Localism and assemblage theory

Several earlier posts have described the idea of “methodological localism” (post).  This is part of an argument I want to defend in support of the idea that we need new and better ways of thinking about the “stuff” of society. We need to thoroughly question and rethink the assumptions we make about social objects — groups, mentalities, structures, forces, power, states, and organizations. In short, we need a better social ontology — one that is free from the patterns of thinking we have inherited from positivism and the natural sciences (post).

Here is the thrust of methodological localism. The only ontologically stable stuff that exists in the social world is the socially constructed and socially situated individual actor, embedded within a set of relationships with other concrete social actors. There are higher-level social frameworks — police departments, professional soccer leagues, and civil wars. But these higher-level structures and events derive all their properties and powers from the extended systems of local activity that they encompass. And they are plastic and deformable in their properties over time (post, post).

One way to put this point is to say that higher-level social structures and entities are only composites or assemblages of lower-level structures, all tracing back ultimately to an extended set of local contexts of activity (post).

And this paraphrase brings the view into some kind of relationship with the theory of “assemblage” that has emerged from several strands of continental thought, including especially some writings of Gilles Deleuze. Manuel DeLanda’s book A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity presents an appealing and accessible version of the perspective. Nick Srnicek’s master’s thesis “Assemblage Theory, Complexity and Contentious Politics” is a good exposition and critical discussion of the theory.  And Bruno Latour’s book Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory provides a coherent and useful reconstruction of “actor-network theory” (ANT) within the general framework of assemblage theory.

Latour’s theory stems significantly from the tradition of “social construction of technology” and recent sociology and history of science and technology. Reassembling the Social is a radical call to action in the social sciences. Latour wants us to dispense entirely with traditional sociological concepts when they purport to refer to fixed, stable social things.  And he wants a new conceptual scheme that puts the emphasis on relationships and associations, on dynamic patterns of action and coordination, rather than on structures and institutions.

The argument of this book can be stated very simply: when social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is already assembled together, without making any superfluous assumption about the nature of what is assembled. Problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’, ‘steely’, ‘biological’, ‘economical’, ‘mental’, ‘organizational’, or ‘linguistic’. At that point, the meaning of the word breaks down since it now designates two entirely different things: first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other materials.(1)

The key task for social science research, according to Latour, is systematic tracing of compound associations among diverse elements.  Here is a description of what this might mean:

In such a view, law, for instance, should not be seen as what should be explained by ‘social structure’ in addition to its inner logic; on the contrary, its inner logic may explain some features of what makes an association last longer and extend wider. Without the ability of legal precedents to draw connections between a case and a general rule, what would we know about putting some matter ‘into a larger context’?  Science does not have to be replaced by its ‘social framework’, which is ‘shaped by social forces’ as well as its own objectivity, because its objects are themselves dislocating any given context through the foreign elements research laboratories are associating together in unpredictable ways.

And the same is true for all other domains. Whereas, in the first approach, every activity—law, science, technology, religion, organization, politics, management, etc.—could be related to and explained by the same social aggregates behind all of them, in the second version of sociology there exists nothing behind those activities even though they might be linked in a way that does produce a society—or doesn’t produce one. Such is the crucial point of departure between the two versions. To be social is no longer a safe and unproblematic property, it is a movement that may fail to trace any new connection and may fail to redesign any well-formed assemblage.  (7,8)

The social realities of “law”, “science”, or “technology”, then, are to be understood in terms of the network of associations that they encompass among actors and other elements.  These social “things” are not static realities, but rather assemblages of dynamic actor relationships or “associations”.

John Law provides a similar statement of some of the fundamental starting points of ANT in “Notes on the Theory of the Actor Network” (link), emphasizing the same skepticism about existing assumptions of social ontology:

Here is the argument. If we want to understand the mechanics of power and organisation it is important not to start out assuming whatever we wish to explain. For instance, it is a good idea not to take it for granted that there is a macrosocial system on the one hand, and bits and pieces of derivative microsocial detail on the other. If we do this we close off most of the interesting questions about the origins of power and organisation. Instead we should start with a clean slate. For instance, we might start with interaction and assume that interaction is all that there is. Then we might ask how some kinds of interactions more or less succeed in stabilising and reproducing themselves: how it is that they overcome resistance and seem to become “macrosocial”; how it is that they seem to generate the effects such power, fame, size, scope or organisation with which we are all familiar. This, then, is the one of the core assumptions of actor-network theory: that Napoleons are no different in kind to small-time hustlers, and IBMs to whelk-stalls. And if they are larger, then we should be studying how this comes about — how, in other words, size, power or organisation are generated.

