social mechanisms and why culture is everything
It seems like everyone wants to talk about social mechanisms these days. As Neil Gross points out in his paper, “A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms,” no fewer than five different sociological views on social mechanisms have popped up in the last decade. Why the sudden interest in mechanisms? One reason, I think, is that macro-sociological theories have lacked preciseness as causal explanations. Focusing on mechanisms draws attention to the underlying causal pathways in our macro models of society. The same impetus has spurred the call for more research on micro-foundations (you might even say that microfoundations = social mechanisms).
Gross enters this fray and tries to introduce some order with an encompassing definition of social mechanisms:
A social mechanism is a more or less general sequence or set of social events or processes analyzed at a lower order of complexity or aggregation by which—in certain circumstances—some cause X tends to bring about some effect Y in the realm of human social relations. This sequence or set may or may not be analytically reducible to the actions of individuals who enact it, may underwrite formal or substantive causal processes, and may be observed, unobserved, or in principle unobservable (364).
The first part of the definition is pretty standard, I think. Going to a lower level of explanation helps us understand how properties at the focal level of analysis come to be. So, for example, if you want to explain how organizations set strategy, you need to understand how individuals within the organization interact and how their individual beliefs, knowledge, etc. combine to shape strategic choices. Simple enough, right? Gross’s definition departs from previous definitions, however, in recognizing there is a great deal of variation in the kinds of mechanisms that people may impute in a causal process. Some are observable, some are not. Some are formal (i.e., they are universal and appear in almost every setting), while others are specific to the domain of interest. This last sentence introduces a lot of variability into the study of mechanisms. Rather than searching for a fixed set of causal mechanisms that govern the universe of human relations (e.g., networks in everything or markets in everything), Gross wants to give scholars the leeway to identify a rich index of mechanisms that work quite differently across time and space. Gross’s aim here is to make mechanisms-oriented research more historically and culturally relative.
His intent becomes more clear as Gross lays out a “pragmatist theory of mechanisms,” the central premise being that social mechanisms are “composed of chains or aggregations of actors confronting problem situations and mobilizing more or less habitual responses” (368). People’s responses to certain situations are limited by a repertoire of behaviors to which they have exposure and that seem suitable to the problem at hand. Gross’s view on mechanisms has more to do with meaning and the ability of humans to interpret their situations in a culturally appropriate way than it does with identifying universals. Gross is proposing that cultural habits are the social mechanisms.
The pragmatist view that Gross embraces will clearly not persuade everyone. One of the benefits to adopting a mechanisms-based approach, especially for the rational choice folks, is that it allows you to get outside the cultural world and identify a common set of individual-level causes that impel behavior. People gravitate to mechanisms-based approaches because they seem to offer a semblance of objectivity to theory. Even Bourdieu’s theory of fields is like this (and this is where I can agree with Fabio that Bourdieu and rational choice theorists have something in common!). Bourdieu, when it comes down to it, views the world as being driven by a set of structured interests. Those interests are the mechanisms that drive action in society and that make the external world or habitus so resistant to change. In contrast, Gross’s pragmatist view reduces everything, including interests, to habit (and the problems that invoke habits). Every choice, in the end, is cultural.