Mechanisms according to analytical sociology

One of the distinguishing characteristics of analytical sociology is its insistence on the idea of causal mechanisms as the core component of explanation. Like post-positivists in other traditions, AS theorists specifically reject the covering law model of explanation and argues for a “realist” understanding of causal relations and powers: a causal relationship between x and y exists solely insofar as there exist one or more causal mechanisms producing it generating y given the occurrence of x. Peter Hedström puts the point this way in Dissecting the Social:

A social mechanism, as defined here, is a constellation of entities and activities that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about a particular type of outcome. (kl 181)

A basic characteristic of all explanations is that they provide plausible causal accounts for why events happen, why something changes over time, or why states or events co-vary in time or space. (kl 207)

The core idea behind the mechanism approach is that we explain not by evoking universal laws, or by identifying statistically relevant factors, but by specifying mechanisms that show how phenomena are brought about. (kl 334)

A social mechanism, as here defined, describes a constellation of entities and activities that are organized such that they regularly bring about a particular type of outcome. (kl 342)

So far so good. But AS ads another requirement about causal mechanisms in the social realm that is less convincing: that the only real or credible mechanisms are those involving the actions of individual actors. In other words, causal action in the social world takes place solely at the micro level. This assumption is substantial, non-trivial, and seemingly dogmatic. 

Sociological theories typically seek to explain social outcomes such as inequalities, typical behaviours of individuals in different social settings, and social norms. In such theories individuals are the core entities and their actions are the core activities that bring about the social-level phenomena that one seeks to explain. (kl 356)

Although the explanatory focus of sociological theory is on social entities, an important thrust of the analytical approach is that actors and actions are the core entities and activities of the mechanisms explaining plaining such phenomena. (kl 383)

The theory should also explain action in intentional terms. This means that we should explain an action by reference to the future state it was intended to bring about. Intentional explanations are important for sociological theory because, unlike causalist explanations of the behaviourist or statistical kind, they make the act ‘understandable’ in the Weberian sense of the term.’ (kl 476)

Here is a table in which Hedström classifies different kinds of social mechanisms; significantly, all are at the level of actors and their mental states.

The problem with this “action-level” requirement on the nature of social mechanisms is that it rules out as a matter of methodology that there could be social causal processes that involve factors at higher social levels — organizations, norms, or institutions, for example. (For that matter, it also rules out the possibility that some individual actions might take place in a way that is inaccessible to conscious knowledge — for example, impulse, emotion, or habit.) And yet it is common in sociology to offer social explanations invoking causal properties of things at precisely these “meso” levels of the social world. For example:

Each of these represents a fairly ordinary statement of social causation in which a primary causal factor is an organization, an institutional arrangement, or a normative system.

It is true, of course, that such entities depends on the actions and minds of individuals. This is the thrust of ontological individualism (linklink): the social world ultimately depends on individuals in relation to each other and in relation to the modes of social formation through which their knowledge and action principles have been developed. But explanatory or methodological individualism does not follow from the truth of ontological individualism, any more than biological reductionism follows from the truth of physicalism. Instead, it is legitimate to attribute stable causal properties to meso-level social entities and to invoke those entities in legitimate social-causal explanations. Earlier arguments for meso-level causal mechanisms can be found herehere, and here.

This point about “micro-level dogmatism” leads me to believe that analytical sociology is unnecessarily rigid when it comes to causal processes in the social realm. Moreover, this rigidity leads it to be unreceptive to many approaches to sociology that are perfectly legitimate and insightful. It is as if someone proposed to offer a science of cooking but would only countenance statements at the level of organic chemistry. Such an approach would preclude the possibility of distinguishing different cuisines on the basis of the palette of spices and flavors that they use. By analogy, the many approaches to sociological research that proceed on the basis of an analysis of the workings of mid-level social entities and influences are excluded by the strictures of analytical sociology. Not all social research needs to take the form of the discovery of microfoundations, and reductionism is not the only scientifically legitimate strategy for explanation.

(The photo above of a moment from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is relevant to this topic, because useful accident analysis needs to invoke the features of organization that led to a disaster as well as the individual actions that produced the particular chain of events leading to the disaster. Here is an earlier post that explores this feature of safety engineering; link.)