I said above that there is a convergence between methodological localism and assemblage theory. But it is an uneasy convergence, on both sides. What the two perspectives have in common is easiest to identify. Each calls for a radical rethinking of social ontology. Each emphasizes plasticity, heterogeneity, and contingency in social life and structure. And each works with a metaphor of construction or composition as a way of understanding complex social stuff — cities, for example (post).  So far, so good.

But I have a suspicion that Latour would have more to criticize than to applaud in my approach. For one thing, it may appear to be reductionist: it attempts to ground social statements and theories in facts about the local circumstances of action. And it is unsympathetic to the idea of “emergent” social properties — properties of the social whole that do not derive from the properties of the underlying social actors and their behavior. (Though see this post for a qualified defense of holism.) Further, contrary to Latour, my perspective asserts that there is a distinctive domain of social stuff; it is the domain of purposive actors in interaction, cooperation, and competition with each other. Third, the ML approach provides a basis for attributing relatively stable causal powers to higher-level social structures — provided we can offer appropriate microfoundations for these powers (post). Finally, in spite of my insistence on not reifying higher-level structures, Latour would probably still feel that I’m giving a degree of “thing”-ness to states and organizations that is inconsistent with his view of sociology as a study of associations among actors rather than a study of social entities and forces.

These considerations suggest there are important disagreements between the views. However, it still seems to me that there are important areas of convergence between the two bodies of thought as well: the need for a new social ontology, emphasis on the composition of the social, and an insistence on the fluidity of social life.

What seems particularly worthwhile is to probe in detail how either perspective may turn out to have real utility when it comes to framing an empirical research programme in sociology. How does either perspective help to contribute to a more successful empirical study of society?  If it is just philosophical theory with no implications for doing better science, then neither framework should be taken seriously by working social researchers. But I think there is concrete practical value in these ideas; most fundamentally, if we misconceptualize a domain of inquiry, we are not likely to succeed in understanding it.  Delanda, Latour, and other theorists of assemblage are worth reading carefully.

Methodological localism

I offer a social ontology that I refer to as methodological localism (ML).  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 rules.

This account begins with the socially constituted person. Human beings are subjective, purposive, and relational agents. They interact with other persons in ways that involve competition and cooperation. They form relationships, enmities, alliances, and networks; they compose institutions and organizations. They create material embodiments that reflect and affect human intentionality. They acquire beliefs, norms, practices, and worldviews, and they socialize their children, their friends, and others with whom they interact. Some of the products of human social interaction are short-lived and local (indigenous fishing practices); others are long-duration but local (oral traditions, stories, and jokes); and yet others are built up into social organizations of great geographical scope and extended duration (states, trade routes, knowledge systems). But always we have individual agents interacting with other agents, making use of resources (material and social), and pursuing their goals, desires, and impulses.

At the level of the socially constituted individual we need to ask two sorts of questions: First, what makes individual agents behave as they do? Here we need accounts of the mechanisms of deliberation and action at the level of the individual. What are the main features of individual choice, motivation, reasoning, and preference? How do these differ across social groups? How do emotions, rational deliberation, practical commitments, and other forms of agency influence the individual’s deliberations and actions?  This area of research is purposively eclectic, including performative action, rational action, impulse, theories of the emotions, theories of the self, or theories of identity.

Second, 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? So methodological localism points up the importance of discovering the microfoundations and local variations of identity formation and the construction of the historically situated self.

So far we have emphasized the socially situated individual. But 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. 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.

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).

