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).)


Strategic action fields

Sometimes a rethinking of ontology and social categories results in an important step forward in social theory. This appears to be the case in some recent reflections on the relationships that exist between social movements theory and the sociology of organizations.  The presumption of existing writings on these fields is that they refer to separate but related phenomena.  One is more about social actors and the other is more about stable social structures.  What happens when we consider the possibility that they actually refer to the same kinds of social phenomena?

This is the perspective taken by Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam in a recent contribution to Sociological Theory, “Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields”(link). (They develop these ideas more fully in A Theory of Fields.) In the Sociological Theory article they write:

We assert that scholars of organizations and social movements — and for that matter, students of any institutional actor in modern society — are interested in the same underlying phenomenon: collective strategic action. (2)

Fligstein and McAdam formulate their novel approach in terms of the idea of “strategic action fields.” They put it forward that “strategic action fields … are the fundamental units of collective action in society” (3). Power and advantage play key roles in their construction: “We too see SAFs as socially constructed arenas within which actors with varying resource endowments vie for advantage. Membership in these fields is based far more on subjective ‘standing’ than objective criteria” (3).

Here are types of social items they include in this theory:

  1. strategic action fields 
  2. incumbents, challengers, and governance units 
  3. social skill 
  4. the broader field environment 
  5. exogenous shocks, field ruptures, and the onset of contention 
  6. episodes of contention 
  7. settlement (2) 

This approach is importantly couched at the level of social ontology: what sorts of things should we identify and analyze as explanatory factors in our theories? The move to SAFs is a move against the idea of the fixity of social “structures,” institutions, and organizations. For example, they write against the ontology of new institutionalism: “The general image for most new institutionalists is one of routine social order and reproduction” — or in other words, a static set of rules and constraints within which action takes place. Their ontology, on the other hand, emphasizes the fluidity of the constraints and circumstances of action from the actors’ points of view; so the field shifts as actors undertake one set of strategies or another. “This leaves great latitude for the possibility of piecemeal change in the positions that actors occupy” (5).

So both stability and change are incorporated into a single framework of analysis: actors react strategically to the field of constraints and positions within which they act, with results that sometimes reinforce current positions and other times disrupt those positions.

They account for what looks like institutional rigidity by calling out the power of some actors to maintain their positions in the social order: “Most incumbents are generally well positioned and fortified to withstand these change pressures. For starters they typically enjoy significant resource advantages over field challengers” (9). But institutions should not be expected to maintain their structures indefinitely: “The expectation is that when even a single member of the field begins to act in innovative ways in violation of field rules, others will respond in kind, precipitating an episode of contention” (9).

So what is intended by the idea of “strategic action” in this theory? Here is what they have to say on that subject:

We define strategic action as the attempt by social actors to create and maintain stable social worlds by securing the cooperation of others. Strategic action is about control in a given context. The creation of identities, political coalitions, and interests serves to promote the control of actors vis-a-vis other actors. (7)

Here is one other interesting ontological feature of this approach. Their language suggests some parallels with assemblage theory (link), in the sense that social constructs fit upwards and downwards into strategic action fields at a range of fields. “We conceive of all fields as embedded in complex webs of other fields” (8). This set of ideas seems to suggest an unexpected affinity to “actor-network theory” and the sociological ideas of Bruno Latour (ANT) (link). But at the other end of some obscure spectrum of theory differentiation, their account also seems to rub shoulders with rational-choice theory, where both actions and rules are subject to deliberation and change by prudential actors.


There are several features of this approach that seem promising to me. One is the fact that it directly challenges the tendency towards reification that sometimes blocks sociological thinking — the idea that social “things” like states persist largely independently from the individuals who make them up. This new approach leads to a way of thinking about the social world that emphasizes contingency and plasticity (linklink) rather than rigid and homogeneous social structures. It also seems consistent with the thinking that leads to the idea of “methodological localism” — the idea that social phenomena rest upon “molecules” of socially constructed, socially situated individuals (link). I also like the fact that their analysis is explicitly couched at the meso level — neither macro nor micro.

One concern this approach raises, however, is suggested by the point mentioned above about its apparent proximity to some versions of rational choice theory — the view that all social outcomes and processes are ultimately the consequence of prudential actors pursuing their interests. But this assumption — which McAdam certainly does not share elsewhere in his writing (e.g. Dynamics of Contention) — threatens to push out of consideration social realities like normative systems, social identities, and distributed systems of power that somehow or other seem to demand inclusion in our understanding of social processes.

Finally, we can ask whether this innovation provides a basis for more fruitful empirical research into concrete phenomena like how corporations and revolutionary parties function, how demonstrations against Islamophobia take shape, and how resistance to racial discrimination emerges.  If the theoretical innovation doesn’t lead to richer empirical research, then it is reasonable to be skeptical about why we should adopt the new theoretical tools.

Does “culture” require microfoundations?

I have consistently argued for a philosophy of social science that emphasizes the actor and the availability of microfoundations. I argue for an actor-centered sociology. But I have lately been arguing as well for the idea that it is legitimate for social scientists to treat claims about the causal properties of meso-level social structures as being relatively autonomous from their microfoundations. 

