin by considering social structure simply as regular patterns of interaction, and leave to the side the question of why these patterns exist. (kl 248)

Here the operative words are patterns and interactions: interactions invoke particular human relationships, and patterns invoke the idea of a level of intra-social similarity among some kinds of interactions and relationships.

Levi Martin’s approach takes inspiration from Simmel’s idea that social structures are the “crystallization” of individual social interactions (kl 127). In its most abstract version, Levi Martin wants to discover the topologies of relationships that are implied by certain kinds of social interactions — friendship, marriage, fealty, dominance. These relationships have formal properties such as symmetry, equality, and transitivity and their opposites that have topological implications for the aggregates of individuals bearing these relationships. L-M demonstrates that the agglomerates begin to look like identifiable social arrangements — cliques, patron-client systems, and mass political parties.

This part of the theory is formal and mathematical. What is particularly original here is L-M’s ability to conjoin this style of analysis with detailed historical examples exemplifying the emergence of the type of social structure hypothesized by the formal analysis. The abstract logic of a command army is exemplified by a careful analysis of the organization of the Roman and American armies and the imperatives of coordination and effectiveness in conflict that led to these organizational features.

In short, both empirically and methodologically, this is a pathbreaking book that repays close attention.

Scenario-based projections of social processes

As we have noted in previous posts, social outcomes are highly path-dependent and contingent (linklinklinklink). This implies that it is difficult to predict the consequences of even a single causal intervention within a complex social environment including numerous actors — say, a new land use policy, a new state tax on services, or a sweeping cap-and-trade policy on CO2 emissions. And yet policy changes are specifically designed and chosen in order to bring about certain kinds of outcomes. We care about the future; we adopt policies to improve this or that feature of the future; and yet we have a hard time providing a justified forecast of the consequences of the policy.

This difficulty doesn’t only affect policy choices; it also pertains to large interventions like the democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. There are too many imponderable factors — the behavior of the military, the reactions of other governments, the consequent strategies of internal political actors and parties (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) — so activists and academic experts alike are forced to concede that they don’t really know what the consequences will be.

One part of this imponderability derives from the fact that social changes are conveyed through sets of individual and collective actors. The actors have a variety of motives and modes of reasoning, and the collective actors are forced to somehow aggregate the actions and wants of subordinate actors. And it isn’t possible to anticipate with confidence the choices that the actors will make in response to changing circumstances. At a very high level of abstraction, it is the task of game theory to model strategic decision-making over a sequence of choices (problems of strategic rationality); but the tools of game theory are too abstract to allow modeling of specific complex social interactions.

A second feature of unpredictability in extended social processes derives from the fact that the agents themselves are not fixed and constant throughout the process. The experience of democracy activism potentially changes the agent profoundly — so the expectations we would have had of his/her choices at the beginning may be very poorly grounded by the middle and end. Some possible changes may make a very large difference in outcomes — actors may become more committed, more open to violence, more ready to compromise, more understanding of the grievances of other groups, … This is sometimes described as endogeneity — the causal components themselves change their characteristics as a consequence of the process.

So the actors change through the social process; but the same is often true of the social organizations and institutions that are involved in the process. Take contentious politics — it may be that a round of protests begins around a couple of loose pre-existing organizations. As actors seek to achieve their political goals through collective action, they make use of the organizations for their communications and mobilization resources. But some actors may then also attempt to transform the organization itself — to make it more effective or to make it more accommodating to the political objectives of this particular group of activists. (Think of Lenin as a revolutionary organization innovator.) And through their struggles, they may elicit changes in the organizations of the “forces of order” — the police may create new tactics (kettling) and new sub-organizations (specialized intelligence units). So the process of change is likely enough to transform all the causal components as well — the agents and their motivations as well as the surrounding institutions of mobilization and control. Rather than a set of billiard balls and iron rods with fixed properties and predictable aggregate consequences, we find a fluid situation in which the causal properties of each of the components of the process are themselves changing.

One way of trying to handle the indeterminacy and causal complexity of these sorts of causal processes is to give up on the goal of arriving at specific “point” predictions about outcomes and instead concentrate on tracing out a large number of possible scenarios, beginning with the circumstances, actors, and structures on the ground. In some circumstances we may find that there is a very wide range of possible outcomes; but we may find that a large percentage of the feasible scenarios or pathways fall within a much narrower range. This kind of reasoning is familiar to economists and financial analysts in the form of Monte Carlo simulations. And it is possible that the approach can be used for modeling likely outcomes in more complex social processes as well — war and peace, ethnic conflict, climate change, or democracy movements.

