Geddes on methods

Earlier posts have examined some recent thinking about social science methods (link, link). Here I will examine another recent contributor to this field, Barbara Geddes.

Geddes is a specialist in comparative politics, and her 2003 Paradigms and Sand Castles: Theory Building and Research Design in Comparative Politics is a thoughtful contribution to the debate about how the social sciences should proceed. Her central concern is with the topic of research design in comparative politics. How should a comparative researcher go about attempting to explain the varying outcomes we observe within the experiences of otherwise similar countries? How can we gain empirical grounds for validating or rejecting causal hypotheses in this field? And how do general theories of politics fare as a basis for explaining these concrete trajectories — the rise of authoritarianism in one country, the collapse of communism in the USSR, an outbreak of democracy in that country, or a surprising populism in another? Geddes finds that the theories that guided comparative politics in the sixties, seventies, and eighties proved to be inadequate to the task of explaining the twists and turns the political systems of the world took during those decades and argues that the discipline needs to do better.

Geddes’s proposed solution to this cul de sac is to bring theory and research design closer together. She wants to find a way of pursuing research in comparative politics that permits for more accumulation of knowledge in the field, both on the side of substantial empirical findings and well grounded theoretical premises. Theoretical premises need to be more carefully articulated, and plans for data collection need to be more purposefully guided so the resulting empirical findings are well suited to evaluating and probing the theoretical premises. Here is a good summary paragraph of her view:

The central message of this book is that we could steer a course through that narrow channel between untested theory and atheoretical data more successfully, and thus accumulate theoretical knowledge more rapidly, if certain research norms were changed. Although research norms are changing, basic principles of research design continue to be ignored in many studies. Common problems include inappropriate selection of cases from which to draw evidence for testing theories and a casual attitude towards nonquantitative measurement, both of which undermine the credibility of evidence gathered to support arguments. The failure to organize and store evidence in ways that make it accessible to others raises the cost of replication and that also slows theoretical progress. Uncritical acceptance by readers of theories that have not undergone systematic empirical test exacerbates the problem. (5)

What does Geddes mean by “theory” in this context? Her examples suggest that she thinks of a theory as a collection of somewhat independent causal hypotheses about a certain kind of large social outcome — the emergence of democracy or the occurrence of sustained economic development, for example. So when she discusses the validity of modernization theory, she claims that some components were extensively tested and have held up (the correlation between democracy and economic development, for example; 9), whereas other components were not adequately tested and have not survived (the claim that the diffusion of values would rapidly transform traditional societies; 9).

Geddes does not explicitly associate her view of social science inquiry with the causal mechanisms approach. But in fact the intellectual process of inquiry that she describes has a great deal in common with that approach. On her view of theory, the theory comes down to a conjunction of causal hypotheses, each of which can in principle be tested in isolation. What she refers to as “models” could as easily be understood as schematic descriptions of common social mechanisms (33). The examples she gives of models are collective action problems and evolutionary selection of social characteristics; and each of these is a mechanism of social causation.

She emphasizes, moreover, that the social causal factors that are at work in the processes of political and economic development generally work in conjunction with each other, with often unpredictable consequences.

Large-scale phenomena such as democratic breakdown, economic development, democratization, economic liberalization, and revolution result from the convergence of a number of different processes, some of which occur independently from others. No simple theory is likely to explain such compound outcomes.  Instead of trying to “explain” such compound outcomes as wholes, I suggest a focus on the various processes that contribute to the final outcome, with the idea of theorizing these processes individually. (27)

What Geddes’s conception of “theory” seems to amount to is more easily formulated in the language of causal mechanisms. We want to explain social outcomes at a variety of levels of scale — micro, meso, macro. We understand that explanation requires discovery of the causal pathways and processes through which the outcome emerged. We recognize that social outcomes have a great deal of contingency and path dependency, so it is unlikely that a great outcome like democratization will be the result of a single pervasive causal factor. Instead, we look for mid-level causal mechanisms that are in place in the circumstances of interest — say the outbreak of the Bolshevik uprising; and we attempt to discern the multiple causal factors that converged in these historical circumstances to bring about the outcome of interest. The components of theories to which Geddes refers are accounts of reasonably independent causal mechanisms and processes, and they combine in contingent and historically specific ways.

And in fact she sometimes adopts this language of independent mid-level causal mechanisms:

To show exactly what I mean, in the pages that follow I develop a concrete research strategy that begins with the disaggregation of the big question — why democratization occurs — into a series of more researchable questions about mechanisms. The second step is a theorization of the specific process chosen for study — in this case, the internal authoritarian politics that sometimes lead to transition. The third step is the articulation of testable implications derived from the theorization. (43)

And later:

I argued that greater progress could be made toward actually understanding how such outcomes [as democratization and authoritarian rule] by examining the mechanisms and processes that contribute to them, rather than through inductive searches for the correlates of the undifferentiated whole. (87)

(This parallels exactly the view taken by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention, where they argue systematically for a form of analysis of episodes of contention that attempts to identify recurring underlying processes and mechanisms.)

It emerges that what Geddes has in mind for testing mid-level causal hypotheses is largely quantitative: isolate a set of cases in which the outcome is present and examine whether the hypothesized causal factor varies appropriately across the cases. Do military regimes in fact persist with shorter average duration than civilian authoritarian regimes (78)? Like King, Keohane, and Verba in Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research, Geddes is skeptical about causal methods based on comparison of a small number of cases; and like KKV, she is critical of Skocpol’s use in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China of Mill’s methods in examining the handful of cases of social revolution that she examines. This dismissal of small-N research represents an unwelcome commitment to methodological monism, in my view.

In short, I find Geddes’s book to be a useful contribution that aligns more closely than it appears with the causal mechanisms approach to social research. It is possible to paraphrase Geddes’s approach to theory and explanation in the language of causal mechanisms, emphasizing meso-level analysis, conjunctural causation, and macro-level contingency. (More on this view of historical causation can be found here.)

Geddes’s recommendations about how to probe and test the disaggregated causal hypotheses at which the researcher arrives represent one legitimate approach to the problem of giving greater empirical content to specific hypotheses about causal mechanisms. It is regrettable, however, that Geddes places her flag on the quantitative credo for the social sciences. One of the real advantages of the social mechanisms approach is precisely that we can gain empirical knowledge about concrete social mechanisms through detailed case studies, process tracing, and small-N comparisons of cases that is not visible at the level of higher-level statistical regularities. (A subsequent post will examine George and Bennett, Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences (Belfer Center Studies in International Security), for an alternative view of how to gain empirical knowledge of social processes and mechanisms.)

Classifying mechanisms by location

If we are going to take social mechanisms seriously, we need to be able to say more about what they are. Earlier posts have opened the possibility of offering a scheme of classification for social mechanisms (link, link). Here I want to briefly explore a different idea: to group mechanisms according to which part they play within the space of social influence postulated by the idea of methodological localism (link). I introduced the idea of methodological localism in “Levels of the Social” (link) as an ontological alternative to both methodological individualism and methodological holism. That specification of the nature of social reality suggested a small handful of fundamental questions. Here I want to experiment with classifying a number of mechanisms according to which of these questions they answer. Here is the relevant statement from “Levels of the Social” (link):

According to methodological localism, the social is constituted by socially situated individuals, nested within social relations and institutions that have only an intermediate degree of persistence and permanence.

