Mechanisms and Causality in
Sociology
Rubén D. Flores Sandoval
Mechanisms and Causality in the Sciences, University of Kent, 2009
Mechanisms and Causality
Growing attention to mechanisms within the philosophy
of social science and social theory (Gross 2009)
• “Knowledge is the knowledge of causes” (Russo
2009)
• Social mechanisms – relevant for social policy (Weber
2007; Hunting Causes)
What are social mechanisms? Are they different from
mechanisms in the natural sciences? How far can
they take us?
2
Social Mechanisms
• Various conceptions have been suggested:
• “Mechanisms as Observable processes that do not
require the posting of motives”
• “Mechanisms as Lower-Order Social Processes”
• “Mechanisms as Trigerable Causal Powers”
• “Mechanisms as Transformative Events”
• Gross 2009: 360-361
3
A provisional definition
• “A social mechanism is a more or less general
sequence of set of social events or processes (…)
by which—in certain circumstances—some cause
X tends to bring about some effect Y in the realm
of human social relations.” (Gross 2009: 364)
4
However,
• Most conceptions put forth so far work with an
unsatisfactory conception of social action (Gross
2009):
• As an alternative to current models, Neil Gross has put
forth a model of social mechanisms based on American
Pragmatism philosophy and social theory:
• Human beings as ‘problem solvers’
• Human Action: Habit and Creativity
• Social Action as Social Practice
5
Gross’s model of SM
•
•
•
•
•
Actors
Problem Situations
Habitus
Responses
A-P-H-R chains…are systems and power
somehow missing from the picture?
6
My aims here
I would like to 1) extend one of Gross’s
points: discussion about social mechanisms
needs to take social theory seriously. And 2)
argue that it is possible to think of social
mechanisms in terms of entities and
activities (Machamer, Darden and Craver
2000).
7
Thinking about social entities and
activities…
How to think of entities and activities within the social
world? (cf. debates around the relation between
mechanisms in the natural sciences and the social
sciences. See Cassini, this conference)
Is human agency comparable to what, say, aspirin does?
What other forms of activities are out there in society?
How do human agency differs from the causal powers of
emergent social entities (e.g. capitalism)?
8
Social ontology
• What kind of entities and activities populate the social
world?
• Proposition: any satisfactory account of social
mechanisms ought to take social ontology seriously.
Activities
Entities
Actors
Problem Situations
Habitus, Responses
Lifeworld, Social Action
Systems, Structures, Figurations
9
Social Theory
•
•
•
•
•
•
Pragmatism
Communicative Action
Functionalism
System Theory
Critical Realism
Competing conceptions of entities and
activities?
10
Social Ontology (1): Social Action
Actors
Habitus
Reflexivity
Agency
Lifeworld
How to characterise entities and activities in the realm
of social action?
12
Social Ontology (2): Systems
Social things
Lifeworld
Structures
Figurations
Systems
How to characterise entities and activities in the realm
of emergent social entities?
13
When assessing causality,
mechanisms are only part of the
story…
1. Specification
2. Precision
3. Breadth
Block 1
4. Boundedness
7. Differentiation
10. Contingency
13. Intelligibility
5. Strenght
8. Priority
6. Parsimony
9. Independence
11. Mechanism
12. Coherence
14. Relevance
15. Innovation
16. Comparison
Criteria for Assesing Causal Propositions (Gerring
2005)
14
Some open questions
• What is the reach, and what the limitations, of
social mechanisms in explaining the social
world (cf. Abbott 2004)?
• Are there problems that are not amenable to a
mechanistic explanation?
• What about social policy?
• Can mechanisms guide us to elucidate
questions of ontology?
15
Summary (1)
• Research on social mechanisms needs to take
social ontology (and thus social theory)
seriously. What entities and activities
constitute the social world?
• Stressing the importance of social ontology
does not amount to asserting a split between
natural and social mechanisms (cf. Casini)
• MDC 2000 offers a possibility for a unifying
conception of social and natural mechanisms.
•
16
Summary (2)
• There is need for more dialogue between social
theory and the philosophy of science.
• Properly understood, social mechanisms can
illuminate questions of causality within sociology.
• Causality is important, but it is not the only task of
social science: Description is also important (Abbott
1998); even when making causal claims, mechanisms
are only part of the story (Gerring 2005)
• What are the limitations of SM in explaining society?
17
THANK YOU
Comments
&
Questions
[email protected]
References
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Abbott, Andrew (1998). The Causal Devolution. Sociological Methods & Research, 27(2), pp. 148-181.
•
Abbott, Andrew (2004).Methods of Discovery. Heuristics for the Social Sciences, London: W. W. Norton &
Company.
Archer, Margaret. (2000). Being Human. The Problem of Agency. Cambrdige: Cambrdige University Press.
Bechtel, William and Abrahamsen, Adele. (2005).Explanation: A mechanistic alternative. Studies in History and
Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 421-441.
Cartwright, N. (2007). Hunting Causes and Using Them. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Casini, Lorenzo. (2009). Social Mechanisms: What Social Sciences can Learn from Natural Sciences.
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Gerring, John. (2005). Causation: A Unified Framework for the Social Sciences. Journal of Theoretical Policits,
17(2), 163-198.
Gross, Neil. (2009). A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms. American Sociological Review, 74, June, pp. 358379.
Hedstrøm, Peter and Swedeberg, Richard (1996). Social Mechanisms. Acta Sociologica. 39(3), p. 281-308.
Machamer, Peter (2004). Activities and causation: The metaphysics and epistemology of mechanisms, International
Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 18(1), March, pp. 27-39
Machamer, Peter, Darden, Lindley and Craver, Carl F. (2000) Thinking about mechanisms. Philosophy of Science,
67(1)
Russo, Federica (2009). Causality and Causal Modelling in the Social Sciences. Measuring Variation, Springer.
Elder-Vass, Dave(2005). Emergence and the Realist Account of Cause. Journal of Critical Realism, 4(2).
Weber, Eric (2007). Social Mechanisms, Causal Inference and the Policy Relevance of Social Science. Philosophy of
the Social Sciences, 37(3), p. 348.
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What are social mechanisms?