Durkheim’s social holism

Emile Durkheim is celebrated for many achievements in the founding of the discipline of sociology, but most striking is his endorsement of the autonomy and irreducibility of the social realm to individual motivation, action, or psychology. “Social facts are things, irreducible to individual psychology.” Durkheim was, we are often told, a social holist. This is a tantalizing and puzzling position. Here is a description of social facts offered by Durkheim in Rules of Sociological Method:

Yet social phenomena are things and should be treated as such. To demonstrate this proposition one does not need to philosophize about their nature or to discuss the analogies they present with phenomena of a lower order of existence. Suffice to say that they are the sole datum afforded the sociologist. A thing is in effect all that is given, all that is offered, or rather forces itself upon our observation. To treat phenomena as things is to treat them as data, and this constitutes the starting point for science. Social phe­nomena unquestionably display this characteristic. (Rules, 69)

Social phenomena must therefore be considered in themselves, detached from the conscious beings who form their own mental representations of them. They must be studied from the outside, as external things” because it is in this guise that they present themselves to us. If this quality of externality proves to be only apparent, the illusion will be dissipated as the science progresses and we will see, so to speak, the external merge with the internal. (70)

Here, then, is a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him. Consequently, since they consist of representations and actions, they cannot be confused with organic phenomena, nor with psychical phenomena, which have no existence save in and through the individual consciousness. Thus they constitute a new species and to them must be exclusively assigned the term social. It is appropriate, since it is clear that, not having the individual as their substratum, they can have none other than society, either political society in its entirety or one of the partial groups that it includes — religious denominations, political and literary schools, occupational corporations, etc. Moreover, it is for such as these alone that the term is fitting, for the word ‘social’ has the sole meaning of designating those phenomena which fall into none of the categories of facts already constituted and labelled. (52)

Durkheim seems to be quite committed, then, to the full and complete separation between social facts and individual facts. His reasons are unconvincing, however. 

Notice first that these points are entirely apriori. They derive from the idea — almost Aristotelian in its dogmatism — that each science must have a distinct and independent domain of things to study; and therefore sociology demands that social facts are distinct from the objects of study of another science — psychology.

What are those supposed social facts? There are several that Durkheim refers to repeatedly: social conscience or morality; social habits and mores; laws and traditions; political arrangements; and social sentiments such as patriotism. In the simplistic understanding of Durkheim’s ontology, these sets of norms, beliefs, values, and practices exist above individuals and constrain and direct their behavior. They cause events at the individual level, but they are not caused by individual-level events or conditions. This is an untenable holism, however. Further, there are important statements in Durkheim’s writings that undercut this extravagant holism. For example, consider these comments from the second preface to the Rules:

Yet since society comprises only individuals it seems in accordance with common sense that social life can have no other substratum than the individual consciousness. Otherwise it would seem suspended in the air, floating in the void. (39)

Here he concedes the point that the social world consists only of individuals; but he wants to draw an analogy with the “emergence” of the physical properties of physical ensembles to support the idea that “social facts” are different in kind from individual facts:

The hardness of bronze lies neither in the copper, nor in the tin, nor in the lead which have been used to form it, which are all soft or malleable bodies. The hardness arises from the mixing of them. (39)

By analogy, he suggests that it is plausible to propose that social ensembles — social facts — possess properties different in kind from the properties of their parts — the consciousness and representations of the individuals who make them up.

One is forced to admit that these specific facts reside in the society itself that produces them and not in its parts — namely its members. In this sense therefore they lie outside the consciousness of individuals as such, in the same way as the distinctive features of life lie outside the chemical substances that make up a living organism. They cannot be reabsorbed into the elements without contradiction. since by definition they presume something other than what those elements contain. (39-40)

This line of thought is unconvincing, however. One giveaway is the phrase “by definition they presume something …”. We cannot learn something substantive about the nature of the world based on our definitions of “social facts” or our delineation of the “scope of sociology”. Further, what are these qualitatively and ontologically new properties of the social realm? Social facts are said to be objective, independent, and coercive. They are objective because they persist over time. They are independent, perhaps, because they do not depend on any one individual’s psychological content. And they are coercive because it is either impossible or inconvenient for individuals to reject them (for example, the conventions of money and debt). But these are peculiarly easy characteristics to explain in a microfoundational way — more so even than the physical chemistry of the properties of a metal alloy. Once it is established that one should not spit into his dinner napkin at a formal meal — a social fact — the social fact is enforced through the fact that his dinner companions share the aversion, they express their disgust at his behavior, and they take him off future dinner guest lists. The microfoundations for this social norm are straightforward.

Consider another important point stemming from his view in Rules of the education of children:

Moreover, this definition of a social fact can be verified by examining an experience that is characteristic. It is sufficient to observe how children are brought up. If one views the facts as they are and indeed as they have always been, it is patently obvious that all education consists of a continual effort to impose upon the child ways of seeing, thinking and acting which he himself would not have arrived at spontaneously. (Rules, 53)

This passage refers to exactly the feature of social actors that I refer to as being “socially constituted” in my formulation of methodological localism (link). Children are brought to instantiate the beliefs, practices, behaviors, and values of the adults around them, and they in turn become the vehicles for the “social facts” represented by those beliefs and practices in the next turn of the wheel. It is straightforward, then, to provide the microfoundations of the idea that “the rules of polite French Catholic behavior” represent an objective social fact external to the particular beliefs of the individuals of society; once individuals have learned these rules, they become coercive for other individuals in the future. But — contrary to Durkheim’s rhetoric at various points — there is no fundamental ontological separation between the “social fact of French politesse” and the psychological realities of French individuals. The individuals are shaped by their formative immersion in these rules as instantiated by their elders, and in turn go on to shape the behavior of others.

Durkheim is explicit in rejecting this microfoundational interpretation of social facats:

Thus it is not the fact that they are general which can serve to characterise sociological phenomena. Thoughts to be found in the consciousness of each individual and movements which are repe­ated by all individuals are not for this reason social facts. If some have been content with using this characteristic in order to define them it is because they have been confused, wrongly, with what might be termed their individual incarnations. What constitutes social facts are the beliefs, tendencies and practices of the group taken collectively. (54)

But this is a purely semantic point. Durkheim is insistent that French politesse is a social fact that is distinct from the psychological facts of French individuals because it is a feature of the ensemble taken collectively, not simply a conjunction of facts about individual psychology. It is what we might call a “category mistake” to confuse the two levels. 

We might say anachronistically that Durkheim would have emphatically rejected the picture of the social world involved in Coleman’s boat (link), and would also have rejected the idea that social statements require microfoundations. He might possibly have accepted ontological individualism (as the passage from the second preface suggests), but would have endorsed some kind of emergentism. Social characteristics are different in kind from individual psychological characteristics. But, as we have seen elsewhere, emergentism can be formulated in a weak and a strong version (link); and the strong version is fundamentally mysterious. The weak version maintains that higher-level properties are different from lower-level properties but can in principle be explained by the lower-level properties; the strong version denies that the higher-level properties can be explained by the lower-level properties at all. And this sounds very much like a sociological version of vitalism. Durkheim is not forced to defend strong emergentism.