Reduction and generativeness

Providing an ontology of complex entities seems to force us to refer to some notion of higher-level and lower-level things. Proteins consist of atoms; atoms consist of protons, electrons, and neutrons; and cells are agglomerations of many things, including proteins. This describes a relation of composition between a set of lower-level things and the higher-level thing. And this in turn seems to involve some kind of notion of “levels” of things in the world. Things at each level have relations and properties constituting the domain of facts at that level, and the properties of the higher-level thing are sometimes different from the properties of the lower-level things. (Not all the properties, of course — proteins and atoms alike have mass and momentum.) But for the properties that differ, we have an important question to answer: what explains or determines the properties of the higher-level thing? Several positions have been considered:

  • Facts about things and properties of B are generated by facts of A
  • Facts about things and properties of B can be reduced to facts of A
  • Facts about things and properties of B supervene upon properties of A
I want to discuss these relations here, but it’s worth recalling the other important relations across levels that are sometimes invoked.
  • Facts about things and properties of B are weakly emergent from properties of A
  • Facts about things and properties of B are strongly emergent from properties of A
  • Facts about things and properties of B are in part independent from the properties of A
  • Facts about things and properties of B causally influence the properties of A

So let’s focus here on reduction and generation. These are sometimes thought to be equivalent notions; but they are not. Let’s grant that the facts about B jointly serve to generate the facts about A. Then A supervenes upon B, by definition. Do these facts imply that A is reducible to B, or that facts of A can be or should be reduced to B? Emphatically not. Reducibility is a feature of the relationship between bodies of knowledge or theories — our knowledge of A and our knowledge of B. To reduce A to B means deriving what we know about B from what we know about A. For example, the laws of planetary motion are derivable from the law of universal gravitation: by working through the mathematics of gravity it is possible to derive the orbits of the planets around the sun. So the laws of planetary motion are reducible to the law of universal gravitation.

Generativity is not a feature of theories; instead, it is an ontological feature of the world. Physicalism is such a conception. Physicalism maintains that facts about the physical body, including the nervous system, jointly generate all mental phenomena. Generativity involves the idea that, taking the full reality of the properties and powers of B, the properties of A result. The properties of the entities at level B suffice to generate all the properties of the entities at level A. But there is no assurance that our current knowledge about B permits a mathematical derivation of A. Further, there is no assurance that a “full and complete theory” of B would permit such a derivation — because there is no assurance that such a theory exists at all. And then there is the issue of computability: it may be radically in feasible to perform the calculations necessary to derive A from B.

And so it is clear that reducibility does not follow from generativeness.

There is a second level argument separating generativeness from reducibility as well. This is the fact that there are numerous scientific purposes for which reduction is unnecessary even if it were feasible. It might be possible to derive the motion of a cannonball from a calculation of the motions of the component molecules. But this would be silly. We have no scientific interest or need in doing so.

So it is fully consistent for us to take the position of generativeness and anti-reductionism. And this position makes very good sense in the case of macro and micro social facts. We can take the view that all social entities are embodied in facts about various individuals, their social interactions, and their states of mind. This implies that social facts are generated by facts at the actor level, or that the facts of A supervene upon the facts of B. And yet we can also be emphatic in affirming that there is not need or general possibility for reduction from the one level to the other.

Or in other words, the generativeness of the situation is wholly uninformative.

Is chemistry supervenient on physics?

Many philosophers of science and physicists take it for granted that “physics” determines “chemistry”. Or in terms of the theory of supervenience, it is commonly supposed that the domain of chemistry supervenes upon the domain of fundamental physics. This is the thesis of physicalism: the idea that all causation ultimately depends on the causal powers of the phenomena described by fundamental physics.

R. F. Hendry takes up this issue in his contribution to Davis Baird, Eric Scerri, and Lee McIntyre’s very interesting volume, Philosophy of Chemistry. Hendry takes the position that this relation of supervenience does not obtain; chemistry does not supervene upon fundamental physics.