The socially situated individual finds herself within a concrete set of social relationships, networks, and institutions. This complex serves to socialize and provide incentives, as well as to constrain. The approach of methodological localism supports as well the reality that institutions often have extra-local scope, geographically, demographically, and administratively. So, we can legitimately describe institutions with broader scope as being “higher-level” institutions.

This approach suggests six large areas of focus for social science research:

  • What makes the individual tick? [action mechanisms]
  • How are individuals formed and constituted? [social constitution mechanisms] 
  • What are the institutional and organizational factors that motivate and constrain individuals’ choices? [institutional mechanisms on individual behavior]
  • How do individual agents’ actions aggregate to higher-level social patterns? [aggregative mechanisms]
  • How do macro-level social structures influence other macro-level social structures? [meso-meso mechanisms]

These questions imply eight “zones” of activity for social mechanisms:

0 neuro-cognitive system
1 action and deliberation
2 identity formation
3 institutional influence on individuals
4 aggregation from individual to social
5 social action and collective action
6 hierarchy and control
7 meso-meso influences

I have represented these eight zones in the messy figure above.

This is a “functional” taxonomy of mechanisms; it classifies social mechanisms according to what they do. A different scheme would be to group mechanisms according to how they work: rational choice, game theoretic, social network, sub-cognitive, group dynamics, collective action, coercion, epidemiological, …. If we adopted both schemes, then we would arrive at a two-dimensional classification including both functional location and mode of activity.

So how does this scheme mesh with the mechanisms singled out in my earlier post? Here is a grouping of the mechanisms included in the catalogue presented there according to the current scheme:



1.01              Altruistic enforcement
1.02              Conditional altruism [individuals reason on the basis of conditional willingness to act in support of collective good]
1.03              Reciprocity [individuals act for other individuals in expectation of return favors in future; successful only in specific social conditions]
1.04              Social appropriation
1.05              Stereotype threat


2.01                Boundary activation
2.02                Certification
2.03                norm inculcation


3.01              Audit and accounting [organization establishes rules and roles to oversee compliance with policies]
3.02              Broadcast
3.04              Contract
3.05              Employee training [organization establishes training for employees to encourage or create desired forms of behavior]
3.06              Framing [leaders communicate issues and demands to followers in favorable ways]
3.09              Morale building
3.10              Norms [normative community influences individual action and choice]
3.11              Selective benefits [organization or club offers benefits to those who contribute to joint actions]
3.12              Selective coercion [group, leaders! or members impose sanctions on members to enforce compliance with group rules]
3.14              Supervision
3.15                Regulatory organizations


4.02                Auction
4.03                Cyclical voting
4.04                Democratic decision making
4.05                Erosion
4.06                Flash trading
4.07                Imitation
4.08                Influence peddling
4.09                Interlocking mobilization
4.10                Interpersonal network
4.01                Market
4.13                Market for lemons
4.15                Producers’ control
4.16                Rumor
4.17                Subliminal transmission


5.01                Agenda setting
5.01                Brokerage [leaders negotiate coordinated action with other groups/leaders]
5.02                Convention [individuals coordinate action around conspicuous patterns or rules]
5.03                Coordinated action
5.04                Escalation [group and leaders promote broader action alliance or elevate level of action]
5.05                Free rider behavior
5.06                Prisoners’ dilemma [result of strategic action among two or more players]
5.07                Log rolling
5.08                Person-to-person transmission


6.01                Control of communications systems
6.02                Deception
6.03                Informers
6.03                Charisma
6.04                Propaganda
6.05                Secret police files
6.06                Spectacular use of force
6.07                Leadership
6.08                Ministry direction

7.00           MESO-MESO INFLUENCE

7.01                Competition for power [groups and leaders take steps to improve their power position]
7.02                Diffusion [example of collective action spreads to other locales and groups and issues]
7.03                Non-linear effects within social networks
7.04                Overlapping systems of authority (Brenner)
7.05                Transport networks
7.06                Soft budget constraint

Interestingly enough, here is a rather similar diagram (in structure, anyway) that is provided by Thornton, Ocacio, and Lounsbury in their presentation of the field of “institutional logics” (The Institutional Logics Perspective: A New Approach to Culture, Structure and Process):

If we understand each of the arrows as a group of mechanisms, extending influence from one zone to the other, the diagram is very similar in its logic to the one provided above.

Mechanisms and intellectual movements

I am particularly interested in the idea that we can explain social outcomes by identifying the social mechanisms that (often, typically, occasionally) bring them about. I also find the evolution of science and systems of ideas to be particularly fascinating within contemporary sociology, in that this aspect of human life embraces both rationally directed thought and sociological influences. So it is very interesting to consider what we can discover about the structures, networks, and professional organizations that influence the course that a given discipline or field of research takes.

It is therefore interesting to consider the role that reference to social mechanisms has played in recent works of the sociology of science and the sociology of knowledge. A particularly good example is found in the work of sociologists like Camic, Lamont, Gross, and Frickel, and Frickel and Gross’s “General Theory of Scientific/Intellectual Movements” (2005) is a good place to start (link). Frickel and Gross put their goal in this article in this way:

The theory seeks to answer the question, under what social conditions is any particular scientific/intellectual movement, or SIM (whose nature we clarify shortly), most likely to emerge, gain adherents, win intellectual prestige, and ultimately acquire some level of institutional stability? (205)

This description evokes an explanatory goal with a causal perspective — “conditions” that make “emergence” likely. But on its face this is not a mechanisms-based approach — rather, it is more akin to a “facilitating or necessary conditions” kind of analysis of social causation. This impression is reinforced by the assertion that the theory is inductive, based on an examination of a number of case studies of SIMs aimed at identifying such conditions. (The authors also make a point of giving emphasis to failed SIMs because of the traction offered by such cases for counterfactual analysis.) They emphasize the importance of identifying common features of SIMs, in order to “mark them as objects for sociological study” (208), which implies that a precondition of sociological study is that we need to identify a social kind of entities with reasonably similar properties. This too suggests an underlying causal perspective that looks to regularities and common properties rather than causal mechanisms or causal powers.

As much of the recent discussion of critical realism makes clear, it is very important to be as explicit as possible about the assumptions we make about causation in the social sciences. So a quick review of the article may be useful in order to shed light on the kinds of causal thinking that Frickel and Gross engage in here.

To begin, what is a SIM?

The most abbreviated definition is this: SIMs are collective efforts to pursue research programs or projects for thought in the face of resistance from others in the scientific or intellectual community. (206)

So one criterion for an ensemble of thinkers and institutions to constitute a SIM in the F/G definition is that their shared intellectual program needs to challenge the status quo, the dominant way of thinking about the subject matter of concern. F/G explicitly model their analysis on the study of social movements; notice the parallel with McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s formulation in Dynamics of Contention of their central question.