This approach doesn’t satisfy all comers.  Some don’t like meso-level causal properties at all, and others don’t like the idea that meso-level properties are in any way dependent on the level of individuals and their actions and agency.

In particular, some readers would prefer a meso-autonomist strategy that dispenses with individuals altogether; one according to which we can identify certain causal factors that do not need microfoundations at the level of the individual at all. Candidates for such factors often fall under the large umbrella of culture: symbols, meanings, practices, rituals, traditions, grammars, and the like. I would say, however, that these items too require microfoundations. Cultural items are sometimes thought to be supra-individual and independent from the concrete individuals who live within their scope. And it is true that culture exercises a specific kind of independence.  But no less than any other social characteristic can cultural features evade their embodiment in individual actors and institutions.

If we take the view that the obligations of zakat (charity) are a profound part of Muslim identity and that this element of Islam explains certain social outcomes, then I want to know how these elements of identity are conveyed to children and practitioners at the local level. What are the concrete social mechanisms of inculcation and communication through which a Bangladeshi child comes to internalize a full Muslim identity, including adherence to the norms of zakat? To what extent are there important differences within Bangladeshi society in the forms of identity present in Muslims — urban-rural, male-female, rich-poor? And equally interestingly – in what ways do those processes give rise to a Muslim identity in Bangladesh that is somewhat different from that in Indonesia, Morocco, or Saudi Arabia?

Identities, cultures, and systems of meaning are no less embodied in the states of mind of actors than are the calculating features of rationality that underlie a market society.

So the fault of methodological individualists in this sphere is not that they fail to recognize the inherent autonomy of systems of cultural meaning; it is rather that they adhere to a theory of the actor that does not give sufficient attention to the variations and contingencies that characterize actors in various social and historical contexts. Ideas about the independence of cultural items from the level of individuals are suggestive and interesting, and I think they need to be fully confronted by an actor-centered sociology. But I do not believe they are incompatible with an actor-centered sociology.

Take the independence of a code of behavior from the specific individuals who are subject to the code. It is true that one individual cannot influence the code, which is embodied in the thoughts and actions of countless others. But the reality of the code at any given time is in fact entirely dependent on those thoughts and actions (and artifacts created by previous actors). Moreover, the individual’s embodiment of the code of behavior is in turn caused by a series of interactions through childhood and adulthood within a social setting. 

It is certainly true that facts about culture make a difference in meso- and macro-level outcomes. A collective farm that was populated by actors who embodied Chairman Mao’s ideal of “socialist man” would have functioning characteristics very different from those observed — no “easy riders,” lots of earnest Stakhanovites.  So standard organizational analysis of the tendencies towards low productivity in collective agriculture is dependent on something like a purposive agent theory of the actor.  Different kinds of actors give rise to different kinds of organizations.

This does not mean, however, that we could not have reasonably good understandings of “organizations” under differently realized structures of agency.  This seems to be part of the work that Andreas Glaeser (2011) is doing in Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism. Glaeser tries to understand how organizations like the Stasi functioned in a setting in which participants’ understandings and motivations were changing rapidly. 

So my answer to my own question is, yes.  Cultural entities and characteristics do require microfoundations, and it is in fact a fruitful avenue of sociological and ethnographic investigation to discover the concrete social mechanisms and pathways through which these entities come to be embodied in various populations in the ways that they are. 

Macro causes of European fascism

Michael Mann’s book Fascists makes use of causal claims at a range of levels, from the macro to the micro, to explain the emergence of European fascism.  Here is a passage that highlights four macro-level causes of fascism:

The interwar period in Europe was the setting that threw up most of the self-avowed fascists and saw them at their high tide. My definition is intended firstly as “European-epochal,” to use Eatwell’s (2001) term (cf. Kallis 2000: 96), applying primarily to that period and place – though perhaps with some resonance elsewhere. The period and the continent contained four major crises: the consequences of a devastating “world,” but in fact largely European, war between mass citizen armies, severe class conflict exacerbated by the Great Depression, a political crisis arising from an attempted rapid transition by many countries toward a democratic nation-state, and a cultural sense of civilizational contradiction and decay. Fascism itself recognized the importance of all four sources of social power by explicitly claiming to offer solutions to all four crises. And all four played a more specific role in weakening the capacity of elites to continue ruling in old ways. (23)

So what are the causal ideas expressed here? 

The factors Mann singles out here are decidedly macro-level:

  • war
  • class conflict and economic depression
  • rapid transition to democratic nation-states
  • cultural impressions of decay

These are high-level social conditions involving military power, economic power, political power, and cultural realities. Perhaps not surprisingly, these factors correspond to the main legs of Mann’s own theory of social power: “My earlier work identified four primary ‘sources of social power’ in human societies: ideological, economic, military, and political” (5). 

So the causal factors identified here are clearly at the macro level.  The outcome Mann identifies is equally macro-level: the advent of fascist movements and governments in a handful of major European states.  So the basic claim here is a macro-macro causal claim. 