Agent-based modeling is one component of approaches like these (link).  This means taking into account a wide range of social factors — agents, groups, organizations, institutions, states, popular movements, and then modeling the consequences of these initial assumptions. Robert Axelrod and colleagues have applied a variety of modeling techniques to these efforts (link).

Another interesting effort to carry out such an effort is underway at the RAND Pardee Center, summarized in a white paper called Shaping the Next One Hundred Years: New Methods for Quantitative, Long-Term Policy Analysis. Here is how the lead investigators describe the overall strategy of the effort:

This report describes and demonstrates a new, quantitative approach to long-term policy analysis (LTPA).  These robust decisionmaking methods aim to greatly enhance and support humans’ innate decisionmaking capabilities with powerful quantitative analytic tools similar to those that have demonstrated unparalleled effectiveness when applied to more circumscribed decision problems.  By reframing the question “What will the long-term future bring?” as “How can we choose actions today that will be consistent with our long-term interests?” robust decisionmaking can harness the heretofore unavailable capabilities of modern computers to grapple directly with the inherent difficulty of accurate long-term prediction that has bedeviled previous approaches to LTPA. (iii)

LTPA is an important example of a class of problems requiring decisionmaking under conditions of  deep uncertainty—that is, where analysts do not know, or the parties to a decision cannot agree on, (1) the appropriate conceptual models that describe the relationships among the key driving forces that will shape the long-term future, (2) the probability distributions used to represent uncertainty about key variables and parameters in the mathematical representations of these conceptual models, and/or (3) how to value the desirability of alternative outcomes. (iii)

And here, in a nutshell, is how the approach is supposed to work:

This study proposes four key elements of successful LTPA:

• Consider large ensembles (hundreds to millions) of scenarios.
• Seek robust, not optimal, strategies.
• Achieve robustness with adaptivity.
• Design analysis for interactive exploration of the multiplicity of plausible futures.

These elements are implemented through an iterative process in which the computer helps humans create a large ensemble of plausible scenarios, where each scenario represents one guess about how the world works (a future state of the world) and one choice of many alternative strategies that might be adopted to influence outcomes. Ideally, such ensembles will contain a sufficiently wide range of plausible futures that one will match whatever future, surprising or not, does occur—at least close enough for the purposes of crafting policies robust against it.  (xiii)

Thus, computer-guided exploration of scenario and decision spaces can provide a prosthesis for the imagination, helping humans, working individually or in groups, to discover adaptive near-term strategies that are robust over large ensembles of plausible futures. (xiv)

The hard work of this approach is to identify the characteristics of policy levers, exogenous uncertainties, measures, and relationship (XLRM).  Then the analysis turns to identifying a very large number of possible scenarios, depending on the initial conditions and the properties of the actors and organizations.  (This aspect of the analysis is analogous to multiple plays of a simulation game like SimCity.) Finally, the approach requires aggregating the large number of scenarios to allow the analysis to reach some conclusions about the distribution of futures entailed by the starting position and the characteristics of the actors and institutions.  And the method attempts to assign a measure of “regret” to outcomes, in order to assess the policy steps that might be taken today that lead to the least regrettable outcomes in the distant future.

It appears, then, that there are computational tools and methods that may prove useful for social explanation and social prediction — not of single outcomes, but of the range of outcomes that may be associated with a set of interventions, actors, and institutions.

Spartacus, Kitty Genovese, and social explanation


What is most interesting in paying attention to social life is noticing the surprising outcomes that often materialize from a number of uncoordinated choices and actions by independent individuals. We want to understand why and how the aggregate-level social fact came to be: was it a set of features of the individual actors’ preferences or decision-making?  Was it the unintended result of strategic choices by various actors?  Was it simply the path-dependent and contingent outcome of a serial interactive process?  Was it brought about by structural conditions — power, wealth, race — within the context of which actors made their choices?  And what were the mechanisms of constraint, aggregation, contagion, and escalation through which actions and processes at the more proximate level came together into the outcome at the distal level?

Consider a pair of examples. Kitty Genovese is attacked by an assailant over an extended period of time in a dense neighborhood in Queens, many people observe the crime, and no one intervenes.  The woman is eventually murdered.  The question here is, why was there a total absence of intervention by any individual or group in this crime?  And a parallel surprise: General Marcus Licinius Crassus, having trapped the rebellious slave army of Spartacus, announces that the slaves will be spared death if they give up Spartacus for crucifiction.  Spartacus rises to his feet to say, “I am Spartacus.” And in minutes the army of men rise as well, all declaring “I am Spartacus.”  Here the question is the reverse: why do these men expose themselves to death to stand in solidarity with Spartacus?  In each case, there is an occasion for action presented to a group of individuals, in which members of the group can attempt to save the life of another person.  The collective behavior is fundamentally different in the two cases.   Why so? What are the mechanisms, psychological and social, that led to non-intervention in the first case and fatal solidarity in the second?