Under what conditions will normally apathetic, frightened, or disorganized people explode into the streets, put down their tools, or mount the barricades? How do different actors and identities appear and transform in episodes of contention? Finally, what kinds of trajectories do these processes follow? (chapter 2)

It is interesting that F/G are quite explicit in looking for a “general theory”. What they mean by this, apparently, is an account of a limited set of social conditions whose presence or absence “explains” the success or failure of a candidate SIM at a point in time. And this in turn sounds quite a bit like the comparative method pursued by Theda Skocpol in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China: through comparative study of cases, discover a background set of social and political conditions that serve as jointly sufficient and/or necessary conditions for the occurrence of social revolution (link). (Like Skocpol, F/G make use of the probabilistic versions of sufficiency and necessity: “makes more likely” and “makes more unlikely”.) Mechanisms come into the story fairly quickly: “Our general theory insists that the precise mechanisms whereby a field’s external environment shapes a SIM must be specified” (209); but in fact, there is very little discussion of concrete mechanisms in the article.

The four premises of the general theory are these:

  • Proposition 1: A SIM is more likely to emerge when high-status intellectual actors harbor complaints against what they understand to be the central intellectual tendencies of the day. (209; italics mine)
  • Proposition 2: SIMs are more likely to be successful when structural conditions provide access to key resources. (213)
  • Proposition 3: The greater a SIM’s access to various micro mobilization contexts, the more likely it is to be successful. (219)
  • Proposition 4: The success of a SIM is contingent upon the work done by movement participants to frame movement ideas in ways that resonate with the concerns of those who inhabit an intellectual field or fields. (221)

For each of these theoretical propositions they offer the sketch of an idea about what the mechanisms are that might support this factor. For example, concerning proposition 1, they maintain that “grievance” is a necessary condition for the emergence of an SIM because it puts potential adherents in a state of psychological readiness for mobilization. Another mechanism they cite for the emergence and mobilization of an SIM is the sudden entry into a field of non-traditional practitioners — for example, women or African-American scholars entering the field of urban studies in the 1960s who found that prevailing wisdom failed to do justice to their own experiences. And on the resources point, F/G refer to the job market, academic organizations, and funding sources, and sketch out how favorable conditions with regard to these structural features can facilitate the success of a SIM. This is, at least in sketch, a mechanisms analysis.

The mechanisms associated with Proposition 3 are encapsulated in the notion of “micromobilization”. Like Tilly in his analysis of the counter-revolution in The Vendee, F/G hold that the success of a SIM is influenced by the strength or weakness of the various organizations and networks through which it is able to spread its message and its mobilization efforts at the grassroots level. They mention laboratories, conferences, research retreats, and academic departments (219). Once one or more advocates of the given SIM has a position of influence in one of these centers, he or she is enabled to influence and mobilize other scholars to the SIM.

The mechanisms associated with Proposition 4 pick up on the rhetorical side of intellectual work.  We might unsympathetically refer to this aspect of the development of a SIM as the marketing campaign it pursues. In order to influence prospective adherents to an intellectual movement it is necessary to provide “messages” that resonate with them. (Fritz Ringer’s analysis of the German mandarins between the wars in The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933 seems to illustrate this mechanism; a few highly effective reactionary authors caught the wave of pessimism that was present in German culture between the wars, and this seems to have had an important effect on the development of social science thinking in the period.) This factor has to do with effective framing of issues and research questions:

Fundamental to framing, and underlying and connecting to the three other dimensions we describe shortly, is the notion of intellectual identity. We see intellectual identity as one of the crucial links between micro, mess, and macro levels of analysis in the sociology of ideas. (222)

It is possible to take issue with the notion that there is a general theory on offer here. I would rather call the analysis provided here an account of some generalizations about the causal conditions that facilitate or impede intellectual movements. The phrase “general theory” makes the effort seem more comprehensive than it actually aims to be. What this treatment lacks (by design) is a micro- or meso-level account of how specific institutions, identity features, resource sources, and networks have played out in specific instances of intellectual change. (The contributions to Camic, Gross, and Lamont’s Social Knowledge in the Making do this in a variety of ways.)

But consider Chuck Tilly’s frequent critique of a similar effort in contentious politics studies: it is the underlying mechanisms and processes, not the general similarities and common conditions, that provide real insight into the explanation of episodes of contentious action. Tilly argues that there is a great deal of variation across episodes; but we can nonetheless discover some common underlying mechanisms and processes. And this would suggest that a more meso-level might be helpful in the study of SIMs as well. Or putting it in other terms, more attention to mechanisms and less emphasis on general conditions might provide more insight into the phenomena of intellectual movements.

There is one final observation that appears relevant here. The “social mechanisms” approach itself might be classified as a SIM in the making. This intellectual movement involves a relatively small group of practitioners embedded within specific centers of institutional influence; it emerged from dissatisfaction with the received view of causation in the social sciences; and it is involved in a struggle for resources and prestige in the field of the philosophy of social science, both in Europe and North America. (For that matter, much the same could be said for critical realism.)

Finally, I am keeping my eyes open for meso-level social mechanisms in the sociology literature, and so I was curious in reading through this piece again whether any of the mechanisms postulated here were meso-meso. It seems that they are not. Rather, the social mechanisms mentioned generally proceed from a structure or institution to individual behavior (meso-micro) or from individual behavior to a meso- or macro-level outcome (progress of the SIM). But if this is correct, then the explanatory work offered here conforms to the downward and upward struts of Coleman’s boat, not the type 4 causation from meso to meso that Coleman precludes (link). This makes the analysis perhaps more compatible with the strictures of analytical sociology that the authors might have guessed (link).

Simulating social mechanisms



A key premise of complexity theory is that a population of units has “emergent” properties that result from the interactions of units with dynamic characteristics. Call these units “agents”.  The “agent” part of the description refers to the fact that the elements (persons) are self-directed units.  Social ensembles are referred to as “complex adaptive systems” — systems in which outcomes are the result of complex interactions among the units AND in which the units themselves modify their behavior as a result of prior history.

Scott Page’s Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life provides an excellent introduction. Here is how Page describes an adaptive social system:

Adaptive social systems are composed of interacting, thoughtful (but perhaps not brilliant) agents. It would be difficult to date the exact moment that such systems first arose on our planet — perhaps it was when early single-celled organisms began to compete with one another for resources…. What it takes to move from an adaptive system to a complex adaptive system is an open question and one that can engender endless debate. At the most basic level, the field of complex systems challenges the notion that by perfectly understanding the behavior of each component part of a system we will then understand the system as a whole. (kl 151)

Herbert Simon added a new chapter on complexity to the third edition of The Sciences of the Artificial – 3rd Edition in 1996.