This approach highlights the important point that all social facts, social structures, and social causal properties depend ultimately on facts about individuals within socially defined circumstances.  Social ascriptions require microfoundations at the level of individuals in concrete social relationships.  According to this way of understanding the nature of social ontology, an assertion of a structure or process at the macro-social level (causal, functional, structural) must be supplemented by two things: knowledge about what it is about the local circumstances of the typical individual that leads him or her to act in such a way as to bring about this relationship; and knowledge of the aggregative processes that lead from individual actions of that sort to an explanatory social relationship of this sort. So if we are interested in analysis of the causal properties of states and governments, we need to arrive at an analysis of the institutions and constrained patterns of individual behavior through which the state’s characteristics are effected.  We need to raise questions such as these: How do states exercise influence throughout society?  What are the institutional embodiments at lower levels that secure the impact of law, taxation, conscription, contract enforcement, and other central elements of state behavior? If we are concerned about the workings of social identities, then we need to inquire into the concrete social mechanisms through which social identities are reproduced within a local population—and the ways in which these mechanisms and identities may vary over time and place.  And if we are interested in analyzing the causal role that systems of norms play in social behavior, we need to discover some of the specific institutional practices through which individuals come to embrace a given set of norms.

The microfoundations perspective requires that we attempt to discover the pathways by which socially constituted individuals are influenced by distant social circumstances, and how their actions in turn affect distant social outcomes.  There is no action at a distance in social life; instead, individuals have the values that they have, the styles of reasoning, the funds of factual and causal beliefs, etc., as a result of the structured experiences of development that they have undergone as children and adults.  On this perspective, large social facts and structures do indeed exist; but their causal properties are entirely defined by the current states of psychology, norm, and action of the individuals who currently exist.  Systems of norms and bodies of knowledge exist—but only insofar as individuals (and material traces) embody and transmit them.  So when we assert that a given social structure causes a given outcome, we need to be able to specify the local pathways through which individual actors embody this causal process.  That is, we need to be able to provide an account of the causal mechanisms that convey social effects.

It is evident that methodological localism implies a fairly limited social ontology.  What exists is the socially constructed individual, within a congeries of concrete social relations and institutions.  The socially constructed individual possesses beliefs, norms, opportunities, powers, and capacities.  These features are socially constructed in a perfectly ordinary sense: the individual has acquired his or her beliefs, norms, powers, and desires through social contact with other individuals and institutions, and the powers and constraints that define the domain of choice for the individual are largely constituted by social institutions (property systems, legal systems, educational systems, organizations, and the like). Inevitably, social organizations at any level are constituted by the individuals who participate in them and whose behavior and ideas are influenced by them; sub-systems and organizations through which the actions of the organization are implemented; and the material traces through which the policies, memories, and acts of decision are imposed on the environment: buildings, archives, roads, etc.  All features of the organization are embodied in the actors and institutional arrangements that carry the organization at a given time.  At each point we are invited to ask the question: what are the social mechanisms through which this institution or organization exerts influence on other organizations and on agents’ behavior? 

Generalizations in history

Historical generalizations are often suspect: “The Renaissance encouraged innovative thinking,” “The Qing state stifled independent commercial activity,” “The open frontier created a distinctively American popular culture.” The problem with statements like these is their sweep; among other things, they imply that the Renaissance, the Qing state, or American culture were essentially uniform social realities, and they erase the forms of variation that certainly existed — and that often constitute the most interesting of historical discoveries.

So grand generalizations in history are problematic. But then we have to ask a different sort of question. Specifically — what kinds of generalizations are possible in history? If we can’t answer this question constructively, then historical research loses much of its interest and purpose. If historical knowledge were limited to statements about specific actors in concrete local circumstances, it would have roughly the interest of a police report. Rather, the historian needs to aggregate his/her understanding of the available evidence into statements about larger agglomerations: villages, towns, and cities; crowds, classes, and professions; assemblies, riots, and movements. Moreover, we would like to be able to make something larger of the historian’s findings — something that sheds light on broader social realities and trends. And each of these requires generalization: statements that extend beyond the particular instances that are presented by the historical record.