The causal claims expressed in the paragraph can be summarized in this way:

  • Factors F1, F2, F3, F4 each played a causal role in the rise of fascism
  • Factors F1, F2, F3, F4 each weakened (caused) the capacity of elites to continue to rule

What is the meaning of the idea that “F1 played a causal role in the rise of fascism”? Most simply, it is the notion that the factor occupies a position in the full causal diagram or causal narrative of the rise of fascism, beginning at some point in time.  The action of hops in the process of brewing beer plays a causal role: many events and processes must occur in a timed sequence, but the activity of the hops is one necessary part of the overall process. 

And how would an investigator piece together the causal narrative of a complex happening?  It would appear that the method of “process tracing” is the most direct way of piecing together a causal narrative.  This requires going through one or more empirical cases and probing the events that occurred to attempt to assess whether and how they played a causal role in the production of the outcome. This is exactly the form that Mann’s investigation of the various fascisms of Europe takes; he examines the histories and tries to discern the causal sequences that are contained in them. (George Alexander and Andrew Bennett consider some of the challenges of this methodology in Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences.)

To say that a condition is a cause of a given outcome expresses as well the idea that the condition is either necessary or sufficient for the outcome; the presence or absence of the condition makes a difference for the occurrence of the outcome. The appearance of the cuckoo is neither necessary nor sufficient for the chiming of the clock; so the cuckoo is not a cause of the chiming. It would appear, then, that Mann is also committed to claims like this:

  • If war and depression had not occurred then fascism would not have prevailed in Italy 
  • If Spain’s democracy had been more solid and well established, then fascism would not have prevailed in Spain

Other causal ideas are suggested by the paragraph, even if not explicit:

  • War has the causal power to stimulate powerful social movements in combatant countries.
  • Widespread economic depression has the causal power to stimulate class antagonism.
  • Ideologies have the causal power to stimulate mobilization of adherents.
  • Ideologies of cultural decay have the power to weaken the capacity of elites to govern.

How do these ideas about causal powers flesh out in detail?  How does “war” possess a causal power? War encompasses a complex set of circumstances and interlocking organizations: mobilization and demobilization of mass armies, disruption of civilian production, massive damage to people and property, unusual stresses on governments, etc. And each of these circumstances in turn has consequences which ultimately influence the circumstances in which the mass home population finds itself.  Those home circumstances in turn play into the factors that are known to stimulate and amplify social movements — popular grievances about government, economic deprivation, a general environment of uncertainty, and the availability of entrepreneurial leaders and organizations prepared to take advantage of these conditions. So war has a causal power that is embodied by the social, economic, demographic, and political circumstances that accompany it; and that power is expressed through influence on the home population.

One way of encapsulating this kind of story about the causal powers of a structural circumstance is to say that the circumstance conditions and motivates actions by many individuals in ways that lead to a certain class of outcomes.  So the causal power story is also a Coleman’s Boat kind of story; it is a specification of the microfoundations of the causal power in question.  However, once we have satisfied ourselves about the microfoundations, we are not compelled to retrace our steps through the individual level in order to move the argument from Italy to Spain. We can rely on the idea that war has a given set of causal powers on macro outcomes in the next case in which we observe war and disorder.

Microfoundations and meso causation

I take the view that social causation requires microfoundations. And I hold that meso causal explanations are legitimate. How are these two views compatible?

The key is the role that we expect reasoning about micro-level events to play in the explanation itself. 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 microfoundations-meso explanation perspective 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.

Putting the methodological individualist model of explanation crudely, we get something like this:

Institution {I} shapes individuals’ desires, beliefs, and passions {Ai}; individuals with these features of agency constitute the micro level; the tools of game theory, agent-based modeling, microeconomics, etc., allow us to aggregate the behavior of these individuals back to the macro level, in a new state of the macro level {O}.

The” meso-causal with microfoundations” view goes something like this.

Institution {I} has causal power P to influence future states of social aggregates; {I} occurs leading to P.
And, outside the explanation itself, we have:
[Institution I’s causal powers have micro foundations along these lines: …]

So when Michael Mann describes the effects of paramilitary organizations in Germany in the 1920s, he relies on a number of assertions about the causal powers of these organizations when introduced into the social circumstances of the 1920s. He is prepared to say how these effects work–so he satisfies the microfoundations requirement. But his explanation is a meso-level one, proceeding from the meso-level causal properties of paramilitary organizations to another set of meso-level effects (link).

When we explain why the tea kettle begins to whistle, we provide a meso-level explanation and we recognize the microfoundations that each step rests upon:

The kettle is filled with water.
The kettle is subject to a hot flame.
Water boils at 100 degrees centigrade. 
Steam is produced at higher pressure than one atmosphere.
Steam exits through the spout, creating the whistle.

This is a meso level physical explanation with very well understood microfoundations, at the level of the molecular properties of H2O, its phase transitions, etc. And, of course, that molecular explanation itself has microfoundations. But here is the key point: the explanation at the level of heat, liquid, boiling point, and steam is perfectly satisfactory for many purposes. And it is scientifically satisfactory because we are confident that we understand the micro mechanisms that underlie each step of the argument. But we are not obliged to provide a molecule-level simulation of the situation in order to be satisfied that we have explained the whistling tea kettle.