By adopting this weak interpretation of emergence, we can adhere (and I will adhere) to reductionism in principle even though it is not easy (often not even computationally feasible) to infer rigorously the properties of the whole from knowledge of the properties of the parts. In this pragmatic way, we can build nearly independent theories for each successive level of complexity, but at the same time, build bridging theories that show how each higher level can be accounted for in terms of the elements and relations of the next level down. (172).

This formulation amounts to the claim of what I referred earlier to as “relative explanatory autonomy”; link. It is a further articulation of Simon’s view of “pragmatic holism” first expressed in 1962 (link).

So how would agent-based models (ABM) be applied to mechanical systems? Mechanisms are not intentional units. They are not “thoughtful”, in Page’s terms. In the most abstract version, a mechanism is an input-output relation, perhaps with governing conditions and with probabilistic outcomes — perhaps something like this:


In this diagram A, B, and D are jointly sufficient for the working of the mechanism, and C is a “blocking condition” for the mechanism. When A,B,C,D are configured as represented the mechanism then does its work, leading with probability PROB to R and the rest of the time to S.

So how do we get complexity, emergence, or unpredictability out of a mechanical system consisting of a group of separate mechanisms? If mechanisms are determinate and exact, then it would seem that a mechanical system should not display “complexity” in Simon’s sense; we should be able to compute the state of the system in the future given the starting conditions.

There seem to be several key factors that create indeterminacy or emergence within complex systems. One is the fact of causal interdependency, where the state of one mechanism influences the state of another mechanism which is itself a precursor to the first mechanism.  This is the issue of feedback loops or “coupled” causal processes. Second is non-linearity: small differences in input conditions sometimes bring about large differences in outputs. Whenever an outcome is subject to a threshold effect, we will observe this feature; small changes short of the threshold make no change in the output, whereas small changes at the threshold bring about large changes. And third is the adaptability of the agent itself.  If the agent changes behavioral characteristics in response to earlier experience (through intention, evolution, or some other mechanism) then we can expect outcomes that surprise us, relative to similar earlier sequences. And in fact, mechanisms display features of each of these characteristics. They are generally probabilistic, they are often non-linear, they are sensitive to initial conditions, and at least sometimes they “evolve” over time.

So here is an interesting question: how do these considerations play into the topic of understanding social outcomes on the basis of an analysis of underlying social mechanisms? Assume we have a theory of organizations that involves a number of lesser institutional mechanisms that affect the behavior of the organization. Is it possible to develop an agent-based model of the organization in which the institutional mechanisms are the units? Are meso-level theories of organizations and institutions amenable to implementation within ABM simulation techniques?

Here is a Google Talk by Adrien Treuille on “Modeling and Control of Complex Dynamics”.


The talk provides an interesting analysis of “crowd behavior” based on a new way of representing a crowd.

Neighborhood effects


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hempel after 70 years

Carl Hempel published his sole contribution to the philosophy of history in 1942, almost exactly 70 years ago. The article is “The Function of General Laws in History” (link), and it set the stage for several fruitless decades of debate within analytic philosophy about the nature of historical explanation. Hempel argued that all scientific explanation has the same logical structure: a deductive (or probabilistic) derivation of the explanandum from one or more general laws and one or more statements of fact. Explanation, in Hempel’s view, simply is “derivation of the explanandum from general laws.” Here is the opening paragraph of the essay.

It is a rather widely held opinion that history, in contra-distinction to the so-called physical sciences, is concerned with the description of particular events of the past rather than with the search for general laws which might govern those events. As a characterization of the type of problem in which some historians are mainly interested, this view probably can not be denied; as a statement of the theoretical function of general laws in scientific historical research, it is certainly unacceptable. The following considerations are an attempt to substantiate this point by showing in some detail that general laws have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences, that they form an indispensable instrument of historical research, and that they even constitute the common basis of various procedures which are often considered as characteristic of the social in contradistinction to the natural sciences. (35)

And here is the logical structure of such a “covering law” explanation, according to Hempel:

(1) a set of statements asserting the occurrence of certain events C1, . . . C, at certain times and places,
(2) a set of universal hypotheses, such that
(a) the statements of both groups are reasonably well confirmed by empirical evidence,
(b) from the two groups of statements the sentence asserting the occurrence of event E can be logically deduced. (36)

He is emphatic, moreover, in insisting that valid explanations in history must have this form:

We have tried to show that in history no less than in any other branch of empirical inquiry, scientific explanation can be achieved only by means of suitable general hypotheses, or by theories, which are bodies of systematically related hypotheses. (44)

Hempel concedes the point that few existing historical explanations actually look like this, with explicit law statements embedded in a deductive argument; but he argues that this shows only that existing explanations are elliptical, incomplete, or invalid. And often, he finds, what is offered as a historical explanation is in fact no more than an “explanation sketch” (42), with placeholders for the general laws.

What kinds of general laws does Hempel think that historians have in the back of their minds when they offer elliptical explanations? He refers to regularities of individual or social psychology (40), regularities of collective behavior (“groups migrate to regions which offer better living conditions”), or at the macro level, regularities linking growing discontent to the outbreak of revolution (41). Further:

Many of the universal hypotheses underlying historical explanation, for instance, would commonly be classified as psychological, economical, sociological, and partly perhaps as historical laws; in addition, historical research has frequently to resort to general laws established in physics, chemistry, and biology. (47)

This set of assumptions leads to big trouble for historical explanation if we accept Hempel’s account, however, because it is hard to think of a real historical research question where there might be a set of social or individual regularities sufficient to deductively entail the outcome. Bluntly, the social and behavioral sciences have never produced theories of individual or collective behavior that issue in statements of general laws that could be the foundation for a covering law explanation. And given that social phenomena are formed by actors with a range of features of agency and decision-making, we have very good reason to think that this lack of regularities is inherent in the social world. The social world is simply not governed by a set of social or individual laws. Let’s look at that point at several levels.

Individuals. The social sciences provide a good basis for advancing theories of agency, which in turn support certain generalizations about action. For example: People act out of self interest. People act morally. People pay attention to the example of others. People care about their families and friends. People follow charismatic leaders. People follow the precepts of their religious beliefs. People are emotional and short-sighted. People make decisions based on specific heuristics and rules-of-thumb. Each of these statements takes the form of a generalization. And each is true — of some delimited groups of agents some of the time. But there is no generalization about agency that is true of all agents all the time. Rational choice theory attempts to provide a single theory of agency and decision making that replaces all of these variant grounds of action. But rational choice theory has proven notoriously unsuccessful as a foundation for explanation of a large and complex event — war, revolution, economic crisis. 

Groups. Here too we can identify some partial regularities: Groups tend to coalesce in action when they have prominent shared characteristics.  Groups are more prone to panic than individuals. Groups tend to fail to accomplish collective purposes. Groups are hyper-sensitive to racial and ethnic markers.  And so forth. It is evident that these are partial, tendential, exception-laden, and inexact; not at all like the generalizations that characterize metals, liquids, or proteins.