Hendry points out that the dependence claim depends crucially on two things: what aspects of physics are to be considered? And second, what kind of dependency do we have in mind between higher and lower levels? For the first question, he proposes that we think about fundamental physics — quantum mechanics and relativity theory (174). For the second question, he enumerates several different kinds of dependency: supervenience, realization, token identity, reducibility, and derivability (175). In discussing the macro-property of transparency in glass, he cites Jaegwon Kim in maintaining that transparency in glass is “nothing more” than the features of the microstructure of glass that permit it to transmit light. But here is a crucial qualification:

But as Kim admits, this last implication only follows if it is accepted that “the microstructure of a system determines its causal/nomic properties” (283), for the functional role is specified causally, and so the realizer’s realizing the functional property that it does (i.e., the realizer–role relation itself) depends on how things in fact go in a particular kind of system. For a microstructure to determine the possession of a functional property, it must completely determine the causal/nomic properties of that system. (175)

Hendry argues that the key issue underlying claims of dependence of B upon A is whether there is downward causation from the level of chemistry (B) to the physical level (A); or, on the contrary, is physics “causally complete”. If the causal properties of the higher level are fully fixed by the causal properties of the underlying level, then supervenience is possible; but if the higher level has causal properties that permit influence on the lower level, then supervenience is not possible.

In order to gain insight into the specific issues arising concerning chemistry and physics, Hendry makes use of the “emergentist” thinking associated with C.D. Broad. He finds that Broad offers convincing arguments against “Pure Mechanism”, the view that all material things are determined by the micro-physical level (177). Here are Broad’s two contrasting possibilities for understanding the relations between higher levels and the physical micro-level:

(i) On the first form of the theory the characteristic behavior of the whole could not, even in theory, be deduced from the most complete knowledge of the behavior of its components, taken separately or in other combinations, and of their proportions and arrangements in this whole . . .

 

(ii) On the second form of the theory the characteristic behavior of the whole is not only completely determined by the nature and arrangements of its components; in addition to this it is held that the behavior of the whole could, in theory at least, be deduced from a sufficient knowledge of how the components behave in isolation or in other wholes of a simpler kind (1925, 59). [Hendry, 178]

The first formulation describes “emergence”, whereas the second is “mechanism”. In order to give more contemporary expression to the two views Hendry introduces the key concept of quantum chemistry, the Hamiltonian for a molecule. A Hamiltonian is an operator describing the total energy of a system. A “resultant” Hamiltonian is the operator that results from identifying and summing up all forces within a system; a configurational Hamiltonian is one that has been observationally adjusted to represent the observed energies of the system. The first version is “fundamental”, whereas the second version is descriptive.

Now we can pose the question of whether chemistry (behavior of molecules) is fixed by the resultant Hamiltonian for the components of the atoms involved (electrons, protons, neutrons) and the forces that they exert on each other. Or, on the other hand, does quantum chemistry achieve its goals by arriving at configurational Hamiltonians for molecules, and deriving properties from these descriptive operators? Hendry finds that the latter is the case for existing derivations; and this means that quantum chemistry (as it is currently practiced) does not derive chemical properties from fundamental quantum theory. Moreover, the configuration of the Hamiltonians used requires abstractive description of the hypothesized geometry of the molecule and the assumption of the relatively slow motion of the nucleus. But this is information at the level of chemistry, not fundamental physics. And it implies downward causation from the level of chemical structure to the level of fundamental physics.

Furthermore, to the extent that the behavior of any subsystem is affected by the supersystems in which it participates, the emergent behavior of complex systems must be viewed as determining, but not being fully determined by, the behavior of their constituent parts. And that is downward causation. (180)

So chemistry does not derive from fundamental physics. Here is Hendry’s conclusion, supporting pluralism and anti-reductionism in the case of chemistry and physics:

On the other hand is the pluralist version, in which physical law does not fully determine the behavior of the kinds of systems studied by the special sciences. On this view, although the very abstractness of the physical theories seems to indicate that they could, in principle, be regarded as applying to special science systems, their applicability is either trivial (and correspondingly uninformative), or if non-trivial, the nature of scientific inquiry is such that there is no particular reason to expect the relevant applications to be accurate in their predictions…. The burden of my argument has been that strict physicalism fails, because it misrepresents the details of physical explanation (187)

Hendry’s argument has a lot in common with Herbert Simon’s arguments about system complexity (link) and with Nancy Cartwright’s arguments about the limitations of (real) physics’ capability of representing and calculating the behavior of complex physical systems based on first principles (link). In each case we get a pragmatic argument against reductionism, and a weakened basis for assuming a strict supervenience relation between higher-level structures and a limited set of supposedly fundamental building blocks. What is striking is that Hendry’s arguments undercut the reductionist impulse at what looks like its most persuasive juncture — the relationship between quantum physics and quantum chemistry.