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s micro-history of the tiny village of Montaillou (Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294-1324) is worth considering in this context. His opening lines raise the question of generalization:

Whoever wishes to know the peasant of the old or very old regimes, does not aim at grand syntheses — regional, national, or continental: I think of the work of Goubert, Poitrineau, Fourquin, Fossier, Duby, Bloch … What is always missing is the direct aspect: the witnessing, without intermediary, how the peasant presents himself.

Le Roy Ladurie gives a treatment of the history of a very specific, small place — a specific group of village actors in a short time period. Their stories are told through the records of Inquisition investigations. So you might say — it’s all very particular knowledge about this specific time and place. But if so, what makes it historically meaningful or valuable? How does it extend our historical knowledge and imagination? Why does it have greater historical significance than an ethnographic study of the graduates of a particular high school in rural Illinois in 1967, for example? We could imagine the latter study making for interesting reading — the valedictorian ended up as a small-town insurance agent, the class clown became a well-known agricultural expert at the university, 60% of the graduates still lived within 20 miles of their high school location in 40 years. But would this latter study constitute a significant piece of “American social history”? And what more would we ask of the author of this study, in terms of relating his/her findings to larger historical settings and contexts, before we would call it a contribution to social history?

There appear to be several different ways in which a concrete micro-study can achieve the broader significance that it needs to qualify as a genuine contribution to historical understanding.

One possibility is that the micro-study is somehow “representative” of larger social realities at the time. One might read Montaillou as being representative of many other remote places in fourteenth-century France — so the description of this place might serve to generalize to other parts of France. And what does this mean? It means, presumably, that the historian arrives at true statements about Montaillou that are also true of other villages at other times. (Though the author’s cautions against “grand synthesis” seem to count against this use of his findings.)

Another possibility is diachronic generalization: the historian may have identified, under the “microscope” of detailed study of these decades in Montaillou, the crossing and emergence of historical patterns and changes that themselves have broader significance over time. The mental significance of Catholicism for rural people, for example, may have been undergoing change over a period of centuries; we might take the Montaillou snapshot as one instant in time of the larger historical trend. (Our historian of the small town high school class imagined above, for example, might relate her findings to changing attitudes towards universities or the government in small-town America.)

A third possibility is at the level of concepts of behavior and agency. The historian may grapple for ways of extending his/her vocabulary of action and thought for actors in the past; the micro-study may suggest a new set of categories in terms of which to understand the forms of action and thought that were possible for fourteenth-century common rural people. It is certainly an important question for the historian, to ask “why do people act as they do?” in specific historical settings — the outposts of the Roman empire, village India, or sixteenth-century London; and the micro-study may serve to broaden the range of answers we have for this fundamental question. This intellectual task is not one of “generalization”, but rather one of “speciation” — specification of the broad range of variation that is possible within historical reality.

This may all come down to a truism: there is an irresolvable tension for historians between “specification of the local” and “generalization over trends”. Too much generalization, and you lose the point of historical research — you lose the tangible granularity of real people and social settings in history, and the surprising singularities that historians like Le Roy Ladurie or Robert Darnton are able to put in front of us. Too little generalization, however, and the research becomes pointless — just a specification of a collection of actions and outcomes for which the existing historical record happens to provide some information. We want both from good historical writing: an adequate attention to specificity and some degree of projectability and insight into broader questions.

A better social ontology

I believe that the social sciences need to be framed out of consideration of a better understanding of the nature of the social—a better social ontology. The social world is not a system of law-governed processes; it is instead a mix of different sorts of institutions, forms of human behavior, natural and environmental constraints, and contingent events. The entities that make up the social world at a given time and place have no particular ontological stability; they do not fall into “natural kinds”; and there is no reason to expect deep similarity across a number of ostensibly similar institutions – states, for example, or labor unions. (W. V. O. Quine’s metaphor of the bushes shaped to look like elephants comes to mind here; Word and Object.)

So the rule for the social world is – heterogeneity, contingency, and plasticity. And the metaphysics associated with classical thinking about the natural world – laws of nature, common, unchanging structures, and predictable processes of change – do not provide appropriate metaphors for our understandings and expectations of the social world. Nor do they suggest the right kinds of social science theories and constructs.