Organizations and institutions. What about mid-level social arrangements like labor unions, congregations, and terrorist cells? It’s not that there aren’t any generalizations to be had concerning items at this level; it is that there are too many, and they are highly contingent, conditioned, and contradictory. Certain types of organization are more prone to accidents than others. This is true; but we have more confidence in our analysis of the most important features of the high-safety organization than we have in the corresponding generalization.  So there isn’t a stockpile of laws that might be produced to apply to a social situation and then turn the crank and derive the deductive consequences. 

Finally, what about large-scale events and structures — wars, revolutions, civil conflict? Here too there are some generalizations that social scientists have asserted. For example: Democracies don’t go to war with each other. War is made more likely when two powers have conflicts of interest over important resources. Wars create propaganda.  Revolutions don’t happen when the general population is satisfied. But generalizations about these sorts of social entities too are bounded and unreliable. They are conditional, we recognize immediately that they have exceptions, and they don’t permit prediction.

So the strong, governing generalizations that would be needed for a covering law explanation do not exist. As I argued a number of years ago, social regularities are phenomenal, not governing (link); they reflect characteristics of the actors rather than governing the behavior of the ensembles.  Does this mean that historical explanation is impossible?  No.  But we need to turn our attention from regularities to causal mechanisms and powers in order to see what a good historical explanation looks like.  A good historical explanation identifies a number of independent mechanisms and processes that are at work in a particular circumstance, and then demonstrates how these mechanisms, and the actions of the actors involved, lead to the outcome.

Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Chuck Tilly advanced a boldly different approach to analyzing and explaining complex historical phenomena, with special application to social contention.  They rejected the idea that there might be “laws” of revolution, civil unrest, or ethnic cleansing. They argued instead that there are a number of recurring “social mechanisms” of contention that can be identified in many instances of contention, and whose influences can be traced out to result in the observed outcomes.  Here is how McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly proceed in Dynamics of Contention.

We begin with a question: What led normally accepting accepting African-Americans both in Montgomery and throughout the South to risk their livelihoods and their lives in support of civil rights? Recall from Chapter I that in the “classical social movement agenda” the following factors come into play:

  • Social change processes initiate a process of change and trigger changes in the political, cultural, and economic environments.
  • Political opportunities and constraints confront a given challenger. Though challengers habitually face resource deficits and are excluded from routine decision making, the political environment at any time is not immutable; the political opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action vary over time. These variations shape the ebb and flow of a movement’s activity.
  • Forms of organization (informal as well as formal) offer insurgents sites for initial mobilization at the time opportunities present themselves and condition their capacity to exploit their new resources. Despite some evidence to the contrary (Piven and Cloward 1977), a large body of evidence finds organizational strength correlated with challengers’ ability to gain access and win concessions (Gamson 1990).
  • Framing, a collective process of interpretation, attribution, and social construction, mediates between opportunity and action. At a minimum, people must both feel aggrieved at some aspect of their lives and optimistic that acting collectively can redress the problem (Snow, et al. 1986; Snow and Benford 1988). Movements frame specific grievances within general collective action frames which dignify claims, connect them to others, and help to produce a collective identity among claimants.
  • Repertoires of contention offer the means by which people engage in contentious collective action. These forms are not neutral, continuous, or universally accessible; they constitute a resource that actors can use on behalf of their claims (Traugott, et al. 1995). The use of transgressive forms offers the advantages of surprise, uncertainty, and novelty, but contained forms of contention have the advantage of being accepted, familiar, and relatively easy to employ by claimants without special resources or willingness to incur costs and take great risks.

That classical agenda made three enduring contributions to the study of social movements. First, it made strong claims regarding the close connection between routine and contentious politics, helping to reframe the study of social movements as the proper province of both sociology and political science. Second, calling attention to the role of “mobilizing structures,” it represented a powerful challenge to the stress on social disorganization and breakdown in the older collective behavior paradigm. Third, it produced a credible picture of mobilization into social movements that was supported by a good deal of empirical evidence correlating the factors outlined above with increases in mobilization.

There are low-level generalizations offered throughout this series of statements. But all those generalizations are soft and exception-laden.  What MTT are interested in doing when they attempt to explain what they call “episodes of contention” is rather to identify the occurrence and interaction of a number of common mechanisms of contention.  And in fact, they explicitly repudiate the covering law model:

Our emphasis on recurring mechanisms and processes does not mean that we intend to pour all forms of contention into the same great mold, subjecting them to universal laws of contention and flattening them into a single two-dimensional caricature. On the contrary, we examine partial parallels in order to find widely operating explanatory mechanisms that combine differently and therefore produce different outcomes in one setting or another. To discover that third parties influence both strikes and ethnic mobilization by no means amounts to showing that the origins, trajectories, and outcomes of strikes and ethnic mobilization are the same, any more than identifying similarities in memory processes of mice and men proves mice and men to be identical in all regards. To discover mechanisms of competition and radicalization in both the French Revolution and in the South African freedom movement is not to say that the Jacobins and the African National Congress are the same. We pursue partial parallels in search of mechanisms that drive contention in different directions. Only then, and in Part III, do we examine how mechanisms combine in robust political processes.

Sixty years after Hempel’s classic article, the covering law theory is now generally regarded as a fundamentally wrong-headed way of thinking about historical (and social) explanation.  Logical positivism is not a convenient lens through which to examine the social and historical sciences.  There is too much contingency in the social world. Rather than being the result of law-governed processes, social outcomes proceed from the contingent and historically variable features of the actors who make them.  So the attention of many people interested in specifying the nature of historical and social explanation has focused on social mechanisms constituted and driven by common features of agency.

(Renate Mayntz’s discussion of causal mechanisms represents one of the best current treatments of the subject; link.)

Neil Gross on mechanisms

Neil Gross offers a friendly amendment to the growing literature on social mechanisms within sociology in “A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms” (link). He offers general support for the framework, but criticizes the main efforts at specifying what a social mechanism is. (James Mahoney makes a major effort to capture the main formulations in “Beyond Correlational Analysis”; link. Mahoney identifies 24 statements, all somewhat different.) Gross argues that the existing formulations are too tightly wedded to the metaphor of a physical mechanism — for example, the cogs, gears, and springs of a clock. And the existing frameworks are too dependent on the assumption of rational actors, rather than a more fluid and relational understanding of social action. In some respects his arguments converge with those of Andrew Abbott considered in an earlier post.

The account of social mechanisms that Gross puts forward is a “pragmatist” theory. Here is how he puts the point in the paper’s abstract.