In his substantive and insightful introduction to Rules Steven Lukes summarizes his own assessment of these issues in terms that still seem correct to me:

But the [holistic] view makes little sense as a positive methodological principle. Every macro-theory presupposes, whether implicitly or explicitly, a micro-theory to back; up its explanations: in Durkheim’s terms, social causes can only produce these, rather than those, social effects, if individuals act and react and interact in these ways rather than those. (17)

These arguments seem to lead to a pair of conclusions. First, Durkheim’s strenuous and repeated privileging of the independence of “social facts” should not be understood as a demonstration of the complete causal independence of social facts from individual representations; rather, his emphasis on this point seems to derive from his polemical goal of establishing sociology as an entirely independent science. But this is not a valid reason for drawing conclusions about ontology. Second, it is entirely possible to offer an account of the relationship between social-level and individual-level descriptions that joins them. Whether he would acknowledge the point or not, Durkheim’s social ontology does not provide any basis for believing that claims about causation at the social level cannot be instantiated through some account of the actions and representations of individual actors at a time and place. We can put the point more strongly: Durkheim’s sociology no less than Weber’s or Marx’s requires a theory of the micro-macro connection. Further, Durkheim sometimes appears to acknowledge this point (for example, in his treatment of education of children). Therefore Durkheim does not provide a basis — philosophical, theoretical, or empirical — for defending social holism.

Actors in historical epochs

I’ve argued often for the idea that social science and historical explanations need to be “actor-centered” — we need to ground our hypotheses about social and historical causation in theories of the pathways through which actors embody those causal processes. Actors in relation to each other constitute the “substrate” of social causation. Actors make up the microfoundations of social causes and processes. Actors constitute the causal necessity of social mechanisms.

In its abstract formulation this is little more than an expression of ontological individualism (link). But in application it represents a highly substantive research challenge. In order to provide concrete accounts of social processes in various cultural and historical settings, we need to have fairly specific theories of the actor in those settings (link): what motivates actors, what knowledge do they have of their environment, what cognitive and practical frameworks do they bring to their experiences of the world, what do they want, how do they reason, how do they relate to other actors, what norms and values are embedded in their action principles?

Rational choice theory and its cousins (desire-belief-opportunity theory, for example) provide what is intended to be a universal framework for understanding action. But as has been argued frequently here, these schemes are reductive and inadequate as a general basis for understanding action (link). It has also been argued here that the recent efforts to formulate a “new pragmatist” theory of the actor represent useful steps forward (link).

A very specific concern arises when we think carefully about the variety of actors found in diverse historical and cultural settings. It is obvious that actors in specific cultures have different belief systems and different cognitive frameworks; it is equally apparent that there are important and culture-specific differences across actors when it comes to normative and value commitments. So what is needed in order to investigate social causation in significantly different cultural and historical settings? Suppose we want to conduct research on social contention along the lines of work by Charles Tilly, with respect to communities with widely different cultural assumptions and frameworks. How should we attempt to understand basic elements of contention such as resistance, mobilization, and passivity if we accept the premise that French artisans in Paris in 1760, Vietnamese villagers in 1950, and Iranian professionals in 2018 have very substantial differences in their action principles and cognitive-practical frameworks?

There seem to be several different approaches we might take. One is to minimize the impact of cultural differences when it comes to material deprivation and oppression. Whatever else human actors want, they want material wellbeing and security. And when political or social conditions place great pressure on those goods, human actors will experience “grievance” and will have motives leading them to mobilize together in support of collective efforts to ameliorate the causes of those grievances.

Another possibility is to conclude that collective action and group behavior are substantially underdetermined by material factors, and that we should expect as much diversity in collective behavior as we observe in individual motivation and mental frameworks. So the study of contention is still about conflicts among individuals and groups; but the conflicts that motivate individuals to collective action may be ideological, religious, culinary, symbolic, moral — or material. Moreover, differences in the ways that actors frame their understandings of their situation may lead to very different patterns of the dynamics of contention — the outbreak and pace of mobilization, the resolution of conflict, the possibility of compromise.

Putting the point in terms of models and simulations, we might think of the actors as a set of cognitive and practical processing algorithms and who decide what to do based on their beliefs and these decision algorithms. It seems unavoidable that tweaking the parameters of the algorithms and beliefs will lead to very different patterns of behavior within the simulation. Putting the point the other way around, the successful mobilization of Vietnamese peasants in resistance to the French and the US depended on a particular setting of the cognitive-practical variables in these individual actors. Change those settings and, perhaps, you change the dynamics of the process and you change history.

*         *         *

Clifford Geertz is one of the people who has taken a fairly radical view on the topic of the constituents of the actor. In “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali” in The Interpretation Of Cultures he argues that Balinese culture conceives of the individual person in radically unfamiliar ways:

One of these pervasive orientational necessities is surely the charac terization of individual human beings. Peoples everywhere have devel oped symbolic structures in terms of which persons are perceived not baldly as such, as mere unadorned members of the human race, but as representatives of certain distinct categories of persons, specific sorts of individuals. In any given case, there are inevitably a plurality of such structures. Some, for example kinship terminologies, are ego entered: that is, they denote the status of an individual in terms of his relation ship to a specific social actor. Others are centered on one or another subsystem or aspect of society and are invariant with respect to the perspectives of individual actors: noble ranks, age-group statuses, occu pational categories. Some-personal names and sobriquets-are infor mal and particularizing; others-bureaucratic titles and caste desig nations-are formal and standardizing. The everyday world in which the members of any community move, their taken-for-granted field of social action, is populated not by anonymous, faceless men with out qualities, but by somebodies, concrete classes of determinate per sons positively characterized and appropriately labeled. And the symbol systems which denote these classes are not given in the nature of things –they are historically constructed, socially maintained, and individu ally applied. (363-364)

In Bali, there are six sorts of labels which one person can apply to an other in order to identify him as a unique individual and which I want to consider against this general conceptual background: ( I ) personal names; (2) birth order names; (3) kinship terms; (4) teknonyms; (5) sta tus titles (usually called “caste names” in the literature on Bali); and (6) public titles, by which I mean quasi-occupational titles borne by chiefs, rulers, priests, and gods. These various labels are not, in most cases, employed simultaneously, but alternatively, depending upon the situa tion and sometimes the individual. They are not, also, all the sorts of such labels ever used; but they are the only ones which are generally recognized and regularly applied. And as each sort consists not of a mere collection of useful tags but of a distinct and bounded terminologi cal system, I shall refer to them as “symbolic orders of person-defini tion” and consider them first serially, only later as a more or less coher ent cluster. (368)

Also outstanding in this field is Robert Darnton’s effort to reconstruct the forms of agency underlying the “great cat massacre” in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History; link.

Do we still need microfoundations?

For quite a few years I have found the concept of microfoundations to be central for thinking about relationships across levels of social and individual activity. Succinctly, I have argued that, while it is perfectly legitimate to formulate theories and hypotheses about the properties and causal powers of higher-level social entities, it is necessary that those entities should have microfoundations at the level of the structured activities of socially situated individuals. Higher-level social things need microfoundations at the level of the individuals whose actions and thoughts create the social entity or power. (I have also used the idea of “methodological localism” to express this idea; link.) A fresh look at the presuppositions of the concept makes me more doubtful about its validity, however.

This concept potentially plays two different roles within the philosophy of social science. It might serve as a methodological requirement about the nature of social explanation: explanations of social phenomena need to take the form of detailed accounts of the pathways that bring them about at the level of individual socially situated situated actors. Second, it might be understood as an ontological requirement about acceptable social constructs; higher-level social constructs must be such that it is credible that they are constituted by patterns of individual-level activity. Neither is straightforward.

Part of the appeal of the concept of microfoundations derived from a very simple and logical way of understanding certain kinds of social explanation. This was the idea that slightly mysterious claims about macro-level phenomena (holistic claims) can often be given very clear explanations at the micro-level. Marx’s claim that capitalism is prone to crises arising from a tendency for the rate of profit to fall is a good example. Marx himself specifies the incentives facing the capitalist that lead him or her to make investment decisions aimed at increasing profits; he shows that these incentives lead to a substitution of fixed capital for variable capital (machines for labor); profits are created by labor; so the ratio of profit to total capital investment will tend to fall. This is a microfoundational explanation, in that it demonstrates the individual-level decision making and action that lead to the macro-level result.

There is another reason why the microfoundations idea was appealing — the ontological discipline it imposed with respect to theories and hypotheses at the higher level of social structure and causation. The requirement of providing microfoundations was an antidote to lazy thinking in the realm of social theory. Elster’s critique of G. A. Cohen’s functionalism in Karl Marx’s Theory of History is a case in point; Elster argued convincingly that a claim that “X exists because it brings about Y benefits for the system in which it exists” can only be supported if we can demonstrate the lower-level causal processes that allow the prospect of future system benefits to influence X (link). Careless functionalism is unsupportable. More generally, the idea that there are social properties that are fundamental and emergent is flawed in the same way that vitalist biology is flawed. Biological facts are embedded within the material biochemistry of the cell and the gene, and claims that postulate a “something extra” over and above biochemistry involve magical thinking. Likewise, social facts are somehow or other embedded within and created by a substratum of individual action.

In short, there are reasons to find the microfoundations approach appealing. However, I’m inclined to think that it is less compelling than it appears to be.

First, methodology. The microfoundations approach is a perfectly legitimate explanatory strategy; but it is only one approach out of many. So searching for microfoundations ought to be considered an explanatory heuristic rather than a methodological necessity. Microfoundational accounts represent one legitimate form of social explanation (micro-to-meso); but so do “lateral” accounts (meso-to-meso explanations) or even “descending” accounts (macro-to-meso explanations). So a search for microfoundations is only one among a number of valid explanatory approaches we might take. Analytical sociology is one legitimate approach to social research; but there are other legitimate approaches as well (link)

Second, social ontology. The insistence that social facts must rest upon microfoundations is one way of expressing the idea of ontological dependency of the social upon the individual level (understanding, of course, that individuals themselves have social properties and constraints). But perhaps there are other and more compelling ways of expressing this idea. One is the idea of ontological individualism. This is the view that social entities, powers, and conditions are all constituted by the actions and thoughts of individual human beings, and nothing else. The social world is constituted by the socially situated individuals who make it up. Brian Epstein articulates this requirement very clearly here: “Ontological individualism is the thesis that facts about individuals exhaustively determine social facts” (link). This formulation makes it evident that individualism and microfoundations are closely linked. In particular, ontological individualism is true if and only if all social facts possess microfoundations at the level of socially situated individuals.

The microfoundations approach seems to suggest a coherent and strong position about the nature of the social world and the nature of social explanation; call this the “strong theory” of microfoundations:

  1. There are discernible and real differences in level in various domains, including the domain of the social.
  2. Higher-level entities depend on the properties and powers of lower-level constituents and nothing else.
  3. The microfoundations of a higher-level thing are the particular arrangements and actions of the lower-level constituents that bring about the properties of the higher-level thing.
  4. The gold standard for an explanation for a higher-level fact is a specification of the microfoundations of the thing.
  5. At the very least we need to be confident that microfoundations exist for the higher-level thing.
  6. There are no “holistic” or non-reducible social entities.
  7. There is no lateral or downward social causation.

Taken together, this position amounts to a fairly specific and narrow view of the social world — indeed, excessively so. It fully incorporates the assumptions of ontological individualism, it postulates that generative microfoundational explanations are the best kind of social explanation, and it rules out several other credible lines of thought about social causation.

In fact, we might want to be agnostic about ontological individualism and the strong theory of microfoundations for a couple of reasons. One is the possibility of downward and lateral causation from meso or macro level to meso level. Another is the possibility raised by Searle and Epstein that there may be social facts that cannot be disaggregated onto facts about individuals (the validity of a marriage, for example; link). A third is the difficult question of whether there might be reasons for thinking that a lower level of organization (e.g. the cognitive system or neurophysiology) is more compelling than a folk theory of individual behavior. Finally, the metaphor of levels and strata itself may be misleading or incoherent as a way of understanding the realm of the social; it may turn out to be impossible to draw clear distinctions between levels of the social. (This is the rationale for the idea of a “flat” social ontology; link.) So there seem to be a handful of important reasons for thinking that we may want to suspend judgment about the correctness of ontological individualism.

Either way, the microfoundations thesis seems to be questionable. If ontological individualism is true, then it follows trivially that there are microfoundations for a given social fact. If ontological individualism is false, then the microfoundations thesis as an ontological thesis is false as well — there will be social properties that lack microfoundations at the individual level. Either way, the key question is the truth or falsity of ontological individualism.

Two things now seem more clear to me than they did some years ago. First, microfoundationalism is not a general requirement on social explanation. It is rather one explanatory strategy out of many. And second, microfoundationalism is not necessarily the best way of articulating the ontology of the social world. A more direct approach is to simply specify that the social world is constituted by the activities and thoughts of individuals and the artifacts that they create. The principle of ontological individualism seems to express this view very well. And when the view is formulated clearly, its possible deficiencies become clear as well. So I’m now inclined to think that the idea of microfoundations is less useful than it once appeared to be. This doesn’t mean that the microfoundations concept is incoherent or misleading; but it does mean that it does not contribute to social-science imperatives, either of methodology or ontology.

Microfoundations and mechanisms

The topics of microfoundations and causal mechanisms have come up frequently in this work. The microfoundations thesis maintains that social attributions and explanations based on macro-level entities and structures depend upon pathways at the level of the individual actors through which the entities and processes are maintained. The causal mechanisms thesis maintains that the best way of understanding causal assertions linking A to B is to identify the concrete causal mechanisms through which the powers of A bring about the properties of B.

Is there a relation between these two bodies of philosophical theory about the social world? There is, in a fairly obvious way. When we ask for the microfoundations of a hypothesized social process, we are really asking about the lower-level social mechanisms that bring the process about.

For example: What is it about an extended population that creates the observed features of the spread of rumor or panic? Or in other words, what are the social mechanisms through which socially interacting actors spread rumors or contribute to a broader occurrence of panic and fear? When we provide an account of the ways in which individuals communicate with each other and then demonstrate how messages diffuse through the given network structure, we have identified one of the social mechanisms of the social process in question.

Asking for the microfoundations of X is asking for an answer to two related questions: What is X (at the micro level)? And how does X work (also at the micro level)? The latter question can be paraphrased as: what are the sub-level mechanisms through which the X-level processes work? The first question is not so clearly a question about mechanisms; it is rather a question about composition. What is it about the substrate that gives rise to (constitutes) the observed macro-level properties of X? But in their book In Search of Mechanisms: Discoveries across the Life Sciences Craver and Darden argue that mechanisms play both roles. Mechanisms can be invoked to account for both process and structure (link). Here is their diagram illustrating the role that mechanisms can play with respect to higher-level structures and processes:

So here is a preliminary answer to the question of whether microfoundations and mechanisms are related. In the most immediate sense, we might say that the search for microfoundations is a search for a group of lower-level social mechanisms, to account for both the constitution and the causal dynamics of the higher-level structure. Searching for microfoundations involves learning more about the substrate of a given level of structure and process, and the causal mechanisms that occur at that lower level. Microfoundations is the question and mechanisms is the answer.

This response is not fully satisfactory, however, for several reasons.

First, there is an implication in this analysis that mechanisms live at the substrate level — in the case of the social world, at the level of individual social actors. This is clearly assumed in the analytical sociology literature (Hedstrom, Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology). But this is an unnecessary and narrow stipulation about causal mechanisms. It is plausible to maintain that there are causal mechanisms at a range of levels (link); for example, at the cognitive level, the motivational level, the organizational level, or the system level (link).

Second, we might also observe that various social mechanisms themselves possess microfoundations. There are processes in the causal substrate that constitute the causal necessity of a specified mechanism. A spark in the presence of methane and oxygen brings about an explosion. This is a mechanism of combustion. The substrate is the chemical composition of methane and oxygen and the chemical processes that occur when an electrical spark is introduced into the environment. So the question of “level” is a relative one. A given set of objects and causal processes has its own substrate at a lower level, and simultaneously may serve as the substrate for objects and processes at higher levels.

We might also consider the idea that the two concepts have a different grammar. They play different roles in the language of science. The microfoundations conceptual scheme immediately invokes the idea of level and substrate. It brings along with it an ontological principle (the higher level is constituted by the properties of the substrate), and a partial methodological principle (the generative strategy of showing how higher-level processes come about as a consequence of the workings of the substrate). The mechanisms conceptual scheme does not inherently presuppose higher-level and lower-level structures; instead, a mechanism is something like a unit of causation, and it may be found at any level from molecular biology to organizational change.

(In an earlier post I considered a similar question, the relation between powers and mechanisms. There I argued that these two concepts are symmetrical: mechanisms lead us to powers, and powers lead us to mechanisms.)

Institutional logics — actors within institutions


Why do people behave as they do within various social contexts — the workplace, the street, the battlefield, the dinner table? These are fundamental questions for sociologists — even when they are ultimately interested in the workings of supra-individual entities like organizations and structures. And generally speaking, sociology as a research tradition has perhaps not paid enough attention to this level of the social world.

Patricia Thornton, William Ocasio, and Michael Lounsbury describe an important theoretical development within the general framework of new institutionalism in The Institutional Logics Perspective: A New Approach to Culture, Structure and Process. And this body of research promises to shed more light on the ways in which individual social behavior is shaped and propelled. (Here is a summary description of the institutional-logics approach in a chapter in The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism; link.)

What I find particularly appealing about this approach are four related things: it provides a deliberate effort to offer a more nuanced theory of the social actor, it recognizes heterogeneity across institutions and settings, it is deliberately cross-level in its approach, and it focuses on a search for the mechanisms that carry out the forms of influence postulated by the approach.

Here is how Thornton and Ocasio describe their goals:

Our aim is not to revive neoinstitutional theory, but to transform it. Recognizing both its strengths, the original insights on how macro structures and culture shape organizations, and its weaknesses–limited capacity to explain agency and the micro foundations of institutions, institutional heterogeneity, and change–the institutional logics perspective provides a new approach that incorporates macro structure, culture, and agency, through cross-level processes (society, institutional field, organization, interactions, and individuals) that explain how institutions both enable and constrain action….  We are excited by the opportunities for contributions from multiple disciplines and by the progress in moving institutional theory forward in multiple directions that conceptualize culture, structure, and process; restoring the sensibilities of the role of actors and structures while revealing multi- and cross-level processes and mechanisms. (vi-vii)

Here is how they define their understanding of “institutional logic”:

… as the socially constructed, historical patterns of cultural symbols and material practices, including assumptions, values, and beliefs, by which individuals and organizations provide meaning to their daily activity, organize time and space, and reproduce their lives and experiences. (2)

The institutional logics perspective is a metatheoretical framework for analyzing the interrelationships among institutions, individuals, and organizations in social systems. It aids researchers in questions of how individual and organizational actors are influenced by their situation in multiple social locations in an interinstitutional system, for example the institutional orders of the family, religion, state, market, professions, and corporations. Conceptualized as a theoretical model, each institutional order of the interinstitutional system distinguishes unique organizing principles, practices, and symbols that influence individual and organizational behavior. Institutional logics represent frames of reference that condition actors’ choices for sensemaking, the vocabulary they use to motivate action, and their sense of self and identity. The principles, practices, and symbols of each institutional order differentially shape how reasoning takes place and how rationality is perceived and experienced. (2)

This is a dense set of ideas about what the metatheory of institutional logics is intended to provide. But the key is perhaps the focus on the shaping of the actor’s frame by the institution. This parallels the idea of “cognitive/emotional frames” that has been discussed in earlier posts (link, link). And this makes it a valuable contribution to the richer theory of the actor that I’ve argued for earlier (link). The idea seems to be that one’s inculcation into a set of religious practices or an occupation produces a distinctive set of attitudes, emotions, beliefs, and processes of reasoning through which individuals perceive and act upon their environment. And these frames are not generic and interchangeable. (The researchers refer to Bourdieu’s notion of practice in this context, which is consistent with the interpretation I’m offering. And they link their ideas to those of Fligstein and McAdam in their development of strategic action fields; link.)

In the SAGE chapter mentioned above (link) Thornton and Ocasio offer five principles that underlie the institutional logics approach (103 ff.):

  1. Embedded agency — interests, identities, values, and assumptions of individuals and organizations are embedded within prevailing institutional logics
  2. Society as an inter-institutional system — [draws on Friedland and Alford (link); individuals are located within a diverse range of high-level institutions like family, market, religion, …; ]
  3. The material and cultural foundations of institutions — each of the institutional orders in society has both material and cultural characteristics
  4. Institutions at multiple levels — institutional logics may develop at a variety of different levels… This flexibility allows for a wide variety of mechanisms to be emphasized in research and theoretical development
  5. Historical contingency — [the approach emphasizes the ways in which institutions at every level take shape as a result of historically contingent events and actions]

The institutional-logics approach is intended to serve both as metatheory and as methodology. It suggests avenues of research for sociologists and it poses questions that require empirical answers. Accordingly, Thornton and Ocacio illustrate the linkages postulated by institutional logics between level by specifying a few mechanisms that do the relevant work: for example, the formation of collective identities, competition for status, social classification (a cognitive mechanism), and salience and attention (SAGE, 111-114). These are reasonably concrete cognitive and social mechanisms through which institutions influence behavior.

Research presented by Ernst Fehr at a workshop in Stockholm this summer is very relevant to the institutional-logics approach. Using some of the tools of behavioral economics, Fehr demonstrated that people (bankers, in the case he presented) behave very differently when presented with opportunities for gain through deception depending upon which frame has been made salient for them — the professional frame of the bank or the personal frame of the home life.

Thornton and her collaborators lay open the possibility of this kind of setting-specific behavior in The Institutional Logics Perspective: A New Approach to Culture, Structure and Process:

Individuals and organizations, if only subliminally, are aware of the differences in the cultural norms, symbols, and practices of different institutional orders and incorporate this diversity into their thoughts, beliefs, and decision making. That is, agency, and the knowledge that makes agency possible, will vary by institutional order. (4)

What is important from an institutional logics perspective is that more micro processes of change are built from translations, analogies, combinations, and adaptations of more macro institutional logics. (4)

This approach strikes me as providing a useful toolkit of ideas and proposed mechanisms that serve a very important methodological need: to help sociologists and other social scientists identify the mechanisms that underlie important social processes and events. It is a valuable contribution to both sociological theory and methodology.

(I think that Erving Goffman would have a lot to say about the photo from the bank above: the identical smiles on the faces of the female tellers, the politely queued customers, the business suits and handbags of the people waiting in line, the woman holding her child. Each of these bits of behavior, caught in the 1/60th of a second of the frame, says a lot about the rules and norms that govern behavior in the institution and the setting. One suspects that the customers aren’t flashing the same bright smiles — because there is nothing in their role as customers that requires them to. In fact, the gentleman on the upper right is distinctly not smiling at all. Gender, workplace, commerce, sales — all have inflected the behaviors of the individuals captured in the frame.)

Guest post by Jeroen Van Bouwel: On microfoundations and macrofoundations

[Jeroen Van Bouwel accepted my invitation to offer his thoughts about several recent posts here on the topic of microfoundations. Jeroen is co-author (with Erik Weber and L. De Vreese) of Scientific Explanation (Springer, 2013). Jeroen is a post-doctoral fellow at Ghent University and a visiting scholar in philosophy at Uppsala University. Thanks, Jeroen!]

In his recent contributions on this blog (link, link), Daniel Little develops an interesting position advocating the legitimacy and “relative explanatory autonomy” of the meso-level, while maintaining a microfoundations requirement. I am grateful that Daniel invited me to comment on his views and I will try to do so in a concise way, discussing four issues:

  1. There are more than two levels of social explanation.
  2. Levels of explanation are perspectival; neither absolute, nor unique.
  3. Seeking for microfoundations and macrofoundations as good heuristics.
  4. Social scientific practice and plurality as objects of study.

(1) There are more than two levels of social explanation. Daniel Little’s defense of meso-level explanations adds a welcome extra explanatory level in between the individualist micro-level and the macro-level. As such, it supersedes the dichotomous thinking in the individualism/holism debate in which there would always be an individual micro-level – which would always be the same (cf. point (2) below) – that is contrasted with a macro-level. I agree with Little (2012, p.138) that: “more realistic is the understanding that there are social compounds at a range of levels of organization, with different scope and reach” – as social scientific practice teaches us.

(2) The levels of explanation are perspectival levels; neither absolute, nor unique. Little wants to combine his advocacy of meso-level explanations with a microfoundations requirement. Let us first zoom in on microfoundations (for the requirement, see point (3) below). In the philosophy of social science debate, the microfoundations are usually understood as individual-level microfoundations, see, for instance, most recent work on analytical sociology. It is presupposed that there be some comprehensive, unique, and privileged individual level, the level of individual actors (cf. Ylikoski 2012, p.26). However, microfoundations do not necessarily have to be understood in that way. They could also just be understood as looking for foundations on any lower-level, e.g., on a sub-individual level focussing on cognitive capacities and processes that might be important in explaining certain social phenomena (Tuukka Kaidesoja gives us the example of contextual priming (link)).

The latter understanding of microfoundations would be more in line with actual social scientific practice in which we notice that the specification and amount of levels of explanation is perspectival, depending on the phenomena and research approaches involved. Analysing and explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (cf. Van Bouwel, forthcoming) or criminality (cf. Van Bouwel et al. 2011) requires (different) multiple levels. A philosophy of social science that wants to say something meaningful about explanatory practices in, e.g., neuro-economics, evolutionary sociology as well as in World-Systems Analysis, will also have to go beyond the traditional two levels, i.e. the individual micro-level versus one contrasting macro-level. The refinements of the traditional dichotomous way of thinking about levels in the individualism/holism debate obviously do not imply that we should stop thinking in terms of higher- and lower-levels, or micro-macro, only that levels are perspectival, rather than absolute and unique. Thus, the micro in microfoundations is perspectival too!

(3) Seeking for microfoundations and macrofoundations as good heuristics? Now let us have a look at the microfoundations requirement. This requirement stipulates “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.” (Little 2012, p.138) Advocates of the microfoundations approach have often been defending that a macro-explanation would never be satisfactory, or, could only be satisfactory if a micro-level part of the social explanation was provided. For instance, in their presentation of the social mechanisms approach, Hedström and Swedberg state (1998, p.11): “In the social sciences, however, the elementary “causal agents” are always individual actors, and intelligible social science explanations should always include explicit references to the causes and consequences of their actions.” Thus, they consider a reference to (individual actions on) the individual, micro-level as a condition sine qua non of a satisfactory explanation. Underlying this claim about explanations seems to be an ontological conviction, namely that causal agents are always individual actors.

Daniel Little develops a different position. According to him, the microfoundations requirement should not be understood as a condition for satisfactory explanations, but rather as a form of confirmation or justification of a macro-explanation: “The requirement of microfoundations is not a requirement on explanation; it does not require that our explanations proceed through the microfoundational level. Rather, it is a condition that must be satisfied on prima facie grounds, prior to offering the explanation.” (Little 2012, p.145) I agree with Little that microfoundations should not necessarily be part of a social explanation in order for it to be satisfactory; we are providing all of the time all kinds of explanations and causal claims, without knowing the underlying mechanisms or foundations. Here as well Little takes into account the actual explanatory practice of social scientists and he avoids the ontological fallacies (i.e., mixing up ontological and explanatory issues) made by earlier advocates of microfoundations. However, I do think Little’s requirement remains vague. It should be understood as constraining explanatory practice (cf. here), but how would that exactly work? How is the microfoundations requirement operationalized (and how would it interfere with our explanatory practice)?

Summarizing, I think Daniel Little’s account of the microfoundations requirement is an improvement to earlier accounts, but it still remains vague. A fruitful role I could see for a microfoundations pursuit is as an engagement to compare one’s own explanatory practice and research approach with other practices and approaches. This might result in more interaction between different approaches through which approaches articulate themselves and their relations to others more explicitly and through which the strengths and weaknesses of the respective approaches are clarified. In this respect, we could not only think of seeking for microfoundations as an heuristic, but also of searching for macrofoundations as a fruitful heuristic. (Some use the term macrofoundations (link), but given that we think of it as something higher up, one could also use macro-roof or macro-covering.) There might be several interesting approaches both on the micro-level and on the macro-level working on the same phenomenon from different angles, using different methods, having different background assumptions, etc.  Philosophers of social science might contribute in analyzing, visualizing (cf. below) and optimizing the interaction among these different approaches.

(4) Social scientific practice and plurality as objects of study.To conclude, a careful analysis of the practice of social scientists reveals the plurality of research approaches and explanatory strategies employed by social scientists on multiple levels. For me the challenge of the debate on microfoundations, emergence, explanatory autonomy, etc. is not so much to develop the ultimate individualistic approach or defending the holist approach, but rather to understand and optimize the way in which different approaches interact, co-exist, can be integrated and/or develop some division of labour among each other, while making the best out of the strengths and limitations of the respective explanatory strategies of holists and individualists.  That is what I try to do with my framework for explanatory pluralism – a normative endorsement of the plurality of forms and levels of explanation used by social scientists (cf. Van Bouwel and Weber 2008, Van Bouwel 2009). Sometimes explanatory interests are best served by decomposition, by reduction as explanatory strategy, sometimes they are better served by higher-level explanations.

One way of taking into account multiple levels and understand the perspectival, non-absolute character of levels, could be to leave the Coleman boat (cf. here) behind and adopt Helen Longino’s (2013, p.127, Fig. 1a) representation of causal space (Longino developed it for studying aggressive behavior, but it could be easily adapted to the social sciences if one would change the causal landscape a bit).

longino diagram

This representation can visualize how different research approaches will focus on different boxes – one or a combination of several – in a causal space or landscape. The focus on just one (or a combination) of these boxes can be very productive as scientific practice shows; some causal aspects of a phenomenon might be emphasised, while other aspects/boxes might be obscured or perhaps even distorted. Such a visualization will help us to clarify the strengths and weaknesses of the respective approaches applying different angles in studying one and the same phenomena, as well as their (lack of) interaction with other approaches and how to use them in an optimal way.


Hedström, P. and R. Swedberg (eds.). 1998. Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory. Cambridge University Press.

Little, D. 2012. Explanatory Autonomy and Coleman’s Boat. Theoria 74: 137-151

Longino, H. 2013. Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality. University of Chicago Press.

Van Bouwel, J. and E. Weber 2008. A pragmatic defense of non-relativistic explanatory pluralism in history and social science. History and Theory 47:168-182.

Van Bouwel, J. (ed.) 2009. The Social Sciences and Democracy. Palgrave MacMillan.

Van Bouwel, J., E. Weber and L. De Vreese 2011. Indispensability arguments in favour of reductive explanations. Journal for General Philosophy of Science 42(1): 33-46.

Van Bouwel, J. (forthcoming). Explanatory Strategies beyond the Individualism/Holism Debate. link.

Ylikoski, P. 2012. Micro, Macro, and Mechanism. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Social Science. ed. H. Kincaid, 21-45. Oxford University Press.

Weber, E., J. Van Bouwel and L. De Vreese 2013. Scientific Explanation. Springer.

Issues about microfoundations


I believe that hypotheses, theories, and explanations in the social sciences need to be subject to the requirement of microfoundationalism. This requirement can be understood in a weak and a strong version, and sometimes people understand the idea as a requirement of reductionism.  In brief, I defend the position in a weak form that does not imply a reductionist theory of social explanation. Recent discussions with Julie Zahle have led me to sharpen my understanding of the requirement of microfoundations in social theorizing and explanation. Here I would like to clarify my own thinking about the role and scope of the principle of microfoundationalism.

A microfoundation is something like this: an account of the mechanisms at the individual actor level (and perhaps at levels intermediate between actors and the current level — e.g. institutions) that work to create the structural and causal properties that we observe at the meso or macro level. A fully specified microfoundational account of a meso-level feature consists of an account that traces out (1) the features of the actors and (2) the characteristics of the action environment (including norms and institutions) which jointly lead to (3) the social pattern or causal power we are interested in. A microfoundation specifies the individual-level mechanisms that lead to the macro- or meso-level social fact. This is the kind of account that Thomas Schelling illustrates so well in Micromotives and Macrobehavior.

My thinking about the need for microfoundations has changed over the years from a more narrow requirement (“we need to have a pretty good idea of what the individual-level mechanisms are for a macro-property”) to a less restrictive requirement (“we need to have reason to believe that there are individual-level mechanisms for a macro-property”). In The Scientific Marx I liked the idea of “aggregative explanations”, which are really explanations that move from features of individual actors and their interactions, to derivations about social and collective behavior. In Varieties of Social Explanation I relaxed the idea along these lines:

This doctrine [of microfoundationalism] may be put in both a weak and a strong version. Weakly social explanations must be compatible with the existence of microfoundations of the postulated social regularities, which may, however, be entirely unknown. More strongly social explanations must be explicitly grounded on an account of the microfoundations that produce them. I will argue for an intermediate form—that we must have at least an approximate idea of the underlying mechanisms at the individual level if we are to have a credible hypothesis about explanatory social regularities at all, A putative explanation couched in terms of high-level social factors whose underlying individual-level mechanisms are entirely unknown is no explanation at all. (kl 4746)

My adherence to microfoundationalism today is a little bit weaker still. I now advocate a version of microfoundationalism that specifies only that we must be confident (an epistemic concept) that such micro-to-macro relations exist. We must be confident there are such mechanisms but not obliged to specify them. (I also hold that the best ground for having that confidence is being able to gesture plausibly towards roughly how they might work.) Another way to put it is this requirement: “No magical thinking!” That is, we exclude explanations that would only be possible if we assumed action at a distance, blocks of wood that have complicated mental lives, or intelligent beings with infinite computational faculties. A convincing way of discrediting a meso-level assertion is to give an argument that it is unlikely that real human agents would in fact act in ways that lead to this meso-level situation. (Example: Chinese planners who created the collective farming system in the Great Leap Forward assumed that collective farms would be highly productive because a “new socialist man” would emerge. This was unlikely, and therefore the individual behavior to be expected on collective farms would lead to “easy riding” and low productivity.)

Here is an effort to simplify these issues into a series of assertions:

  1. All social forces, powers, structures, processes, and laws (social features) are ultimately constituted by mechanisms at the level of individual actors. (ontological principle)
  2. When we assert the reality or causal powers of a social entity, we need to be confident that there are microfoundations that cause this social entity to have the properties we attribute to it. (microfoundations principle)
    1. A description of the microfoundations of a social entity S is an account of the circumstances and individual mechanisms that bring about patterns of individual activity resulting in the properties of S.
    2. Strong version: we must provide a credible statement of the microfoundations.
    3. Intermediate version: we must have a back-of-envelope sketch of possible microfoundations.
    4. Weak version: we must have confidence that there are microfoundations, but we don’t have to have any specific ideas about what they are.
  3. A “vertical” social explanation of the features of a social entity S is a derivation of S from facts about the individual level. This is equivalent to providing a specification of the microfoundations of S; a derivation of the properties of S from a model of the action situation of the individuals involved; an agent-based model. This is what JZ calls an individualist explanation.
  4. A “horizontal” social explanation is one in which we explain a social entity or structure S by referring to the causal properties of other meso-level entities and conditions. This is what we call a meso-level explanation. (The diagram above illustrates these ideas.)
    1. Horizontal explanations are likewise subject to the microfoundations requirement 2: the entities and powers postulated need to be such that we have good reason to believe that there are microfoundations available for these entities and properties. (Epistemic requirement)
    2. Or slightly stronger: we need to be able to offer at least a plausible sketch of the microfoundations / individual-level mechanisms that would support the postulated entities. (Epistemic+ requirement)
  5. Providing or hypothesizing about microfoundations always involves modeling the behaviors and interactions of individuals; so it requires assuming a theory of the actor. So when we try to specify or hypothesize about microfoundations for something we are obliged to make use of some theory of the actor.
  6. Traditional theories of the actor are generally too abstract and too committed to a rational-choice model.
  7. Social scientists will be better able to hypothesize microfoundations when they have richer theories of the actor. (heuristic principle)

So the ontological principle is simply that social entities are wholly fixed by the properties and dynamics of the actions of the actors that constitute them. The requirement of microfoundations simply reproduces the ontological principle, ruling out ontologically impossible relations among social entities. The requirement of microfoundations is not a requirement on what an explanation needs to look like; rather, it is a requirement about certain beliefs we need to be justified in accepting when we advance a claim about social entities. It is what JZ calls a “confirmation” requirement (or perhaps better, a justificatory requirement). A better theory of the actor supports the discovery of microfoundations for social assertions. Further, it provides a richer “sociological imagination” for macro- and meso-level sociologists. So the requirement of microfoundations and the recommendation that social scientists seek out better theories of the actor are also valuable as heuristics for social research: they provide intellectual resources that help social researchers decide where to look for explanatory links, and what kinds of mechanisms might turn out to be relevant.

What is reduction?