Instead of naturalism, I suggest an approach to social science theorizing that emphasizes agency, contingency, and plasticity in the makeup of social facts. It recognizes that there is a degree of pattern in social life – but emphasizes that these patterns fall far short of the regularities associated with laws of nature. It emphasizes contingency of social processes and outcomes. It insists upon the importance and legitimacy of eclectic use of social theories: the processes are heterogeneous, and therefore it is appropriate to appeal to different types of social theories as we explain social processes. It emphasizes the importance of path-dependence in social outcomes. It suggests that the most valid scientific statements in the social sciences have to do with the discovery of concrete social-causal mechanisms, through which some types of social outcomes come about.

And finally, this approach highlights what I call “methodological localism”: the view that the foundation of social action and outcome is the local, socially-located and socially constructed individual person. The individual is socially constructed, in that her modes of behavior, thought, and reasoning are created through a specific set of prior social interactions. And her actions are socially situated, in the sense that they are responsive to the institutional setting in which she chooses to act. Purposive individuals, embodied with powers and constraints, pursue their goals in specific institutional settings; and regularities of social outcome often result.

How does this perspective fit with current work in the social sciences? There are several current fields of social research that are particularly well suited to this approach. One is the field of comparative historical sociology, in its use of fairly detailed studies of similar cases in order to identify common causal mechanisms. Kathleen Thelen’s astute studies of different institutions of skill formation in Germany, UK, US, and Japan are an excellent case in point; she asks the twin questions, what causal processes give stability to a set of institutions? And what causal processes lead to a process of transformation in those institutions? The research methods of comparative historical sociology, then, are particularly well suited to the ontology of contingency, plasticity, and causal mechanisms (How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan).

Ethnography gives us a different angle on this same ontology. Ethnographers can give us insight into culturally specific mentalities—the “socially constructed individuals”. And they can give concrete analysis of the institutions that both shape individuals and are in turn shaped by them. More generally, qualitative research methods can offer a basis for discovery of some of the features of agency, mentality, and culture within the context of which important social processes take place. A good current example is Leslie Salzinger’s Genders in Production: Making Workers in Mexico’s Global Factories, a study of the social construction of femininity in the factories of the maquiladoras. C. K. Lee’s sociology of Chinese factory protests is also a model of a study that combines qualitative and quantitative methods; Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.

The new institutionalism is a third theoretical perspective on social analysis and explanation. This approach postulates the causal reality of institutions; it highlights the point that differences across institutions lead to substantial differences in behavior; and it provides a basis for explanations of various social outcomes. The rules of liability governing the predations of cattle in East Africa or Shasta County, California, create very different patterns of behavior in cattle owners and other land owners in the various settings. (Mary Brinton and Victor Nee, The New Institutionalism in Sociology; Jean Ensminger, Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African Society.) It is characteristic of the new institutionalism that researchers in this tradition generally avoid reifying large social institutions and look instead at the more proximate and variable institutions within which people live and act.

What kind of social science research and theory corresponds to these assumptions about social ontology? Here are some chief features–

  • They make use of eclectic multiple theories and don’t expect a unified social theory that explains everything
  • They are modest in their expectations about social generalizations
  • They look for causal mechanisms as a basis for social explanation
  • They anticipate heterogeneity and plasticity of social entities
  • They are prepared to use eclectic methodologies — quantitative, comparative, case-study, ethnographic — to discover the mechanisms and mentalities that underlie social change

We need a better sociology for the twenty-first century. If social scientists continue to be captivated by the scientific prestige of positivism and quantitative social science to the exclusion of other perspectives, they will be led to social science research that looks quite different from what would result from a view that emphasizes contingency and causal mechanisms. And if there are strong, engaging, and empirically rigorous examples of other ways of conducting social research that can come into broad exposure in the social sciences—then there is a greater probability of emergence of a genuinely innovative and imaginative approach to the problem of social knowledge.

Are there discrete social mechanisms?

McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly direct our attention to the level of the concrete social mechanisms that recur in many instances of social contention (Dynamics of Contention). They specifically refer to escalation, radicalization, brokerage, and repression as examples of social mechanisms that produce the same effects in the same circumstances, and that concatenate into historical processes and events. To this list I would add my own examples — free-rider problems, norm diffusion, and communications networks.