Building on the insight increasingly common among sociological theorists — that action should be conceptualized in terms of social practices — I mobilize ideas from the tradition of classical American pragmatism to develop a more adequate theory of mechanisms. (358)

Gross praises the mechanisms approach for its ability to go beyond positivism in the philosophy of social science — the general idea that social explanations depend on discovering strong social laws.  But he finds the literature to be amorphous when it comes to definitions.  He identifies five main themes:

  1. Mechanisms as not necessarily observable structures or processes
  2. Mechanisms as observable processes that do not require the positing of motives
  3. Mechanisms as lower-order social processes
  4. Mechanisms as triggerable causal powers
  5. Mechanisms as transforming events (359-361)
Out of these themes Gross extracts a degree of consensus:
  1. Social mechanisms are causal in that they mediate between cause and effect.
  2. Social mechanisms unfold in time.
  3. Social mechanisms are general, although in varying degrees.
  4. Because a social mechanism is an intermediary process, it is necessarily composed of elements analyzed at a lower order of complexity or aggregation than the phenomenon it helps explain. (361-363)
He believes these four points capture the “theoretical consensus” that exists among the main expositions of the idea of a social mechanism.  He then identifies several points of difference among these accounts:
  1. Methodological individualism versus social ontologism.
  2. Formal versus substantive mechanisms.
  3. Analytical versus realist models. (363-364)
Now, finally, his own specific definition:

A social mechanism is a more or less general sequence or set of social events or processes analyzed at a lower order of complexity or aggregation by which — in certain circumstances — some cause X tends to bring about some effect Y in the realm of human social relations.  This sequence or set may or may not be analytically reducible to the actions of individuals who enact it, may underwrite formal or substantive causal processes, and may be observed, unobserved, or in principle unobservable. (364)

A key part of Gross’s critique of existing expositions of the social mechanisms approach, largely within the framework of analytical sociology, is the reliance these researchers make on the framework of rational choice theory.  Gross believes this is too narrow an understanding of human action, and therefore serves poorly as a foundation for our thinking about real social mechanisms.  Gross prefers a “pragmatist” understanding of action and actors, one that is closer to the field of symbolic interactionism than to economics.  This approach links action to “practices” and habits more fundamentally than to means-end rationality and goal-seeking behavior.  “Pragmatists maintain that instrumental rationality itself, when it does appear, is a kind of habit, a way that some humans can learn to respond to certain situations, and that we should be as interested in the historical processes by which the habit of rationality — in its various forms — develops and is situationally deployed as we should be in its effects” (367).
Gross brings these ideas about action and practice into the mechanisms framework with this basic idea.

Pragmatists would view social mechanisms as composed of chains or aggregations of factors confronting problem situations and mobilizing more or less habitual responses. (368)

This approach understands action as more fluid and interactive than deliberative and pre-planned.  And it emphasizes the contingency of interactions with other actors that influence the development and unfolding of the swirl of activity and the constitution of the actor him/herself.

Fundamentally Gross’s critique comes down to a plea for a better understanding of social action itself, and of the actor, than the mechanisms approach is inclined to offer.  And the framework within which to conceptualize action that he prefers is one that derives from inter-action, spontaneity, and adjustment as much as (more than?) the deliberative and calculating processes postulated by rational-actor models.
I think that Gross’s approach is fairly consonant with that taken by Chuck Tilly and Doug McAdam in various places.  McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly emphasize the “relational” nature of social action in Dynamics of Contention.  And here is a nice statement of McAdam’s summary view of social action in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970.

One of the virtues of the perspective sketched here is that it is as amenable to the analysis of routine as to that of contentious politics.  Too often analysts have reified the distinction between routine politics and social movements, revolutions and the like, and have wound up proposing separate theories to account for the two phenomena.   Since I see the latter as almost always growing out of and often transforming the former, I am motivated to propose a framework that is equally adept at explaining both. (xvii)

The account of contentious politics that McAdam favors considers four ideas:

  1. Exogenous change processes.
  2. Interpretive processes and the collective attribution of opportunity/threat.
  3. Appropriation of existing organizational space and routine collective identities.
  4. Innovative collective action and the onset of contention. (xvii-xxviii)

This account emphasizes much of Gross’s agenda as well: adaptiveness, contingency, a fluid definition of action through inter-action with other actors, and the significance of culture and identity in action.

Do organizations have causal powers?

An organization is a meso-level social structure. It is a structured group of individuals, often hierarchically organized, pursuing a relatively clearly defined set of tasks.  In the abstract, it is a set of rules and procedures that regulate and motive the behavior of the individuals who function within the organization.  There are also a set of informal practices within an organization that are not codified that have significant effects on the functioning of the organization (for example, the coffee room as a medium of informal communication).  Some of those individuals have responsibilities of oversight, which is a primary way in which the abstract rules of the organization are transformed into concrete patterns of activity by other individuals. Another behavioral characteristic of an organization is the set of incentives and rewards that it creates for participants in the organization. Often the incentives that exist were planned and designed to have specific effects on behavior of participants; by offering rewards for behaviors X, Y, Z, the organization is expected to produce a lot of X, Y, and Z. Sometimes, though, the incentives are unintended, created perhaps by the intersection of two rules of operation that lead to a perverse incentive leading to W. For example: a farm supervisor may ask peach pickers to discard the bruised peaches rather than placing them in the basket to be weighed. But if the laborers’ salaries are determined solely by the weight of the baskets they present for weighing, they will have an incentive to include the bruised peaches (at the bottom!).

Examples of organizations include things like these:

  • the Atlanta police department
  • a collective farm in Sichuan in 1965
  • the maintenance and operations staff of a nuclear power plant
  • a large investment bank on Wall Street
  • Certus Corporation (discoverer of the PCR process)
  • the land value assessment process in late Imperial China

The organization consists of a number of things:

  • a set of procedures for how to handle specific kinds of tasks
  • a set of people with skills and specific roles
  • a set of incentives and rewards to induce participants to carry out their roles effectively and diligently
  • a set of accountability processes permitting supervision and assessment of performance by individuals within the organization
  • an “executive” function with the power to refine / revise / improve the rules so as to bring about overall better performance

Let’s take the nuclear power plant staff as an example. The tasks of the organization are to control the complex technology and its instruments over an extended time; to conduct inspections of the physical infrastructure of the plant to discover failures before they occur; to conduct routine maintenance of machines and other physical systems; to respond quickly to failures, both large and small; and to sometimes conduct major upgrades on the hardware of the system. We may imagine that there are detailed, written procedures for each of these activities, as well as procedures for action during times of malfunction or breakdown. The people of the plant represent a range of specialized skills and specialized tasks. Wainwrights maintain and repair machinery; computer technicians maintain computer systems; nuclear technicians oversee the measured functioning of the system (pressures, temperatures, power production); safety workers inspect various system; and supervisors assign tasks and monitor performance.

Failures of the system arise for several different kinds of reasons: technical failure (a device fails for unexpected technical reasons, such as a faulty weld); operator failure (an operator disregards or misinterprets a pressure warning, and a pipe explodes before corrective action is taken); training failure (staff are technically or operationally unprepared for performing their tasks routinely or in exceptional circumstances); system failure (two or more sub-systems function as designed, but in an unusual circumstance may interact in such a way as to bring about an explosion, a computer crash, or a release of energy or heat); supervisory failure (procedures were good but supervisors permitted deviation from the procedures); venality failure (individuals in a position to control purchasing decisions authorize bad contracts for faulty materials for their personal profit).

The idea of a principal-agent problem is highly relevant within organizations, at every level. The executive expects the supervisor to faithfully perform his/her tasks of supervision. But since the executive does not directly monitor the performance of the supervisor, it is possible for the supervisor to shirk his/her duties and permit faulty performance by those he supervises. Likewise, the supervisor expects that the operator will continue to monitor and control the machine throughout the day; but it is possible for the operator to keep a solitaire window open on the screen. Each level of accountability, then, requires both formal expectations and a basis for trust in the good faith of the participants in the organization.

Now we are in a position to address the central question here: do organizations have causal powers? It seems to me that the answer is yes, in fairly specific ways. First, the rules and procedures of the organization may themselves have behavioral consequences that lead consistently to a certain kind of outcome.

Second, different organizational forms may be more or less efficient at performing their tasks, leading to consequences for the people and higher-level organizations that are depending on them. For example, two tax-collection systems may be designed for the same goal — to collect 10% of the grain produced everywhere in the kingdom. If one system is 75% successful in this task and the other is 50% successful, the state depending on the second system will be starved for resources.

Third, the discrepancy between what the rules require of participants and what the participants actually do may have consequences for the outputs of the organization. Police department regulations may require that each piece of physical evidence is separately bagged and catalogued with appropriate information about its collection. If police operatives are careless in the cataloguing of evidence it may be more difficult to convict the accused; this may lead to a rising disregard for the likelihood of conviction and a rise in the crime rate. Corruption (venal failure to perform one’s tasks faithfully) may lead to large consequences: the company is less profitable, the city is discredited to its citizens, the Church is delegitimated by the self-interested behavior of its clergy.

Fourth, the specific ways in which incentives, sanctions, and supervision are implemented differentiate across organizations. We may find that organizations with supervision system X are on average more productive or more effective than those with system Y.

Fifth, the organization has causal powers with respect to the behavior of the individuals involved in the organization. By presenting its rules, sanctions, and rewards to its participants, it changes their behavior in specific ways. Google and Apple have organized their internal procedures and rewards in such a way as to encourage creativeness, teamwork, and confidentiality. These organizations look quite different in their functioning and their products from a steel company or a shoe company.

This means two things. First, we can say with some confidence that the way an organization is structured makes a difference to its performance; this is a causal power all by itself. And second, we may be able to discover that there are broad characteristics that differentiate organizational types, and it may turn out that these distinct types also have different performance characteristics. We might discover, for example, that one system of oversight and employee motivation is significantly more likely to permit theft and corrupt behavior by its agents than another. In that case, we might say that these two systems differ in their propensities for generating corrupt behavior. (This is an argument that Robert Klitgaard makes in Controlling Corruption.)

So far we haven’t mentioned the familiar subject of “microfoundations” at all; we have considered an organization as a complex social entity. It is easy to specify the microfoundations of the causal powers we have identified. The organization’s performance is determined by the behaviors of the individuals who fall within it, and the aggregate individual behaviors are explained by the rules and procedures embodied in the organization. So the causal powers having to do with efficiency, effectiveness, and corruptibility can be disaggregated into the incentives and behaviors of typical individuals. But here is the key point: we don’t need to carry out this disaggregation when we want to invoke statements about the causal characteristics of organizations in explanations of more complex social processes. This is a case illustrating the point of relative explanatory autonomy developed in a prior post, and it also illustrates the point that David Elder-Vass makes in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency.

These observations lay a basis for concluding that meso-level social entities have causal powers that can legitimately be invoked in social explanations.  Significantly, there are clear and convincing examples of sociological explanations that take the causal powers of organizations as fundamental to their explanations of important social outcomes — for example, technology failure (Charles Perrow,Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologieslink), corruption (Robert Klitgaard, Controlling Corruption), and the use of common property resources (Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action). 

Doug McAdam on contentious politics and the social sciences

Doug McAdam is hard at work shedding new light on the meso-dynamics of contention.  What are the specific social and psychological mechanisms that bring people into social movements; what factors and processes make mobilization more feasible when social grievances arise?  Recently he has done work on the impact of Teach for America on its participants, and he and his graduate students are now examining a set of environmental episodes that might have created local NIMBY movements — but often didn’t.

McAdam’s most sustained contribution to the field of contention is his 1982 book on the dynamics of the struggle for racial equality, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970.  The book was reissued in 1999 with a substantive new introduction, and it has set the standard for sophisticated sociological study of a large, complex movement.  McAdam collaborated with Sidney Tarrow and Chuck Tilly in articulating a new vision of how to approach the politics of contention in Dynamics of Contention.  And he has co-authored or co-edited another half dozen books on social movements and popular mobilization.  So McAdam has been one of the architects of the field of contentious politics.  Most importantly, he and his collaborators have brought innovative new thinking to the definition of problems for social research.

So it is valuable to dig into some of McAdam’s thoughts and his sociological imagination as we think about how the sociology of the future might be shaped.  I conducted an extensive interview with Doug earlier this month, and it opened up quite a few interesting topics.  The full interview is posted on YouTube (link).

There are quite a few important turns to the conversation.

  1. Segment 1: Why is the study of contention a central topic within the social sciences?
  2. Segment 2: How can we approach contention without looking only at the successful cases?  How about the moments where contention might have developed but did not?  We can combine quantitative and qualitative methods — perhaps in an order that reverses the usual approach.  Maybe we can use quantitative studies to get a general feel for a topic, and then turn to qualitative and case studies to discover the mechanisms.
  3. Segment 3: Another important theme: “We are voracious meaning-making creatures.” Human beings have a cognitive-emotional-representational ability to attempt to represent meanings and their own significance within the larger order.  Rational choice theory has too narrow a conception of agency.  Why did the Black community stay off the buses in Montgomery?  Because people were strongly enmeshed in communities of meaning and commitment that framed the bus boycott in terms of meaning and identity.
  4. Segment 4: The psychology of mobilization is complex.  It’s not just “rational incentives”.  Organizers and leaders use the affinities and loyalties of the community to bring about collective action.  For example, an interesting strategy by SNCC to “shame” church leaders into supporting activists.  Movements happen very suddenly; this seems to reflect a process of “redefining” the situation for participants.  Another interesting issue: what is the right level of analysis — micro, meso, or macro?  Doug favors the “meso” level.
  5. Segment 5: More on the meso level: disaggregated social activity.  McAdam argues that government actions are themselves often at the meso level.  And he makes the point that Civil Rights reform was strongly influenced in the United States by the issues created internationally through the tensions and ideological conflicts of the Cold War.  This explains why it was Truman rather than Roosevelt who endorsed the need for Civil Rights reform.  You can’t explain the broad currents of the Civil Rights movement without understanding the international context that was influencing the Federal government.  (This is an example of a macro-level effect on social movements.)
  6. Segment 6: Now to mechanisms and processes.  There are no laws of civil wars.  So we need to look downward into the unfolding of the episodes of contention.  Comparative historical sociology is a very dynamic movement today.  Your work isn’t quite as comparative as that of Tilly or McAdam.  Doug indicates that he favors comparison; but he tends to choose cases that are broadly comparable with each other.  Tilly often made comparisons at a much higher level of variation.  Q: Would you have been comfortable framing your study of the American Civil Rights movement as a comparison with the Solidarity Movement in Poland?  A: no.  There is too broad a range of differences between the cases.
  7. Segment 7: McAdam offers some interesting observations about the relationship between general theory and the specific social phenomena under study.  An important point here is a strong advocacy for eclectic, broad reading as one approaches a complex social phenomenon.  We can’t say in advance where the important insights are going to come from — anthropology, political science, history, sociology, ….
  8. Segment 8: We can dig into the social features that make certain figures very successful in bringing a group of people into a readiness to engage together.  Is social status a key factor?  Is it that some people are particularly persuasive?  Doug wants to break open the black box and get a lot better understanding of the meso-level processes and mechanisms through which mobilization occurs.  A closing topic: what about protest and mobilization in Asia?  Do you think these ideas about mobilization are relevant and illuminating in China or Thailand?  Or has it developed in too specific a relationship to democratic societies? Does the current understanding of popular mobilization help us when we try to understand movements like the Redshirt movement in Thailand?  Doug believes the framework is relevant outside the democratic West.  The ideas need to be applied loosely and flexibly.
  9. Segment 9: So the theory is really a “sketch” of the space of mobilization, rather than a set of specific hypotheses about how mobilizations always work.  And in that understanding — the field is very relevant to research on the Thailand movement.

(Note the strong connections between this discussion and a few of the earlier interviews — Tilly, Tarrow, and Zald in particular (link).  My interview with Gloria House about her experience with SNCC in Lowndes County is very relevant as well (link).)

Scientific realism for the social sciences

What is involved in taking a realist approach to social science knowledge? Most generally, realism involves the view that at least some of the assertions of a field of knowledge make true statements about the properties of unobservable things, processes, and states in the domain of study.  Several important philosophers of science have taken up this issue in the past three decades, including Rom Harre (Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity) and Roy Bhaskar (A Realist Theory of Science).  Peter Manicas’s recent book, A Realist Philosophy of Social Science: Explanation and Understanding, is a useful step forward within this tradition. Here is how he formulates the perspective of scientific realism:

The real goal of science … is understanding of the processes of nature. Once these are understood, all sorts of phenomena can be made intelligible, comprehensible, unsurprising. (14)

Explanation … requires that there is a “real connection,” a generative nexus that produced or brought about the event (or pattern) to be explained. (20)

So realism has to do with discovering underlying processes that give rise to observable phenomena. And causal mechanisms are precisely the sorts of underlying processes that are at issue.  Here is how Manicas summarizes his position:

Theory provides representations of the generative mechanisms,including hypotheses regarding ontology, for example, that there are atoms, and hypotheses regarding causal processes, for example, that atoms form molecules in accordance with principles of binding. We noted also that a regression to more fundamental elements and processes also became possible. So quantum theory offers generative mechanisms of processes in molecular chemistry. Typically, for any process, there will be at least one mechanism operating, although for such complex processes as organic growth there will be many mechanisms at work. Theories that represent generative mechanisms give us understanding. We make exactly this move as regards understanding in the social sciences, except that, of course, the mechanisms are social. (75)

Manicas’s illustrations of causal powers and mechanisms are most often drawn from the natural world. But what basis do we have for thinking that social entities have stable causal properties — let alone a profile of causal powers that are roughly invariant across instances?

Consider an example, Theda Skocpol’s definition of social revolutions:

Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of socio-economic and political institutions, and–as Lenin so vividly reminds us–social revolutions are accompanied and in part effectuated through class upheavals from below. It is this combination of thorough-going structural transformation and massive class upheavals that sets social revolutions apart from coups, rebellions, and even political revolutions and national independence movements. (link)

Realism invites us to consider whether “social revolutions” really have the characteristics she attributes to them.  Do social revolutions have an underlying nature distinctive causal powers that might be identified by a social theory?  More generally, what basis do we have for thinking that certain types of social entities possess a specific set of causal powers?

The answer seems to be, very little.  Types of social entities — revolutions, states, riots, market economies, fascist movements — are heterogeneous groupings of concrete social formations rather than “kinds” along the lines of “metal” or “gene”.  Each of the extended historical events that Skocpol offers as instances of the category “social revolution” is unique and contingent in a variety of ways; these historical episodes do not share a common causal nature.  It is legitimate to group them together under the term “social revolution”; but it is essential that we not commit the error of reification and imagine that the group so constituted must share a fundamental causal nature in common.  So the most direct application of this kind of realism to the social sciences seems somewhat unpromising.

But we are on firmer ground when we consider a particularly central type of assertion in the social sciences: claims about underlying causal mechanisms or social processes.  So what does it mean to assert that a given social mechanism “really exists”? 

Take the idea of “stereotype threat” as one of the mechanisms underlying an important social fact, the racial and gender differences in performance that have been observed on some standardized tests (Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans” (link); see also this article in the Atlantic).  We can summarize the theory along these lines: “Prevalent assumptions about the characteristics and performance of various salient social groups can depress (or enhance) the performance of members of those groups on intellectual and physical tasks.  This provides a partial explanation of the observed differentials in performance.”  This mechanism is hypothesized as one of the ways in which performance by individuals in various groups is socially influenced in such a way as to lead to differential performance across groups.  It postulates a set of internal psychological mechanisms surrounding cognition and problem-solving, all related to the individual’s self-ascribed social identity.

The realism question is this: do these hypothetical psychological effects actually occur in real human individuals?  And do these differences in cognitive processes lead to differential performance across groups?  If we confirm both these points, then we can conclude that “stereotype threat is a real social psychological mechanism.”  The microfoundations of this mechanism reside in two locations: the concrete cognitive processes of the individuals, and the social behaviors of persons around these individuals, giving subtle cues about stereotypes that are discerned by the test-taker.

So we might say that we can conclude that a postulated social mechanism “really” exists if we are able to provide piecemeal empirical and theoretical arguments demonstrating that the terms of the mechanism hypothesis are confirmed in the actions and behavior of agents; and that these patterns of action do in fact typically lead to the sorts of outcomes postulated.  In other words, we need to look at our hypotheses about social mechanisms as small, somewhat separable theories that need separate empirical, historical, and theoretical evaluation.  And when we are successful in providing convincing support for these mechanism-theories, we are also justified in concluding that the postulated mechanism really exists.  The social world really embodies stereotype threat if individuals are really affected in their cognitive performances by the sorts of subtle behavioral cues mentioned by the theory, in roughly the ways stipulated by the theory.  And we will feel most confident in this assertion if we also find new areas of behavior where this mechanism also appears to be at work.

This approach has an important implication about social ontology.  The reality of a social mechanism is dependent on facts about agents, their characteristics of agency, and the environment of social relationships within which they act.  So there is a close intellectual relationship between the ontology of methodological localism and realism about causal mechanisms.

(The smokestack image above illustrates a different kind of social mechanism — the workings of externalities in a market economy, creating pollution by dumping public harms to save private costs.)

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