Quantum mental processes?

One of the pleasant aspects of a long career in philosophy is the occasional experience of a genuinely novel approach to familiar problems. Sometimes one’s reaction is skeptical at first — “that’s a crazy idea!”. And sometimes the approach turns out to have genuine promise. I’ve had that experience of moving from profound doubt to appreciation several times over the years, and it is an uplifting learning experience. (Most recently, I’ve made that progression with respect to some of the ideas of assemblage and actor-network theory advanced by thinkers such as Bruno Latour; link, link.)

I’m having that experience of unexpected dissonance as I begin to read Alexander Wendt’s Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology. Wendt’s book addresses many of the issues with which philosophers of social science have grappled for decades. But Wendt suggests a fundamental switch in the way that we think of the relation between the human sciences and the natural world. He suggests that an emerging paradigm of research on consciousness, advanced by Giuseppi Vitiello, John Eccles, Roger Penrose, Henry Stapp, and others, may have important implications for our understanding of the social world as well. This is the field of “quantum neuropsychology” — the body of theory that maintains that puzzles surrounding the mind-body problem may be resolved by examining the workings of quantum behavior in the central nervous system. I’m not sure which category to put the idea of quantum consciousness yet, but it’s interesting enough to pursue further.

The familiar problem in this case is the relation between the mental and the physical. Like all physicalists, I work on the assumption that mental phenomena are embodied in the physical infrastructure of the central nervous system, and that the central nervous system works according to familiar principles of electrochemistry. Thought and consciousness are somehow the “emergent” result of the workings of the complex physical structure of the brain (in a safe and bounded sense of emergence). The novel approach is the idea that somehow quantum physics may play a strikingly different role in this topic than ever had been imagined. Theorists in the field of quantum consciousness speculate that perhaps the peculiar characteristics of quantum events at the sub-atomic level (e.g. quantum randomness, complementary, entanglement) are close enough to the action of neural networks that they serve to give a neural structure radically different properties from those expected by a classical-physics view of the brain. (This idea isn’t precisely new; when I was an undergraduate in the 1960s it was sometimes speculated that freedom of the will was possible because of the indeterminacy created by quantum physics. But this wasn’t a very compelling idea.)

Wendt’s further contribution is to immerse himself in some of this work, and then to formulate the question of how these perspectives on intentionality and mentality might affect key topics in the philosophy of society. For example, how do the longstanding concepts of structure and agency look when we begin with a quantum perspective on mental activity?

A good place to start in preparing to read Wendt’s book is Harald Atmanspacher’s excellent article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link). Atmanspacher organizes his treatment into three large areas of application of quantum physics to the problem of consciousness: metaphorical applications of the concepts of quantum physics; applications of the current state of knowledge in quantum physics; and applications of possible future advances in knowledge in quantum physics.

Among these [status quo] approaches, the one with the longest history was initiated by von Neumann in the 1930s…. It can be roughly characterized as the proposal to consider intentional conscious acts as intrinsically correlated with physical state reductions. (13)

A physical state reduction is the event that occurs when a quantum probability field resolves into a discrete particle or event upon having been measured. Some theorists (e.g. Henry Stapp) speculate that conscious human intention may influence the physical state reduction — thus a “mental” event causes a “physical” event. And some process along these lines is applied to the “activation” of a neuronal assembly:

The activation of a neuronal assembly is necessary to make the encoded content consciously accessible. This activation is considered to be initiated by external stimuli. Unless the assembly is activated, its content remains unconscious, unaccessed memory. (20)

Also of interest in Atmanspacher’s account is the idea of emergence: are mental phenomena emergent from physical phenomena, and in what sense? Atmanspacher specifies a clear but strong definition of emergence, and considers whether mental phenomena are emergent in this sense:

Mental states and/or properties can be considered as emergent if the material brain is not necessary or not sufficient to explore and understand them. (6)

This is a strong conception in a very specific way; it specifies that material facts are not sufficient to explain “emergent” mental properties. This implies that we need to know some additional facts beyond facts about the material brain in order to explain mental states; and it is natural to ask what the nature of those additional facts might be.