I wholeheartedly endorse the idea that social explanations need to proceed on the basis of an analysis of underlying social mechanisms. But can this program be carried out in a Mendeleev sort of way — try to discover a “table of elements” of causal mechanisms that aggregate into “molecules” of social contention?

The closer I look at the argument, the more concerned I become about the discreteness and elementality of the items MTT offer as examples. Take brokerage — isn’t this really an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different kinds of negotiation and alliance-formation? So brokerage isn’t analogous to “expansion of ice during freezing” — a clear example of a physical causal mechanism that is homogeneous across physical settings. Brokerage is rather a “family-resemblance” term that captures a number of different instances of collective behavior and agency.

If we find this line of thought somewhat persuasive, it suggests that we need to locate the causal connectedness among social settings at an even deeper micro-level. It is the situation of “agents with interests, identities, networks, allies, and repertoires” that constitutes the causal nexus of social causation on contention — not a set of frozen mid-level groups of behaviors such as brokerage or radicalization. Instead, these mid-level concepts are descriptive terms that allow us to single out some broadly similar components of social contention.

Or in another vocabulary: the level at which we find real causal connections in the social world is the level of the socially situated and socially constituted individual in interaction with other individuals — the perspective of methodological localism (Levels of the Social). This doesn’t undermine causal realism — but it does undermine the idea that there are meso-level “causal mechanisms” such as brokerage that really recur across instances.

Is network analysis inconsistent with agent-centered explanation?

Quite a few researchers who study dynamic social processes are making use of some of the tools of network analysis. And it is sometimes maintained that this approach is inconsistent with an agent-centered approach to social processes. Some of these researchers take the view that “it’s not what is in the heads of various actors, but rather their relationships in networks that provide the causal underpinnings of social change.” And they sometimes maintain that the actor’s psychological states can’t even be identified in isolation from his/her social relationships. So, once again, explanation cannot rest upon facts about individuals alone. And this sort of finding is thought to cast doubt on methodological individualism in particular, and agent-centered explanatory strategies more generally. (Chuck Tilly and co-authors sometimes take a view along these lines; for example, Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention.)

There is something right about the intuition that we can’t ground social explanations on assumptions that are too narrowly confined to features of individual psychology. Individuals are socially constucted and socially developed, and our explanations of social processes need
to reflect this fact. This is why I prefer the phrase “methodological localism” to “methodological individualism.” But both ontologies are agent-centered. So the question remains: does the causal salience of social networks demonstrate that agent-centered accounts are inherently incomplete — or even worse, inherently unworkable (because we can’t even specify the individual agent’s powers and motives independently of his/her networks)?

I don’t think so, for several reasons. First, what is a network but a set of socially constructed agents in concrete relations with each other — communication, coordination, power, subordination, and recognition? The facts about the network are exhausted by a description of the social beliefs of the relevant actors and their material relations to each other.

Second, it is certainly true that an agent’s possibilities for exercising power are a function of facts beyond his/her own psychological characteristics. So Albert, the peasant activist in the tiny Breton village, is much more empowered than his psychological twin across the border in Normandy, by the fact that he alone has strong relationships with leaders in both the Catholic Church and the wine-growers’ guild. His social networks permit him to amplify the scope of action and effect he may attempt. What this means is that Albert’s social networks are a causal component in his ability to wield influence. In this sense it is reasonable as well to attribute causal status to the network and to characterize this standing as being independent of Albert as an individual.

But it remains true that all of the causal powers associated with the network depend on the states of agency of the many persons who make it up. We therefore need to be able to provide an agent-centered account of the network’s causal powers, distributed over the many agents who make it up. We must have “microfoundations” for the claim that the network exercises social influence. If the actors who constitute nodes within the network didn’t have the right mental frameworks, motivational dispositions, or bodies of knowledge, then they would not in fact behave in a way that was sustaining of the network’s social-causal properties.