Working sociologists offer explanations like Mann’s 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 account suggests an alternative diagram to Coleman’s boat. 

The diagram represents the meso-level claim that E1 and E3 jointly cause the occurrence of E2. The meso causal relation is represented as a single-directional orange arrow. The green arrows represent the microfoundations of each meso factor. These causal relations are bidirectional: individual actors are influenced by the meso factor, and their actions have influences on the meso factor. The yellow arrows, finally, represent inter-actor influences at the micro level: network relationships, alliances, communications channels, exemplary behavior, mobilization efforts, etc. 

The diagram represents each of the causal linkages represented in the Coleman boat. But it 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.

And, finally, it is self-evident that we can always ask a different question that looks more like Coleman’s: how does the causal property of the meso factor work at the level of the actor? But this is a different question, and we aren’t required to incorporate the resulting story into the meso-meso explanation.

Neighborhood effects as meso-causes

A very interesting and current sociological study of “meso”-social causation can be found in the literature on neighborhood effects over the past 15 years or so. Robert Sampson and various colleagues have offered striking new analyses and arguments that establish the importance of geo-social neighborhoods on the occurrence of a variety of important social behaviors.  And their thinking represents a concrete, empirically rigorous and theoretically well developed effort to probe the effects and mechanisms that link neighborhood to resident.

Sampson, Morenoff and Gannon-Rowley provide a review of this literature in “Assessing ‘Neighborhood Effects’: Social Processes and New Directions in Research” (link). Sampson’s contribution to the Demeulenaere volume, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms, makes explicit the connection of this line of argument to issues about causation and methodological individualism that have been important to the analytical sociology movement.

Here is the preliminary definition of “neighborhood” upon which Sampson et al depend:

Robert Park and Ernest Burgess laid the foundation for urban sociology by defining local communities as “natural areas” that developed as a result of competition between businesses for land use and between population groups for affordable housing. A neighborhood, according to this view, is a subsection of a larger community—a collection of both people and institutions occupying a spatially defined area influenced by ecological, cultural, and sometimes political forces (Park 1916, pp. 147–154). Suttles (1972) later refined this view by recognizing that local communities do not form their identities only as the result of free-market competition. Instead, some communities have their identity and boundaries imposed on them by outsiders. Suttles also argued that the local community is best thought of not as a single entity, but rather as a hierarchy of progressively more inclusive residential groupings. In this sense, we can think of neighborhoods as ecological units nested within successively larger communities. (“Assessing,” 445)

What Sampson and his co-authors want to discover is how sociologists have begun to identify and measure features of “neighborhoods” that are not simply aggregate features of individual behaviors, and how they have attempted to identify causal relations between these meso-level neighborhood characteristics and individual-level behaviors and outcomes.  They are particularly interested in health outcomes and other forms of disadvantage for children and adolescents, or what they term “problem-related or health-compromisingbehaviors among children and adolescents” (448): “infant mortality, low birthweight, teenage childbearing, dropping out of high school, child maltreatment, and adolescent delinquency” (446).

A key fact about neighborhoods and larger communities in the United States is the salience of race and poverty in residential patterns; neighborhoods are usually characterized by a concentration of racial groups and income groups.  And high-poverty, high-racial-minority neighborhoods are frequently characterized by high-negative-health outcomes.  But this is a mere correlation; what are the causal linkages between a neighborhood’s characteristics and the health and behavioral outcomes of its residents?  In other words, they want to know something about the mechanisms through which these meso-level properties influence the individual resident:

During the 1990s, a number of scholars moved beyond the traditional fixation on concentrated poverty and began to explicitly theorize and directly measure how neighborhood social processes bear on the well-being of children and adolescents. Unlike the more static features of sociodemographic composition (e.g., race, class position), social processes or mechanisms provide accounts of how neighborhoods bring about a change in a given phenomenon of interest (Sorensen 1998, p. 240). (447)

A more recent contribution from Sampson appears in the Demeulenaere volume discussed in several earlier posts, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms.  The essay is called “Neighborhood effects, causal mechanisms and the social structure of the city,” and it makes an explicit attempt to line up the neighborhood-effect literature with some of the issues of analytical sociology.  Most important is the fact that neighborhood effects are thought to be “emergent” or autonomous with respect to the individual characteristics of the people who make up the population.

Sampson’s effort in this essay is to give a satisfactory definition of “neighborhood,” to indicate some ways of measuring or describing neighborhood-level properties (what he refers to as “ecometrics”, in analogy with “psychometrics”), and to reflect on some possible mechanisms that might work from this level of analysis to the individual level of the people who make up the neighborhood.