We might form a number of hypotheses about both of these cases in order to explain the very different outcomes.  In the Kitty Genovese case, we might cite anomy and anonymity as possible causes of the lack of response by bystanders.  With a low level of civic bonds, perhaps city dwellers have such a low level of emotional involvement with each other that even the slightest effort is unjustified.  Or perhaps it is the fact that each potential responder is anonymous to the others that leads to the result; he/she can make the decision to refrain from offering aid without fear of criticism from others.  Or perhaps collective behavior is strongly influenced by the actions of the first few, with later observers mimicking earlier non-aiders.  So the outcome might have been highly different if the first or second witness had intervened; others might have followed suit.   In the case of Spartacus, we might hypothesize that the bonds of solidarity forged by a history of fighting the Roman army gave the soldiers the moral motivation to support Spartacus; or perhaps it is the publicity of the scene, or the early example of the first few supporters, that spread to the behavior of the others.  Or perhaps it is an expression of fundamental mistrust by the soldiers of the good faith of Marcus Crassus; “he will kill us anyway.” With nothing to lose, the army makes its symbolic statement of rejection.  These are each social psychological hypotheses, concerning the ways that individuals choose to involve themselves in an emergency and a situation of potential sacrifice.

Each of these hypotheses represents a social mechanism that can be incorporated into a narrative explaining the aggregate outcome.  In order for such a story to be scientifically compelling, we need to have some way of using empirical evidence to evaluate whether the postulated mechanism actually works in the real world of human behavior.  Is there empirical evidence for a social psychology of mimicry?  Do we have evidence to suggest that members of a crowd are more likely to do X or Y if a few others have already done so?  Is there empirical support for a theory of solidarity as a social motivation: do combat teams, groups of deep-ground miners, or emergency room doctors develop a higher willingness to conform their behavior to the good of the group of of other individuals in the group?  These examples of social mechanisms all fall in the category of putative behavioral regularities, and it should be possible to investigate them experimentally and statistically.

The challenge of explanation for any social outcome, we might say, is that of constructing an interpretation of the states of minds of a set of actors; the constraints and opportunities within which they choose a course of action; and the interactions that are created as they act within a common environment, leading to the outcome in question.  This is what we can refer to as an aggregative explanation, and it lies at the heart of Thomas Schelling’s methodology in Micromotives and Macrobehavior.  As Schelling points out, sometimes the explanation turns on specific features of agency (the actors’ preferences or their modes of decision-making), and sometimes it turns on the specifics of the environment of choice (the fact that the outcome of action is a public good).  But in general, explanation proceeds by showing how agents with specific features, acting within a social and natural environment with specific characteristics, bring about specific kinds of outcomes.

This, in a nutshell, represents a simple but powerful statement of a philosophy of social explanation.  It also represents the rudiments of a social ontology: higher-level social features are composed of the actions and states of agency of a set of actors within the context of locally embodied rules, norms, and expectations.  This is what I refer to as “methodological localism”:

This theory of social entities affirms that there are large social structures and facts that influence social outcomes. But it insists that these structures are only possible insofar as they are embodied in the actions and states of socially constructed individuals. The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rule. (link)

Social explanations derive their force from empirical research into the nature of the actor, the nature of the locally embodied social environment, and the processes of aggregation through which actions by multiple actors coalesce into social outcomes.  The explanation satisfies us when it demonstrates the pathways through which individuals, constituted as they are found to be, located in institutions of the sort described, contribute to collective outcomes of the kinds described.




If we think back over the history of sociology and political science since 1800, one thing that is striking is the trend away from the most macro-level frameworks of thought in the direction of more situated and proximate social and political arrangements. There was a tendency among the founders — Montesquieu, Spenser, Comte, for example — to pose their questions at the civilizational level. The largest social constructs were identified as worthy of study — religions, kinds of governments, cultures. By the time we get to writers like Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill in mid-nineteenth century, we have thinkers approaching modern social life with a more limited gaze. They are more interested in particular, differentiating social and political arrangements, and they are interested in the particulars of human behavior within those arrangements. And they are much more interested in the empirical details, rather than general philosophical theories of democracy or religion.