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 10.23.31 AM

The topics of methodological individualism and microfoundationalism unavoidably cross with the idea of reductionism — the notion that higher level entities and structures need somehow to be “reduced” to facts or properties having to do with lower level structures. In the social sciences, this amounts to something along these lines: the properties and dynamics of social entities need to be explained by the properties and interactions of the individuals who constitute them. Social facts need to reduce to a set of individual-level facts and laws. Similar positions arise in psychology (“psychological properties and dynamics need to reduce to facts about the activities and properties of the central nervous system”) and biology (“complex biological systems like genes and cells need to reduce to the biochemistry of the interacting systems of molecules that make them up”).

Reductionism has a bad flavor within much of philosophy, but it is worth dwelling on the concept a bit more fully.

Why would the strategy of reduction be appealing within a scientific research tradition? Here is one reason: there is evident explanatory gain that results from showing how the complex properties and functionings of a higher-level entity are the result of the properties and interactions of its lower level constituents. This kind of demonstration serves to explain the upper level system’s properties in terms of the entities that make it up. This is the rationale for Peter Hedstrom’s metaphor of “dissecting the social” (Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology); in his words,

To dissect, as the term is used here, is to decompose a complex totality into its constituent entities and activities and then to bring into focus what is believed to be its most essential elements. (kl 76)

Aggregate or macro-level patterns usually say surprisingly little about why we observe particular aggregate patterns, and our explanations must therefore focus on the micro-level processes that brought them about. (kl 141)

The explanatory strategy illustrated by Thomas Schelling in Micromotives and Macrobehavior proceeds in a similar fashion. Schelling wants to show how a complex social phenomenon (say, residential segregation) can be the result of a set of preferences and beliefs of the independent individuals who make up the relevant population. And this is also the approach that is taken by researchers who develop agent-based models (link).

Why is the appeal to reduction sometimes frustrating to other scientists and philosophers? Because it often seems to be a way of changing the subject away from our original scientific interest. We started out, let’s say, with an interest in motion perception, looking at the perceiver as an information-processing system, and the reductionist keeps insisting that we turn our attention to the organization of a set of nerve cells. But we weren’t interested in nerve cells; we were interested in the computational systems associated with motion perception.

Another reason to be frustrated with “methodological reductionism” is the conviction that mid-level entities have stable properties of their own. So it isn’t necessary to reduce those properties to their underlying constituents; rather, we can investigate those properties in their own terms, and then make use of this knowledge to explain other things at that level.

Finally, it is often the case that it is simply impossible to reconstruct with any useful precision the micro-level processes that give rise to a given higher-level structure. The mathematical properties of complex systems come in here: even relatively simple physical systems, governed by deterministic mechanical laws, exhibit behavior that cannot be calculated on the basis of information about the starting conditions of the system. A solar system with a massive star at the center and a handful of relatively low-mass planets produces a regular set of elliptical orbits. But a three-body gravitational system creates computational challenges that make it impossible to predict the future state of the system; even small errors of measurement or intruding forces can significantly shift the evolution of the system. (Here is an interesting animation of a three-body gravitational system; the image at the top is a screenshot.)

We might capture part of this set of ideas by noting that we can distinguish broadly between vertical and lateral explanatory strategies. Reduction is a vertical strategy. The discovery of the causal powers of a mid-level entity and use of those properties to explain the behavior of other mid-level entities and processes is a lateral or horizontal strategy. It remains within a given level of structure rather than moving up and down over two or more levels.

William Wimsatt is a philosopher of biology whose writings about reduction have illuminated the topic significantly. His article “Reductionism and its heuristics: Making methodological reductionism honest” is particularly useful (link). Wimsatt distinguishes among three varieties of reductionism in the philosophy of science: inter-level reductive explanations, same-level reductive theory succession, and eliminative reduction (448). He finds that eliminative reduction is a non-starter; virtually no scientists see value in attempting to eliminate references to the higher-level domain in favor of a lower-level domain. Inter-level reduction is essentially what was described above. And theory-succession reduction is a mapping from one theory to the next of the ontologies that they depend upon. Here is his description of “successional reduction”:

Successional reductions commonly relate theories or models of entities which are either at the same compositional level or they relate theories that aren’t level-specific…. They are relationships between theoretical structures where one theory or model is transformed into another … to localize similarities and differences between them. (449)

I suppose an example of this kind of reduction is the mapping of the quantum theory of the atom onto the classical theory of the atom.

Here is Wimsatt’s description of inter-level reductive explanation:

Inter-level reductions explain phenomena (entities, relations, causal regularities) at one level via operations of often qualitatively different mechanisms at lower levels. (450)

Here is an example he offers of the “reduction” of Mendel’s factors in biology:

Mendel’s factors are successively localized through mechanistic accounts (1) on chromosomes by the Boveri–Sutton hypothesis (Darden, 1991), (2) relative to other genes in the chromosomes by linkage mapping (Wimsatt, 1992), (3) to bands in the physical chromosomes by deletion mapping (Carlson, 1967), and finally (4) to specific sites in chromosomal DNA thru various methods using PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to amplify the number of copies of targeted segments of DNA to identify and localize them (Waters, 1994).

What I find useful about Wimsatt’s approach is the fact that he succeeds in de-dramatizing this issue. He puts aside the comprehensive and general claims that have sometimes been made on behalf of “methodological reductionism” in the past, and considers specific instances in biology where scientists have found it very useful to investigate the vertical relations that exist between higher-level and lower-level structures. This takes reductionism out of the domain of a general philosophical principle and into that of a particular research heuristic.

Response to Little by Tuukka Kaidesoja

[Tuukka Kaidesoja accepted my invitation to write a response to my discussion (link) of his recent article in Philosophy of the Social Sciences, “Overcoming the Biases of Microfoundations: Social Mechanisms and Collective Agents”. Currently Kaidesoja works as a post-doctoral researcher at the Finnish Academy Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland.He is the author of Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology.  Thanks, Tuukka!]

Daniel Little defends “the theoretical possibility of attributing causal powers to meso-level social entities and structures.” I agree that meso-level social entities like groups and organizations have causal powers that are not ontologically reducible to the causal powers of their components or the aggregates of the latter. In addition, Little argues for “the idea of an actor-centered sociology, according to which the substance of social phenomena is entirely made up of the actions, interactions, and states of mind of socially constituted individual actors.” Though I like the idea of actor-centered sociology, I have problems with the view that “the substance of social phenomena is entirely made up of the actions, interactions, and states of mind of socially constituted individual actors.”

The latter view can also be stated in terms of the ontological microfoundations of social facts insofar as these microfoundations are thought to consist of socially constituted individuals, their actions and interactions. Thus, in Little’s view, the ontologically microfoundational level in social research is always the individual-level even though it is not required that “our explanations proceed through the microfoundational level.” This is because there are good sociological explanations that refer to causal relations at the meso-level and do not specify the microfoundations of these relations. In addition, Little argues that sociological theories cannot be reduced to theories about individuals. This view presupposes a concept of theory-reduction that is used in philosophy of mind by Jerry Fodor and others. I will come back to this later.

Now, I believe that the ontologically microfoundational role of the individual-level can be questioned from two directions. Firstly, it can be argued that, in addition to human individuals, artifacts and technologies built and used by people belong to the microfoundations of the causal powers of many social entities. On this view, then, organizations are not just “structured groups of individuals” but structured groups of human individuals and the artifacts (e.g. strategy papers, organizational charts, written codes of conduct, archives, computers, soft-ware programs, data bases, mobile phones and so on) that are used by individuals in their social interactions. One reason for including artifacts (with causal powers and affordances of their own) as proper parts of some social entities (e.g. organizations) is that human members of these entities need them in order to coordinate their interactions as well as to make collective decisions and, perhaps more controversially, to create and maintain collective (or transactive) memories.