Here is how Sampson characterizes “neighborhood” in this piece:

I begin with a general definition of neighborhood as a variably interacting population of people and institutions in a common place. Neighborhoods form a mosaic of overlapping ecological units (e.g. blocks, streets) that vary in size, boundaries and social organizational features. (228-229)

It is the intersection of practices and social meanings with spatial context that is at the root of neighborhood effects. (230)

And he offers a somewhat different definition of social mechanism from those provided in the existing literature:

I conceptualize a social mechanism as a plausible contextual process that accounts for a given phenomenon, in the ideal case linking putative causes and effects. (230)

Sampson has quite a bit of interesting perspective on the topic of “levels” of social analysis and social causation.  Neighborhood effects are fairly proximate — local social facts influencing local individual behavior. But Sampson believes that there are plausible mechanisms linking much more distant social conditions or circumstances to the local level as well. For example:

It is not just city-level processes that are at stake — national and global forces can influence place stratification…. How do we go about documenting the extra-local layers of this kind of “macro-level” neighborhood effect?  … Even calls for analytical sociology are not terribly helpful, focused as they are on the relation of micro and macro (in this case neighborhood) levels, as opposed to higher order structures. What is needed is a truly systemic approach that seeks to theorize and study empirically the “articulation” function of the local community vis-a-vis the larger social world — how organizations and social networks differentially connect local residents to the cross-cutting institutions that organize much of modern economic, political and social life. (235)

Sampson explicitly parts company with “Coleman’s boat”, offering a multi-level and multi-dimensional causal model of “neighborhood structure, social-spatial mechanisms, and crime rates” (Figure 11.1; 236).

Unlike most research intentions on neighborhood effects to claim a hierarchical or “top down” primacy of neighborhoods over the individual, I have considered “side to side,” “bottom up” and “bird’s eye” orientations along with issues of measurement, social causality, methodological individualism, extra-local spatial processes, percepts as causation, and selection bias all as a way to address what I consider a modified analytic sociology “Coleman project”. (244)

Despite the real promise of analytical sociology, I conclude that methodological individualism would do well to grant social context and macro-level factors an equal forum in theories of neighborhood effects. (245)

Ultimately, then, higher-order processes that induce structure at the neighborhood level require a different way of thinking than the individualist and largely micro-level approaches of existing experimental paradigms. (245)

Sampson’s work, with a handful of different collaborators, is a very impressive example of the possibility of bringing together very rigorous quantitative methods with a social realist’s interest in causal mechanisms and a non-reductionist’s willingness to assign causal powers to supra-individual structures and conditions.  The systematic effort to introduce methods for observing and measuring “neighborhood-level” characteristics — what they call ecometrics — is a valuable addition to the toolbox for sociological analysis at a range of levels of social activity.

Many of these issues are presented in greater detail in Sampson’s very interesting book, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.

Supervenience and social entities

What is the ontological status of social entities — kinship systems, police departments, religious movements?  And what is the status of causal powers of social entities?  Do we need to “reduce” social entities to the compounds of individuals who make them up? And do we need to derive the causal properties of social entities from the characteristics and interactions of the individuals who make them up? In short, do we need to be reductionist about the social world?

This is a question that arises in many of the “special” sciences, including in particular psychology and neuroscience.  A basic premise of contemporary philosophy is that all phenomena are composed of physical entities, processes, and systems. The mind-body problem is the most immediate place where physicalism does some important work. Mind-body dualists held that mental states were independent from physical states, whereas physicalists insist that mental states are embodied in physical processes and systems.

It is plain enough that we make use of a vocabulary that doesn’t appear to invoke physical states when we talk about people’s actions and states of mind. When I decide to have tofu for dinner, or when I experience the taste of hot sesame oil, I am engaging in a mental act or qualitative state. “Deciding”, “experiencing”, and “having qualitative states” all appear to be terms that refer to private mental states. The physicalist takes it as a piece of ontological certainty, however, that these “mental” states are fully and entirely constituted by the physical substrates of the brain and nervous system.

So what do physicalists have in mind when they say that the phenomena to which these terms refer are really physical states? There are several possibilities:

  • eliminative materialism: mental states do not exist, and we need to give definitions of mental terms that allow us to eliminate them in favor of physical terms [reductionism]
  • non-eliminative materialism: mental states exist, but they are wholly and exhaustively caused by physical states
  • epiphenomenalism: mental states are by-products of physical states without causal powers to influence subsequent physical states
  • supervenience: mental states depend upon physical states and nothing else, but it is difficult and unnecessary to reduce facts about mental states to facts about physical states

Is there an analogous situation in the social sciences? Is individualism for the social sciences strongly analogous to physicalism for the natural sciences? Is there something ontologically dubious about referring to social entities and causes?

There is nothing peculiar about the idea that some entities are complex assemblages of other, simpler entities. Virtually every entity that we have an interest in is a compound of simpler entities — genes, enzymes, or the insulin molecule depicted above.  A table has characteristics that depend on the physical features and arrangement of the materials that make it up, but those “table” characteristics are very different from the features of the composing elements — hardness, stability, load-bearing capacity, etc. And there is no reason whatsoever to insist that “tables do not exist — only bits of wood exist.”  Tables are identifiable composite objects, and they have causal properties that we can invoke in explanations.  So the fact that there are characteristics of the composite that are dissimilar from the characteristics of the elements is not peculiar.  And this is entirely true of social entities as well.  The efficiency or corruptibility of a tax-collecting bureau is not a characteristic of the individuals who compose it; it is rather a system-level characteristic that derives from the incentives, oversight mechanisms, and physical infrastructure of the organization.

So composite entities are not suspect in general. However, there are a couple of challenging questions that we need to confront about composite entities.  First, can we explain the properties of the composite by knowing everything about the properties of the elements and the nature of their arrangement and interactions?  Can we derive the properties of the whole from the properties of the components?  Take metallurgy: can we derive the properties of the alloy from the physical characteristics of the tin and copper which make it up?  Or are there “emergent” properties that somehow do not depend solely on the properties of the components?

Second, can we attribute causal powers to composite entities directly, or do we need to disaggregate causal claims about the aggregate onto some set of claims about the causal powers of the elements?  Do we need to disaggregate the load-bearing capacity of the table onto a set of facts about the properties of the elements (legs, table top) and their configuration?  It is certainly true that we can derive the load-bearing capacity of the table from this set of facts; this is what civil engineers do in modeling bridges, for example.  The philosophical question is whether we ought to regard this causal property as simply a way of summarizing the underlying physics of the table, or as a stable causal property in its own right.

One appealing answer that has been offered to the question of the relationship between levels of entities is the theory of supervenience.  This theory is largely the work of philosopher Jaegwon Kim over the past thirty years. Here is a recent synthesis of his views (Physicalism, or Something Near Enough). He summarizes the basic idea in these terms:

It will suffice to understand [supervenience] as the claim that what happens in our mental life is wholly dependent on, and determined by, what happens with our bodily processes. (14)

And here is how Julie Zahle puts the point in her contribution to Turner and Risjord’s Philosophy of Anthropology and Sociology:

Social entities, their properties, actions, etc. may be said to supervene upon individuals, their actions, and so on, insofar as: (1) there can be no difference at the level of social wholes, their properties, actions, etc., unless there is also a difference at the level of individuals, their properties, actions, and so on; (2) individuals, their actions, etc. fix or determine what kinds of social wholes, properties, etc. are instantiated. (327)

Does the idea of supervenience help answer the question of the ontological status of social entities?  Is it helpful to judge that social entities supervene upon facts about individuals and nothing else?  And does this leave room for the idea of social causation and relative explanatory autonomy?  Are we able to acknowledge the dependence of the social world on facts about individuals without abandoning the idea that there is social causation and social science?

Perhaps surprisingly, Kim thinks that the theory will not assist us in the last two ways, at least when it comes to psychology:

This view [supervenience] provides the burgeoning science of psychology and cognition with a philosophical rationale as an autonomous science in its own right: it investigates these irreducible psychological properties, functions, and capacities, discovering laws and regularities governing them and generating law-based explanations and predictions. It is a science with its own proper domain untouched by other sciences, especially those at the lower levels, like biology, chemistry, and physics.

This seductive picture, however, turns out to be a piece of wishful thinking, when we consider the problem of mental causation–how it is possible, on such a picture, for mentality to have causal powers, powers to influence the course of natural events. (15)

So I am in a quandary at the moment: I favor the idea of “relatively autonomous social explanations” (link), I like the idea of regarding social entities as legitimate compound entities that don’t require elimination, and I think of the theory of supervenience as providing some authority for these views.  And yet Kim himself seems to reject this line of thought when it comes to the special sciences of psychology and cognitive science.  Kim seems to want to argue that higher level sciences cannot claim relative autonomy; in this respect his own view seems to be reductionist.

What seems clear to me can be summarized in just a few points:

  • Social entities and facts are determined and constituted by facts about individuals, their beliefs, their relations, and their actions.  So social entities and facts do in fact supervene upon facts about individuals.
  • Social entities do have causal properties that can be discovered without needing to eliminate them in terms of properties of individuals.
  • The requirement of microfoundations is crucial because it establishes the intellectual discipline required by the first point: we must be able to validate that the claims we make about social properties and causal powers can be provided microfoundations at the level of socially situated individuals.
  • There is a legitimate and defensible level of explanation at which social scientists can hypothesize social properties and causal capacities; so there is a place for a “relatively autonomous” social science.  We are not forced to be reductionist.
  • The “social” is not inherently puzzling in the way that the “mental” is.  Social entities are more analogous to chairs and proteins than they are to thoughts and qualia: they are complex entities whose system-level characteristics are the ultimate effects of the interactions and properties of the individual elements that constitute them.  We often cannot trace out exactly how the properties of the whole derive from the properties of the components; but we don’t need to do so except in unusual circumstances.

Do organizations have causal powers?

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

Examples of organizations include things like these:

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

The organization consists of a number of things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relative explanatory autonomy

In an earlier post I indicated a degree of disagreement with the premises of analytical sociology concerning the validity of methodological individualism (link). This disagreement comes down to three things.

First, for reasons I’ve referred to several times here and elsewhere (link), I prefer to refer to methodological localism rather than methodological individualism.

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

I believe that the ideas of localism and socially constructed, socially situated actors do a better job of capturing the social molecule that underlies larger social processes than the simple idea of an “individual”. Structural individualism seems to come to a similar idea, but less intuitively.

Second, the requirement of providing microfoundations for social assertions is preferable to methodological individualism because it is not inherently reductionist (link). A microfoundation is:

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

We need to be confident that our theories and concepts about social structures, entities, and forces appropriately supervene upon facts about individuals; but we don’t need to rehearse those links in every theory or explanation. In other words, we can make careful statements about macro-macro and macro-meso links without proceeding according to the logic of Coleman’s boat — up and down the struts. Jepperson and Meyer make this point in “Multiple Levels of Analysis and the Limitations of Methodological Individualisms” (link), and they offer an alternative to Coleman’s macro-micro boat that incorporates explanations referring to meso-level causes (66).

Third, these points leave room for a meta-theory of relative explanatory autonomy for social explanations. The key insight here is that there are good epistemic and pragmatic reasons to countenance explanations at a meso-level of organization, without needing to reduce these explanations to the level of individual actors. Here is a statement of the idea of relative explanatory autonomy, provided by a distinguished philosopher of science, Lawrence Sklar, with respect to areas of the physical sciences:

Everybody agrees that there are a multitude of scientific theories that are conceptually and explanatorily autonomous with respect to the fundamental concepts and fundamental explanations of foundational physical theories. Conceptual autonomy means that there is no plausible way to define the concepts of the autonomous theories in terms of the concepts that we use in our foundational physics. This is so even if we allow a rather liberal notion of “definition” so that concepts defined as limit cases of the applicability of the concepts of foundational physics are still considered definable. Explanatory autonomy means that there is no way of deriving the explanatory general principles, the laws, of the autonomous theory from the laws of foundational physics. Once again this is agreed to be the case even if we use a liberal notion of “derivability” for the laws so that derivations that invoke limiting procedures are still counted as derivations. (link)

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. Sacha Bem reviews these arguments in “The Explanatory Autonomy of Psychology: Why a Mind is Not a Brain” (link). Michael Strevens summarizes some of these issues in “Explanatory Autonomy and Explanatory Irreducibility” (link). And here Geoffrey Hellman addresses the issues of reductionism and emergence in the special sciences in “Reductionism, Determination, Explanation”.

These arguments are directly relevant to the social sciences, subject to several important caveats. First is the requirement of microfoundations: we need always to be able to plausibly connect the social constructs we hypothesize to the actions and mentalities of situated agents. And second is the requirement of ontological and causal stability: if we want to explain a meso-level phenomenon on the basis of the causal properties of other meso-level structures, we need to have confidence that the latter properties are reasonably stable over different instantiations. For example, if we believe that a certain organizational structure for tax collection is prone to corruption of the ground-level tax agents and want to use that feature as a cause of something else — we need to have empirical evidence supporting the assertion of the corruption tendencies of this organizational form.

Explanatory autonomy is consistent with our principle requiring microfoundations at a lower ontological level. Here we have the sanction of the theory of supervenience to allow us to say that composition and explanation can be separated. We can settle on a level of meso or macro explanation without dropping down to the level of the actor. We need to be confident there are microfoundations, and the meso properties need to be causally robust. But if this is satisfied, we don’t need to extend the explanation down to the actors.

Woven throughout this discussion are the ideas of reduction and emergence. An area of knowledge is reducible to a lower level if it is possible to derive the statements of the higher-level science from the properties of the lower level. A level of organization is emergent if it has properties that cannot be derived from features of its components. The strong sense of emergence holds that a composite entity sometimes possesses properties that are wholly independent from the properties of the units that compose it. Vitalism and mind-body dualism were strong forms of emergentism: life and mind were thought to possess characteristics that do not derive from the properties of inanimate molecules. Physicalism maintains that all phenomena — including living systems — depend ultimately upon physical entities and structures, so strong emergentism is rejected. But physicalism does not entail reductionism, so it is scientifically acceptable to provide explanations that presuppose relative explanatory autonomy.

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 and Coleman’s boat. Rather, social scientists can legitimately aggregate 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 science, constrained always by the requirement of microfoundations.

Peter Demeulenaere on analytical sociology

Here is another take on the core features of analytical sociology, this time from Peter Demeulenaere in the introduction to his very interesting recent collection on the subject, Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms. The volume includes thirteen essays by leading experts grouped around “Actions and Mechanisms,” “Mechanisms and Causality,” and “Approaches to Mechanisms,” and it is an important further contribution to the framework of analytical sociology. (The volume is also available in an affordable Kindle edition; Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms.)