Twentieth century thinking in the social sciences has generally continued this trend. What makes social science “scientific” is rigorous attention to empirical characteristics of the social world.  There is generally even less patience with large philosophical theories of society and history.  A good theory isn’t of much interest unless it can be closely tied to particular bodies of empirical observation. It is hard to think of a 20th-century sociologist who took up the Comtean project of comparing the course of civilizations. And there is a growing consensus that the focus of social research needs somehow to capture the behavior of situated actors within socially specific arrangements — in other words, a refinement of focus towards the more particular arrangements.

A partial exception to this trend is the field of comparative politics (Lichbach and Zuckerman, eds., Comparative Politics: Rationality, Culture, and Structure). This is a paradigm that undertakes to discover similarities and differences in large political institutions across settings — with the implication that there is some reason to expect that “developmental states” will have some important similarities whether in Brazil, Nigeria, or Syria. How does “electoral competition” work in the United States, Mexico, and Poland? Hw do anti-corruption regimes work in Indonesia, Singapore, and Hong Kong? Comparative politics specialists have accepted the need for careful empirical investigation, to be sure, and they are mindful of differences as well as similarities. But the field is more macro than many other areas of contemporary social science.

Another exception seems to be “world systems theory”, which locates social-historical analysis at the global level.  But as argued earlier (link), Wallerstein was in fact sensitive to historically specific “granularities” within the world system.  Here’s what I concluded there:

But Wallerstein’s practice as a sociologist is far more defensible than this language would suggest. He was in fact sensitive to causal heterogeneity, contingency, and variation in the systemic relations he meant to capture — particularity as well as universality. So he doesn’t actually treat the modern world system as if it were analogous to a set of gravitational objects governed by fixed laws of nature.

So we might say that two of the large features of modern social science research paradigms are these: the conviction that a researcher needs to formulate questions that permit careful empirical observation and assessment; and the idea that the scope of research should be tailored to capture social behavior and organization at an intermediate level. We need to formulate research questions that capture enough social behavior to be interesting, while at the same time permitting careful, rigorous empirical investigation and assessment.

This is where the metaphor of granularity comes in. It suggests the idea of a deliberate choice of levels of analysis, a deliberate selection of the zone of focus we choose for the investigation. Go too fine and you lose sight of the structures that will turn out to be interesting. Go too gross and, once again, those structures disappear. Then there is the important idea of heterogeneity — the idea that stuff is not uniform in structure all the way down (link); so it matters what level we choose to focus on.

The scanning electron microscope image above (center) is illustrative of this fact with regard to the natural world. Carbon appears uniform at a gross level (anthracite), and it is also uniform at an atomic level.  But there is an intermediate level of resolution where there are structures that are very important for the physical properties of the stuff; and we won’t find these structures unless we look at this intermediate level.

Something very much like this seems to be true about the social realm as well.  If we ask questions about “citizens” or “consumers”, we have characterized the actor in a highly abstract way, with no indication or recognition of the more specific circumstances in which the actor conducts his/her life.  If we provide more institutional, organizational, and motivational context, however — that is, if we increase the level of resolution in our depiction of the social actor — we are likely to find more illuminating features of behavior, and we are likely to find discriminating explanations for differences in behavior.

Perhaps an illustration is found in the kinds of social action that Erving Goffman investigates — the stylized behaviors and interactions of restaurant workers, for example (link). Go too deeply into the personal stories of the persons involved and you lose what is distinctive about the social context of the restaurant. Aggregate facts about service workers everywhere, and once again, the distinctive behaviors disappear.  And, if we abstract too severely from the specifics of the social setting of the restaurant worker — that is, if we zoom our microscope out to the level of pure rational choice theory — then we will overlook the differentiating social circumstances that influence behavior in real hotels and restaurants.

We might say that all of this is pointing towards a certain kind of sociological research that focuses on the proximate social settings within which people act and interact. This takes us towards what I call methodological localism (link). But it also conforms to the sociological frameworks of the new institutionalism (linklink) and even with the emerging emphasis on explanations based on social causal mechanisms (link).

In seeking out the concept of granularity here, I’ve actually invoked several different contrasts: abstract to concrete, apriori to empirical, and macroscopic to microscopic.  If we put all these together, we might say that a “granular” approach to a social phenomenon is one that achieves a degree of specificity in conceptual definition, a robust degree of empirical detail, and an intermediate analytical and representational perspective that permits discovery of the mid-sized structures that influence the behavior of the whole.

(This issue has come up previously under the topic of “macro, meso, micro” (link).)

%d bloggers like this: