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?

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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.

Social mechanisms and meso-level causes

(This post summarizes a paper I presented at the British Society for the Philosophy of Science Annual Meeting in 2012.)

Here and elsewhere I want to defend the theoretical possibility of attributing causal powers to meso-level social entities and structures. In this I follow a number of philosophers and sociologists, including many critical realists (e.g. Roy Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science and Margaret Archer, Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach) and also the recent thinking of Dave Elder-Vass (The Causal Power of Social Structures). But I also defend 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. Making out both positions, and demonstrating their consistency, is the work of this paper. I refer to this position as “relative explanatory autonomy” of the meso-level. This topic is of renewed interest because of the current influence and progress of analytical sociology (Peter Hedström, Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology; Hedström and Bearman, The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology ; Peter Demeulenaere, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms), which offers an emphatic “no” to the question; whereas critical realists are equally firm in defending an affirmative answer to the question.

My defense of meso-level causation is based on four ideas. First, the practice of sociologists justifies this claim, since sociologists do in fact make use of meso-meso claims. They often do not attempt to provide vertical explanations from circumstances of the actor to meso- and macro-level outcomes; instead, they often provide horizontal explanations that explain one set of meso and macro outcomes on the basis of the causal powers of another set of meso and macro conditions or structures. Second, sociology is a “special science” analogous to cognitive science, dependent on a set of causally linked entities at a lower level. Arguments offered for the relative explanatory autonomy of the higher-level theories are applicable to sociology as well. The basis for rejecting reductionism is well established here. Third, meso entities (organizations, institutions, normative systems) often have stable characteristics with regular behavioral consequences. This is illustrated with the example of organizations. Fourth, those entities must have microfoundations; we must be confident that there are individual behaviors at lower levels that support these macro characteristics. But it is legitimate to draw out the macro-level effects of the macro-circumstance under investigation, without tracing out the way that effect works in detail on the swarms of actors encompassed by the case. The requirement of microfoundations is not a requirement on explanation; it does not require that our explanations proceed through the microfoundational level. It is an ontological principle but not a methodological principle. Rather, it is a condition that must be satisfied on prima facie grounds, prior to offering the explanation. (I refer to this as the “weak” requirement of microfoundations; link.) In short, we are not obliged to trace out the struts of Coleman’s boat in order to provide a satisfactory macro- or meso-level explanation or mechanism.

Does the extended social world have causal powers? Here are some reasons for thinking that it does.

First, working sociologists offer explanations that postulate meso-meso causal connections on a regular basis. They identify what they take to be causal properties of social structures and institutions, and then draw out causal chains involving those causal properties. And often they are able to answer the follow-on question: how does that causal power work, in approximate terms, at the micro level? But answering that question is not an essential part of their argument. They do not in fact attempt to work through the agent-based simulation that would validate their general view about how the processes work at the lower level.

This explanatory framework seems entirely reasonable in the social sciences. It does not seem necessary to disaggregate every claim like “organizational deficiencies at the Bhopal chemical plant caused the devastating chemical spill” onto specific individual-level activities. We understand pretty well, in a generic way, what the microfoundations of organizations are, and it isn’t necessary to provide a detailed account in order to have a satisfactory explanation. In other words, we can make careful statements about macro-macro and macro-meso causal relations without proceeding according to the logic of Coleman’s boat—up and down the struts. So one argument for the relative autonomy of meso-level causal claims is precisely the fact that good sociologists do in fact make credible use of such claims.

Second, there is a more general reason within the philosophy of the social sciences for being receptive to the idea of meso-meso social causes. This derives from the arguments against reductionism in a range of the special sciences. The idea of relative explanatory autonomy has been invoked by cognitive scientists against the reductionist claims of neuro-scientists. Of course cognitive mechanisms must be grounded in neurophysiological processes. But this doesn’t entail that cognitive theories need to be reduced to neurophysiological statements. Jerry Fodor introduced highly influential arguments against reductionism in “Special sciences and the disunity of science as a working hypothesis” (link).

Once we have reason to accept something like the idea of relative explanatory autonomy in the social sciences, we also have a strong basis for rejecting the exclusive validity of one particular approach to social explanation, the reductionist approach associated with methodological individualism, analytical sociology, and Coleman’s boat. Rather, social scientists can legitimately use explanations that call upon meso-level causal linkages without needing to reduce these to derivations from facts about individuals. And this implies the legitimacy of a fairly broad conception of methodological pluralism in the social sciences, constrained always by the requirement of weak microfoundations.

Third, we have good research-based reasons to maintain that meso-level social structures have causal powers. Consider organizations as paradigm examples of meso-level social structures. An organization is a social entity which possesses a degree of stability in functioning that can be studied empirically and theoretically. An organization consists of 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 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, or the norm of covering for a co-worker’s absence). 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.

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. The most obvious causal properties of an organization are bound up in the function of the organization. An organization is invented and developed in order to bring about certain social effects: operate and maintain a complex technology, reduce pollution or crime, distribute goods throughout a population, provide services to individuals, seize and hold territory, disseminate information. But the specifics of an organization also give rise to unintended consequences; these too contribute to the causal powers of the organization. All these effects occur as a result of the coordinated activities of people within the organization. When organizations work correctly they bring about one set of effects; when they break down they bring about another set of effects. Here we can think about organizations in analogy with technology components like amplifiers, thermostats, stabilizers, or surge protectors.

Finally, I too believe that there is a burden of proof that must be met in asserting a causal power or disposition for a social entity — something like “the entity demonstrates an empirical regularity in behaving in such and such a way” or “we have good theoretical reasons for believing that X social arrangements will have Y effects.” And some macro concepts (e.g. State, Islam, market economy) are likely cast at too high a level to admit of such regularities. That is why I favor “meso” social entities as the bearers of social powers. As new institutionalists demonstrate all the time, one property regime elicits very different collective behavior from its highly similar cousin. And this gives the relevant causal stability criterion. Good examples include Robert Ellickson’s new-institutionalist treatment of Shasta County and liability norms and Charles Perrow’s treatment of the operating characteristics of technology organizations. In each case the microfoundations are easy to provide. What is more challenging is to show how these social causal properties interact in cases to create outcomes we want to explain.

So how does the micro-macro link look when we attempt to provide the idea of meso explanations with microfoundations? The various versions of methodological individualism—microeconomics, analytical sociology, Elster’s theories of explanation, and the model of Coleman’s boat—presume that explanation needs to invoke the story of the micro level events as part of the explanation. The perspective offered here requires something quite different. This position requires that we be confident that these micro-level events exist and work to compose the meso level; but it does not require that the causal argument incorporates a reconstruction of the pathway through the individual level in order to have a satisfactory explanation. This account suggests an alternative diagram to Coleman’s boat.

new model

The diagram represents each of the causal linkages represented in the Coleman boat. But it also calls out the meso-meso causal connection that Coleman prohibits in his analysis. And it replaces the idea that causation proceeds through the individual level, with the idea that each meso level factor has a set of actor-level microfoundations. But this is an ontological fact, not a prescription on explanation.

(Here is the full paper as presented at the British Society for the Philosophy of Science Annual Meeting in July 2012 at the University of Stirling.)

Mohamed Cherkaoui on the micro-macro debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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