So, it seems inescapable that, when we say that “Albert’s power as a peasant activist depends upon the social fact that he is part of such-and-so networks” — that we have only uncovered another field of research where more agent-centered research is needed. The network’s social-causal properties must themselves disaggregate onto a set of facts about the agents who constitute the network. The current causal properties of the network and the agents who make it up are the complex and iterative result of many inter-related actions and alliances of prior generations of agents.

And this in turn demonstrates that network analysis is by no means inconsistent with an agent-centered approach to social explanation.

(See “Levels of the social” for more on this subject.)

A non-naturalistic approach to social science

The most basic error that is conveyed by the naturalist framework into the premises of sociology—the folk epistemology—that was shared by Durkheim, Mill, and Comte, is the assumption that all phenomena are subject to laws; that the relevant laws are abstract and obscure; and that there is an orderly relationship between gross phenomena and a rising level of natural laws that embrace those observable phenomena. The task of scientific study is to discover this rising pyramid of regularities and laws (motions of planets ENCOMPASSED BY elliptical orbits ENCOMPASSED BY gravitational attraction ENCOMPASSING other phenomena such as tides). This model is then used to frame the sociologist’s expectations of the orderliness of sociological observations and regularities. The social world is assumed to be a system of phenomena governed by hidden regularities and causal laws; the task of social science research is to discover these governing regularities and laws. . However, this conception of the world does not fit the domain of the social at all.

We can provide an alternative social ontology—a better grounding for sociological research. The social sciences could have begun with a greater degree of agnosticism about the orderliness of social phenomena. We could have started with the observations that—

  • Social phenomena are created by human beings (deliberately, intentionally, or unknowingly)
  • Human beings behave as a result of their socially constructed beliefs, values, goals, attitudes, modes of reasoning, emotions, …
  • There is a wide range of variation that is visible among social arrangements and institutions, across cultures, across space, and across time (long duration and short duration)
  • Social institutions, organizations, and structures have a degree of observable stability across cohorts and generations of the human beings who make them up
  • There are social causes, and they are ordinary, observable, and mundane. They are variants of the agent-structure nexus.

These initial ontological observations would have led us to some framing expectations about the social and about the likely results of social science inquiry:

  • contingency of social outcomes
  • Variation of social trajectory
  • Plasticity of social institutions
  • Heterogeneity among instances of a “type” of social thing
  • No “laws of motion” for development or modernization

And we might have set several research objectives for the social sciences:

  • To study in some detail how various institutions work in different social settings (empirical, fact-driven observation and analysis)
  • To study human behavior, motivation, and action – again, with sensibility to variation, without the assumption that there is one ultimate human nature or governing mode of behavior.
  • To be as aware of variation and plasticity as we are attentive to the discovery of social regularities
  • To discover and theorize some of the causal mechanisms that can be observed within social processes
  • To identify weak regularities of behavior and institution through observation
  • To theorize these regularities in terms of agent-structure dynamics; aggregation of features of decision-making; unintended consequences. For example, free rider phenomena (economists) and self-regulating commons (common-property resource institutions)

We then might have arrived at a different conception of what a “finished” social science might involve: not a deductive theory with a few high-level generalizations and laws, but rather an “agent-based simulation” that embodies as many of the characteristics and varieties of behavior as possible into the simulation, and then projects different possible scenarios. The ideal might have been “sim-society” rather than deductive-nomological theory.

Social properties: Persistence, change, and stochastic social processes

How can we explain social change and social persistence?

Society is a complex, compositional entity. Both persistence and change require explanation in such entities. Because there is a third alternative condition of such an entity: chaos, randomness, and Brownian motion of individuals in interaction with each other. Succinctly — the current state of the ensemble is simply the sum of the states of the lower-level units, and their states are in turn determined by a stochastic set of encounters with other individuals in the prior period. Both persistence and patterned change are non-random outcomes for a compositional system, and each demands explanation. (It is as if crystals formed periodically in boiling water among the micro-particles observed in the solution.) So if we observe either persistence or patterned change in spite of underlying stochastic processes, there must be causes of these non-random outcomes; so we want to be able to discover the causes of both.