The reason this collection of ideas is initially shocking to me is the difference in scale between the sub-atomic level and macro-scale entities and events. There is something spooky about postulating causal links across that range of scales. It would be wholly crazy to speculate that we need to invoke the mathematics and theories of quantum physics to explain billiards. It is pretty well agreed by physicists that quantum mechanics reduces to Newtonian physics at this scale. Even though the component pieces of a billiard ball are quantum entities with peculiar properties, as an ensemble of 10^25 of these particles the behavior of the ball is safely classical. The peculiarities of the quantum level wash out for systems with multiple Avogadro’s numbers of particles through the reliable workings of statistical mechanics. And the intuitions of most people comfortable with physics would lead them to assume that neurons are subject to the same independence; the scale of activity of a neuron (both spatial and temporal) is orders of magnitude too large to reflect quantum effects. (Sorry, Schrodinger’s cat!)

Charles Seife reports a set of fundamental physical computations conducted by Max Tegmark intended to demonstrate this in a recent article in Science Magazine, “Cold Numbers Unmake the Quantum Mind” (link). Tegmark’s analysis focuses on the speculations offered by Penrose and others on the possible quantum behavior of “microtubules.” Tegmark purports to demonstrate that the time and space scales of quantum effects are too short by orders of magnitude to account for the neural mechanisms that can be observed (link). Here is Tegmark’s abstract:

Based on a calculation of neural decoherence rates, we argue that the degrees of freedom of the human brain that relate to cognitive processes should be thought of as a classical rather than quantum system, i.e., that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the current classical approach to neural network simulations. We find that the decoherence time scales (∼10^−13–10^−20s) are typically much shorter than the relevant dynamical time scales (∼10^−3–10^−1s), both for regular neuron firing and for kinklike polarization excitations in microtubules. This conclusion disagrees with suggestions by Penrose and others that the brain acts as a quantum computer, and that quantum coherence is related to consciousness in a fundamental way. (link)

I am grateful to Atmanspacher for providing such a clear and logical presentation of some of the main ideas of quantum consciousness; but I continue to find myself sceptical. There is a risk in this field to succumb to the temptation towards unbounded speculation: “Maybe if X’s could influence Y’s, then we could explain Z” without any knowledge of how X, Y, and Z are related through causal pathways. And the field seems sometimes to be prey to this impulse: “If quantum events were partially mental, then perhaps mental events could influence quantum states (and from there influence macro-scale effects).”

In an upcoming post I’ll look closely at what Alex Wendt makes of this body of theory in application to the level of social behavior and structure.

Kaidesoja on emergence

Tuukka Kaidesoja’s recent book Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology devotes a chapter to the topic of emergence as it is treated within critical realism. Roy Bhaskar insisted that the assumption of emergence was crucial to the theory of critical realism. Kaidesoja sorts out what Bhaskar means by emergence, which turns out to be ambiguous and inconsistent, and offers his own position on the concept.

Kaidesoja quotes an important passage from Bhaskar’s Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation) (1986):

It is only if social phenomena are genuinely emergent [. . .] that realist explanations in the human sciences are justified; and it is only if these conditions are satisfied that there is any possibility of human self-emancipation worthy of the name. But, conversely, emergent phenomena require realist explanation and realist explanations possess emancipatory implications. Emancipation depends upon explanation depends upon emergence. Given the phenomena of emergence, an emancipatory politics (or more generally transformative or therapeutic practice) depends upon a realist science. But, if and only if emergence is real, the development of both science and politics are up to us. [quoted by TK, 178]

Kaidesoja invokes a very basic issue about emergence by asking whether a claim of emergence for a given property is a claim about epistemology or about ontology. Is the phenomenon emergent because, given our current state of knowledge it is impossible to derive the property from the properties of the lower level constituents; or do we mean that the property is really (ontologically) independent from the features of the lower level? Kaidesoja makes it clear that Bhaskar and the critical realists have the stronger ontological thesis in mind when they assert that social entities are emergent or have emergent properties. The emergent feature is ontologically irreducible to the composing elements. But it is really unclear what this means.

TK argues that Bhaskar intertwines three different kinds of emergence without clearly distinguishing them: compositional, transcendentally realist, and global-level (179).