Demeulenaere makes several basic points. First, he holds that AS is not just another new paradigm for sociology. Instead, it is a reconstruction of what valid explanations on sociology must look like, once we properly understand the logic of the social world. He believes that much existing sociology conforms to this set of standards — but not all. And the non-conformers are evidently condemned to being judged non-explanatory. So this sets a claim of a very high level of authority over the whole field — what Ronald Jepperson and John Meyer refer to as micro-chauvinism (link, 57). Here are several of Demeulenaere’s statements of the intended scope of AS:

Analytical sociology should not therefore be seen as a manifesto for one particular way of doing sociology as compared with others, but as an effort to clarify (“analytically”) theoretical and epistemological principles which underlie any satisfactory way of doing sociology (and, in fact, any social science). The social sciences already command a considerable stock of substantive descriptions and explanations; and some of the alternatives to these are either redundant, or resistant to proof, even false or imprecise, quite regardless of their status with respect to one or other established paradigm. Analytical sociology should seek to define a set of sound epistemological and methodological principles underlying all previously established and reliable sociological findings. The aim of analytical sociology is to clarify the basic epistemological, theoretical and methodological principles fundamental to the development of sound description and explanation. (Kindle loc 121)

The most important aspect of the analytical approach should be to clarify the strategy by which we endeavour to separate and conceptualize different elements entering into descriptions and explanations of the social world, so that we might understand their mutual relationships, and in particular the causal links existing among them. (Kindle loc 139)

Second, Demeulenaere provides a long, detailed, and helpful analysis of the doctrine of methodological individualism and its current status. He believes that criticisms of MI have usually rested on a small number of misunderstandings, which he attempts to resolve. For example, MI is not “atomistic”, “egoistic”, “non-social”, or exclusively tied to rational choice theory. He prefers a refinement that he describes as structural individualism, but essentially he argues that MI is a universal requirement on social science.

The two core ideas behind MI, first expressed by John Stuart Mill and Carl Menger, and subsequently by Weber, can be expressed very simply:

— Social life exists only by virtue of actors who live it;

— Consequently a social fact of any kind must be explained by direct reference to the actions of its constituents.

These two simple propositions remain central to the analytical approach; we therefore have to address the problem of the relationship between MI and AS. This section is directed to a brief exposition of the problem. (Kindle loc 183)

This is important, because it involves two separate assertions: social things are composed of individual actions and nothing else; and “therefore” social outcomes must be explained on the basis of facts about individual actions. But the inference doesn’t hold — more in an upcoming post on explanatory autonomy.

Demeulenaere specifically disputes the idea that MI implies a separation between society and non-social individuals. He believes that even the originators — Watkins and Mill, for example — recognized that individuals are social organisms. But he believes this recognition can be folded into a consistent elaboration of MI that he describes as structural individualism:

The combination of these two approaches can be called “structural individualism” (Wippler 1978; Udehn 2001). Any serious attempt to reflect on a social situation should deploy both in turn. Their combination is in some respect illustrated by Coleman‘s famous “boat” (1986, 1990). It remains a central aspect of analytical sociology. (kl 246)

That said, Demeulenaere fully endorses the idea that AS depends upon and presupposes MI:

Does analytical sociology differ significantly from the initial project of MI? I do not really think so. But by introducing the notion of analytical sociology we are able to make a fresh start and avoid the various misunderstandings now commonly attached to MI. (kl 318)

Third, Demeulenaere holds that AS depends closely on the methodology of social causal mechanisms. The “analytical” part of the phrase involves identifying separate things, and the social mechanisms idea says how these things are related. Demeulenaere gives a compressed history of the development of this framework over the past decade or so.

Analytical sociology incorporates an affirmation that “social facts” are generated, triggered, produced, brought about, or “caused” by individual actions which themselves are in some sense “caused”, or at least partly determined by, the constraints presented by the social environments and situations in which such actions take place.

Therefore the focus has to be on the causal “process” occurring at the action level. The idea that there are laws directly implemented at a macro level can be easily rebutted, since the effectiveness of the outcome necessarily leads to the “active” level, the level of action. One general implication of the notion of “mechanism” is to move analysis away from an “inactive” level to an “active” level, where effective actions occur. A strong correlation between variables should not therefore be interpreted in causal terms unless a mechanism linking the two dimensions is identified, mechanisms involving effective actions. (kl 378)

So causal mechanisms are expected to be the components of the linkages between events or processes hypothesized to bear a causal relation to each other. And, more specifically to the AS approach, the mechanisms are supposed to occur solely at the level of the actors–not at the meso or macro levels. So this means that AS would not countenance a meso-level mechanism like this: “the organizational form of the supervision structure at the Bopal chemical plant caused a high rate of maintenance lapses that caused the accidental release of chemicals.” Both features are meso-level factors or conditions, and it would appear that AS would require that their causal properties be unpacked onto individual actors’ behavior.

I, on the other hand, would maintain that this is a perfectly legitimate social mechanism because we can readily supply its microfoundations at the behavioral level. So this suggests that we can legitimately refer to meso-level mechanisms as long as we are mindful of the microfoundations requirement. And this corresponds as well to the tangible fact that institutions have causal force with respect to individuals — a point Demeulenaere acknowledges here:

Hence we commonly encounter the fact that, one set of actors having at a certain point adopted a norm, or built up an institution, it then become more difficult for actors subsequently coming onto the scene to adopt another norm, or replace the institution. But this is never impossible. (kl 372)

There is quite a bit of the framework of AS that I find appealing and constructive. Moreover, several of the core premises line up well with assumptions I’ve argued for in my own philosophy of social science — microfoundations, causal mechanisms, and agent-centered ontology, for example. Where there appear to be a few inches of separation between the views is on the subject of reductionism and explanatory autonomy. I will return to these differences in an upcoming post.


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