To consider change and persistence, we need to answer a prior question: change and persistence of what? Logically, an ensemble demonstrates change and persistence with respect to some set of characteristics: features of organization, patterns of distribution of lower-level properties (e.g. income, attitudes), characteristics of “meso”-level behavior. In biological terms, the ensemble possesses structures, functions, and dynamics of development. And we need to be able to explain each of these gross features in a way that is consistent with the compositional nature of social entities.

We can easily produce examples of each type of condition in social life.

  • Persistence: The Federal Reserve Board retains its institutional form and its functional role within the US economy over a 50-year period. Baseball is still governed by the same basic rules as it was in the nineteenth-century (with minor variations).
  • Change: American attitudes about race shift measurably over 50 years. The percentage of workers in labor unions falls dramatically from 1970to 2000.
  • Stochastic: The frequency of the name “Harry” falls dramatically from 1950 to 1990. Traffic on Skype fluctuates from minute to minute.

Given that the ensemble is composed of lower-level elements (individuals), we want to know what it is that constrains, impels, and conditions the behavior of the individuals, such that the ensemble comes to have the observed features of persistence and change.

In order to explain either persistence or change in social arrangements, what do we have to work with? Only two sorts of things, fundamentally. We have the behavioral characteristics of the individuals who constitute the society; and we have the behaviorally relevant features that are embodied in current social institutions and practices (rules, incentives, opportunities, forms of social cooperation and social punishment). The latter “social” facts are themselves embodied in the behavioral characteristics of the persons who constitute them; but at any given time they function with apparent autonomy with respect to particular actors.

Fundamentally, then, the explanation of both persistence and change in society requires that we uncover the features of individual motivation that guide their behavior (interests, values, preferences, identities, practices); the features of the current social environment that empower and limit individual strategies; and the processes of aggregation through which the individuals’ actions come together into collective behavior in either reinforcing or disrupting the social facts of current interest. This intellectual model for social explanation is what I refer to as “methodological localism.”

(See “The Heterogeneous Social” for more on methodological localism.)

Methodological localism

How do social causes work?

Some social theorists have treated social constructs as unified macro-entities with their own causal powers. Structuralist theories maintain things like “capitalism causes people to value consuming more than family time” or “democracy causes social cohesion.” Likewise, some theorists have held that moral systems and cultures cause distinctive patterns of behavior–“Confucian societies produce cohesive families.” Each of these claims places a large social entity in the role of a causal factor.

Is this a coherent way of talking? Can large structures and value systems exercise causal influence? The problem here is that statements like these look a lot like “action at a distance”. We are led to ask: HOW do capitalism, democracy, or Confucianism influence social outcomes? In other words, we want to know something about the lower-level mechanisms through which large social facts impact upon behavior, thereby producing a change in social outcomes. We want to know something about the “microfoundations” of social causation.

One point seems obvious–and yet it is often overlooked or denied. Social behaviors are carried out by individuals, and individuals are influenced only by factors that directly impinge upon them (currently or in the past). Consider a particular voter’s process of deciding to support particular candidate. This person experienced a particular history of personality formation–a particular family, a specific city, a work history, an education. So the person’s current political identity and values are the product of a sequence of direct influences. And at the moment, this socially-constructed person is now exposed to another set of direct influences about the election race—newspapers, internet, co-workers’ comments, attendance at political events, etc. In other words, his or her current political judgments and preferences are caused or influenced by a past and current set of experiences and contexts.

This story brings in social factors at every stage–the family was Catholic, the city was Chicago, the work was a UAW-organized factory. So the individual is socially influenced and formed at every stage. But here is the important point: every bit of that social influence is mediated by locally experienced actions and behaviors of other socially formed individuals. “Catholicism”, “Chicago culture”, and “union movement” have no independent reality over and above the behaviors and actions of people who embody those social labels.

This perspective is sometimes called methodological individualism. I prefer to call it methodological localism. We never lose the social in this story. But it is always a locally embodied social, conveyed through pathways that directly impinge upon the socially constituted person. It is then a subject of real sociological interest, to discover the pathways and variations through which the large social entities are embodied. And in this way we avoid the error of “reification” of the large social entity.