  • Compositional emergence: A particular complex whole sometimes has properties that are not properties of any of its parts and not merely “aggregative” effects of the ensemble of parts (179-180).
  • Transcendentally realist emergence: Abstract social structures, as distinct from social particulars, have properties that cannot be derived from the activities of individuals. “Transcendentally real emergent powers of social structures differ from the causal powers of concrete social systems composed of interacting persons” (182).
  • Global-level emergence: Levels of reality (e.g. society, mind, matter) have emergent properties not derivable from the properties of lower levels of reality. “Each emergent level has its own synchronically emergent properties which are autonomous with respect to those of other levels (186).

The three sets of ideas are successively more demanding, and TK finds that they are inconsistent with each other. Moreover, there is a crucial complication: within the compositional version (but not within the other two versions) Bhaskar allows that the emergent factor is amenable to “micro-reductive explanation”. This is essentially the position taken by Herbert Simon (link) and Mario Bunge (link), and  it appears to be consistent with Dave Elder-Vass’s position in The Causal Power of Social Structures (link) as well. It is a reasonable position. The other two versions, by contrast, are explicitly not compatible with micro-reductive explanation, and do not appear reasonable.

In fact, Kaidesoja finds that there are insolvable problems with the “transcendentally realist” and “global-level” versions of the theory of emergence, and he concludes that they are unsupportable. Kaidesoja therefore focuses his attention on the compositional version as the sole version of emergence that can be coherently asserted within critical realism.

Since Bhaskar and his followers deny the possibility of analysing emergent powers of social structures in compositional terms, their notion of transcendentally realist emergent powers of social structures is incompatible with the compositional account of emergent powers. (184)

I further tried to show that the attribution of transcendentally real emergent powers to social structures is problematic, since it leaves the ontological relation between social structures and concrete social systems (composed of interacting people and their artifacts) obscure and/or construes social structures as abstract entities. (187)

This discussion has an important consequence within TK’s naturalizing strategy. It implies that a naturalized critical realism will need to surrender the two more extensive versions of emergence and make do with the compositional form. And that would bring a naturalized critical realism into closer alignment with mainstream thinking about the relation between higher-level and lower-level systems than this framework is usually thought to be.

So the argument TK has constructed in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology does not limit itself to criticizing the scheme of philosophical reasoning that Bhaskar and other CR theorists have pursued, but also extends to some of the substantive conclusions they have sought to derive.

Issues about microfoundations

photo

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.

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!

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.)

Emergence

photos: Niklas Luhman (top), Mario Bunge (bottom)

One view that has been taken about the causal properties of social structures is that they are emergent: they are properties that appear only at a certain level of complexity, and do not pertain to the items of which the social structure is composed. This view has a couple of important problems, not least of which is one of definition. What specifically is the idea of emergence supposed to mean? And do we have any good reasons to believe that it applies to the social world?

An important recent exponent of the view in question is David Elder-Vass in The Causal Power of Social Structures: Emergence, Structure and Agency. Elder-Vass is in fact specific about what he means by the concept. He defines a property of a compound entity or structure as emergent when the property applies only to the structure itself and not to any of its components.

A thing … can have properties or capabilities that are not possessed by its parts. Such properties are called emergent properties. (4)

An emergent property is one that is not possessed by any of the parts individually and that would not be possessed by the full set of parts in the absence of a structuring set of relations between them. (17)

But, as I argued in an earlier post, this is such a tame version of emergence that it doesn’t seem to add much. By E-V’s criterion, most properties are emergent — the sweetness of sugar, the flammability of woven cotton, the hardness of bronze.

What gives the idea of emergence real bite — but also makes it fundamentally mysterious — is the additional idea that the property cannot be derived from facts about the components and their arrangements within the structure in question. By this criterion, none of the properties just mentioned are emergent, because their characteristics can in principle be derived from what we know about their components in interaction with each other.

This is the concept of emergence that is associated with holism and anti-reductionism. Essentially it requires us to do our scientific work entirely at the level of the structure itself — discover system-level properties and powers, and turn our backs on the impulse to explain through analysis.

A kind of compromise view is offered by Herbert Simon in his conception of a complex system in a 1962 article, “The Architecture of Complexity” (link). Here is how he defines the relevant notion of complexity:

Roughly, by a complex system I mean one made up of a large number of parts that interact in a nonsimple way. In such systems, the whole is more than the sum of the parts, not in an ultimate, metaphysical sense, but in the important pragmatic sense that, given the properties of the parts and the laws of their interaction, it is not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole. In the face of complexity, an in-principle reductionist may be at the same time a pragmatic holist. (468)

Here Simon favors a view that does not assert ontological independence of system characteristics from individual characteristics, but does assert pragmatic and explanatory independence. In fact, his position seems equivalent to the supervenience thesis: social facts supervene upon facts about individuals. But the implication for research is plain: it is useless to pursue a reductionist strategy for understanding system-level properties of complex systems.