Secondly, I believe that there are interesting sub-individual cognitive capacities and processes that are potentially important in understanding of some social phenomena. For example, the phenomenon of contextual priming in social cognition (i.e. a cognitive process in which the presence of certain events and people automatically activates our internal knowledge of and affects towards them that are relevant in responding to the situation) as well as unconscious imitation of behavior of strangers may well be important factors in explaining some social phenomena. I think that it would be misleading to say that cognitive processes of this kind belong to the individual-level due to the fact they take place at the subconscious level of cognitive processing.

I think that both of these points question the view that the individual-level should be considered as the ontologically microfoundational in the context of social research. My intention is not, however, to deny the importance of human individuals and their actions and interactions to any plausible social ontology.

Finally, I want to indicate that, in addition to the concept of theory-reduction used in the context of philosophy of mind, there is a different concept of “mechanistic reductive explanation” developed by Mario Bunge, William Wimsatt and others. When combined with causal powers theory, this concept is interesting since it enables one to argue not only that social entities have (weakly) emergent causal powers that are ontologically irreducible to the causal powers of their parts (and their aggregates), but also that these causal powers, their emergence and endurance, may well be mechanistically explainable in terms of the causal powers, relations and interactions of the components of social entities (e.g. human individuals and their artifacts). It should be emphasized that this view does not entail that social scientific theories that refer to social entities with emergent causal powers should be conceptually reducible to (or deductively derivable from) the theories that refer to the components of these entities. Rather, it is compatible with the view that theories about human beings, artifacts and social entities are continually developed at different levels of organization; conceptually adjusted to each other; and sometimes connected via mechanistic reductive explanations. This kind of perspective to ontological emergence and mechanistic reductive explanations allows, too, that the outcomes of macro-level social events and processes can be legitimately explained by referring to the interactions of the meso-level social entities (with emergent causal powers).

Thanks for the great blog!

Meso causes and microfoundations

In earlier posts I’ve paid attention to the need for microfoundations and the legitimacy of meso-level causation. And I noted that there seems to be a prima facie tension between the two views in the philosophy of social science. I believe the two are compatible if we understand the microfoundations thesis as a claim about social ontology and not about explanation, and if we interpret it in a weak rather than a strong way. Others have also found this tension to be of interest. The September issue of The Philosophy of the Social Sciences provides a very interesting set of articles on this set of issues.

Particularly interesting is a contribution by Tuukka Kaidesoja, “Overcoming the Biases of Microfoundations: Social Mechanisms and Collective Agents” (link). Here are the four claims advanced in the article:

  1. The mechanism approach to social explanation does not presuppose a commitment to the individual-level microfoundationalism.
  2. The microfoundationalist requirement that explanatory social mechanisms should always consists of interacting individuals has given rise to problematic methodological biases in social research.
  3. It is possible to specify a number of plausible candidates for social macro-mechanisms where interacting collective agents (e.g. formal organizations) form the core actors.
  4. The distributed cognition perspective combined with organization studies could provide us with explanatory understanding of the emergent cognitive capacities of collective agents. (abstract)

I agree with many of Kaidesoja’s criticisms of what he calls individual-level microfoundationalism (IMF). I also agree with his preference for the weak “rationalist” conception of emergence (along the lines of Mario Bunge) rather than the strong conception associated with Niklas Luhman (link). However, I want to continue to maintain that there is a different version of microfoundationalism that is not vulnerable to the criticisms he offers — what I call the “weak” version of microfoundations. (This is explicated in several earlier posts; link.) On this approach, claims about higher-level entities need to be plausibly compatible with there being microfoundations at the individual level (an ontological principle), but I deny that we always need to provide those microfoundations when offering a social explanation (an explanatory principle). And in fact, Kaidesoja seems to adopt a very similar position:

By contrast, in many explanatory studies on large-scale macro-phenomena, it is sufficient that we have a general understanding how the collective agents of this kind function (e.g., how collective-decisions are typically made in the organizations that are the components of the relevant macro-mechanism) and empirically grounded reasons to believe that the macro-phenomenon of interest was causally generated by the interactions of this kind of collective agents with emergent powers…. Of course, it is always possible to zoom in to a particular collective agent and study the underlying mechanisms of its emergent causal powers, but this type of research requires the uses of different methods and data from the explanatory studies on large-scale macro- phenomena. (316)

So it is the in-principle availability of lower-level analyses that is important, not the actual provision of those accounts. Or in other words, K is offering a set of arguments designed to establish the explanatory sufficiency of at least some meso- and macro-level causal accounts (horizontal) rather than requiring that explanations should be vertical (rising from lower levels to higher levels). This is what I want to refer to as “relative explanatory autonomy of the meso-level.”

Kaidesoja’s position is a realist one; he couches his analysis of causation in terms of the idea of causal powers. Here is Kaidesoja’s description of the idea of causal powers:

In general terms, causal powers of complex entities include their dispositions, abilities, tendencies, liabilities, capacities, and capabilities to generate specific type of effects in suitable conditions. Each particular entity (or powerful particular) possesses its powers by virtue of its nature, which in turn can typically be explicated in terms of the intrinsic relational structure of the entity. (302)

This position provides an answer to one of the questions recently posed here: are causal powers and causal mechanisms compatible? I think they are, and Kaidesoja appears to as well.

One important nuance concerns the kinds of higher-level social structures that Kaidesoja offers as examples. They all involve collective actors, thus assimilating social causal power to intentional action. But the category of macro social factor that possess causal powers is broader than this. There are credible examples of social powers that do not depend on any kind of intentionality. Most of the examples offered by Charles Perrow, for example, of organizations with causal powers depend on features of operation of the organization, not its functioning as a quasi-intentional agent.

Also interesting in the article is Kaidesoja’s gloss on the idea of distributed cognition. I’m not receptive to the idea of collective social actors is a strongly intentionalist sense (link), but K makes use of the idea of distributed cognition in a sense that seems unobjectionable to people who think that social entities ultimately depend on individual actors. K’s interpretation doesn’t imply commitment to collective thoughts or intentions. Here is a clear statement of the idea:

An important implication of the above perspectives is that they enable one to ascribe emergent cognitive capacities to social groups and to study the underlying mechanisms of these capacities empirically (e.g., Hutchins 1995; Theiner and O’Connor 2010). This nevertheless requires that we reconsider our received concept of cognition that ties all cognitive capacities to individual organisms (e.g., human beings), since groups obviously lack system-level consciousness or brains as distinct from those of their individual members.  (317)

Now, drawing on organization studies (e.g., Scott and Davis 2003), I suggest that formal organizations (in short, organizations) can be understood as social groups that are designed to accomplish some (more or less clearly specified) goal or goals, and whose activities are planned, administrated, and managed by their members (or some subgroup of their members such as managers). Examples of organizations include schools, business firms, universities, hospitals, political parties, and governments. (318)

This is a conception of “cognition” that doesn’t imply anything like “collective minds” or group intentions, and seems unobjectionable from an ontological point of view.

This is a very nice piece of work in the philosophy of social science, and it suggests that it will be worthwhile to spend time reading Kaidesoja’s recent book, Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology (Ontological Explorations), as well.

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