A recent issue of Philosophy of the Social Sciences contains three interesting contributions to different aspects of this topic. Mariam Thalos (“Two Conceptions of Fundamentality”) and Shiping Tang (“Foundational Paradigms of Social Sciences”) are both worth reading. But Poe Yu-ze Wan’s “Emergence a la Systems Theory: Epistemological Totalausschluss or Ontological Novelty?”) is directly relevant to the question of emergence, so here I’ll focus on his analysis.

Wan distinguishes between two schools of thought about emergence, associated with Niklas Luhmann and Mario Bunge. Luhmann’s conception is extravagantly holistic, whereas Bunge’s conception is entirely consistent with the idea that emergent characteristics are nonetheless fixed by properties of the constituents. Wan argues that Luhmann has an “epistemological” understanding of emergence — the status of a property as emergent is a feature of its derivability or explicability on the basis of lower-level facts. Bunge’s approach, on the other hand, is ontological: even if we can fully explain the higher-level phenomenon in terms of the properties of the lower level, the property itself is still emergent. So for Bunge, “emergence” is a fact about being, not about knowledge. Wan also notes that Luhmann wants to replace the “part-whole” distinction with the “environment-system” distinction — which Wan believes is insupportable (180). Here is a statement from Luhmann quoted by Wan:

Whenever there is an emergent order, we find the the elements of a presupposed materiality- or energy-continuum … are excluded. Total exclusion (Totalausschluss) is the condition of emergence. (Luhmann, Niklas. 1992. Wer kennt Wil Martens? Eine Anmerkung zum Problem der Emergenz sozialer System. Kolner Zeitschrift fur Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 44(1): 139-42, 141)

And here is Bunge’s definition of emergence, quoted by Wan:

To say that P is an emergent property of systems of kind K is short for “P is a global (or collective or non-distributive) property of a system of kind K, none of whose components or precursors possesses P. (Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge, 15)

Bunge’s position here is exactly the same as the conception offered by Elder-Vass above. It defines emergence as novelty at the higher level — whether or not that novelty can be explained by facts about the constituents. Bunge’s conception is consistent with the supervenient principle, in my reading, whereas Lumann’s is not.

Wan provides an excellent review of the history of thinking about this concept, and his assessment of the issues is one that I for one agree with. In particular, his endorsement of Bunge’s position of “rational emergentism” seems to me to get the balance exactly right: social properties are in some sense fixed by the properties of the constituents; they are nonetheless distinct from those underlying properties; and good scientific theories are justified in referring to these emergent properties without the need of reducing them or replacing them with properties at the lower level. This is what Simon seems to be getting at in his definition of complex systems, quoted above; and it seems to be equivalent to the idea of explanatory autonomy argued in an earlier post.

My own strategy on this issue is to avoid use of the concept of emergence and to favor instead the idea of explanatory autonomy. This is the idea that mid-level system properties are often sufficiently stable that we can pursue causal explanations at that level, without providing derivations of those explanations from some more fundamental level (link).

The explanatory challenge is very clear: if we want to explain meso-level outcomes on the basis of reference to emergent system characteristics, we can do so. But we need to have good replicable knowledge of the causal properties of the emergent features in order to develop explanations of other kinds of outcomes based on the workings of the system characteristics. I would also add that we need to have confidence that the hypothesized system-level characteristics do in fact possess microfoundations at the level of the individual and social actions that underly them; or, in other words, we need to have reason for confidence that the emergent properties our explanations hypothesize do in fact conform to the supervenient relation.

A couple of Wan’s sources are particularly valuable for investigators who are interested in pursuing the idea of emergence further:

David Blitz, Emergent Evolution: Qualitative Novelty and the Levels of Reality (Episteme)
Richard Jones, Reductionism: Analysis and the Fullness of Reality
Keith Sawyer, Social Emergence: Societies As Complex Systems

Social properties: Persistence, change, and stochastic social processes

How can we explain social change and social persistence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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