causal and social mechanisms


I am a fan and frequent user and citer of Hedstrom and Swedberg’s brilliant Social Mechanisms book.  Here’s an overview piece (by James Mahoney) that reviews some of mechanisms intuition. The piece provides some nice fine-grained distinctions for different types of mechanisms, and it also has a great compilation (see Table 1) of extant definitions of “mechanism” by folks like Elster, Stinchcombe, Hedstrom & Swedberg, Schelling, Tilly etc. 

(It appears that this paper is one of these pieces: a good paper in search of a home.)

Written by teppo

November 3, 2007 at 5:43 pm

Posted in books, just theory, teppo

8 Responses

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  1. I really like this mechanisms literature. I’ll certainly have to take a look at the Mahoney piece. The very best thing in this line of thinking that I’ve come across in a long while is a paper by Machamer, Darden and Craver (2000).



    November 5, 2007 at 2:28 am

  2. Its the future. Though, ‘mechanism’ often ends up being a broad catchall and over-used (I have noted how recent conference discussions have anchored on it, without clear definitions – I suppose the vagueness leaves room for just about anything and thus makes it attractive)…

    (Thanks for the Machamer et al reference.) Here’s some more on mechanisms – a nice piece from Woodward (building in issues of counterfactuals, intervention, part-whole etc)



    November 5, 2007 at 2:37 am

  3. That’s right. There’s a lot of fuzziness in the growing mechanisms industry. That’s one thing that I liked about the Machamer et al piece. A nice, and very succinct definition of mechanisms:

    Mechanisms are entities and activities organized such that they are productive of regular changes from start or set-up to finish or termination conditions (3).



    November 5, 2007 at 3:17 am

  4. Woodward’s book is excellent, and the Machamer, Darden, Craver piece is great too. But … Pearl is even better.

    Chris Winship and I discuss this literature in depth in Chapter 8 of Counterfactuals and Causal Inference, which is titled mechanisms and causal explanation. See:


    Steve Morgan

    November 7, 2007 at 3:39 pm

  5. Thanks for the reference!



    November 7, 2007 at 3:45 pm

  6. […] solidarity with the spirit of some recent discussions at orgtheory, I’ve been reading this collection of essays by Lindley Darden a philosopher of […]


  7. thanks for the GREAT post! Very useful…



    November 21, 2007 at 4:31 pm

  8. More mechanisms stuff for those who haven’t gotten enough: a special issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences , devoted to mechanisms in biology. Don’t be mislead by the fact that this is a journal devoted to biology. Most of the general issues that they discuss are clearly applicable to the social sciences. In particular the Bechtel and Abrahamsen, the Craver, the Bogen and the Darden articles are highly recommended.

    “Relations among fields: Mendelian, cytological and molecular mechanisms”
    Pages 349-371
    Lindley Darden

    “Beyond reduction: mechanisms, multifield integration and the unity of neuroscience”
    Pages 373-395
    Carl F. Craver

    “Regularities and causality; generalizations and causal explanations”
    Pages 397-420
    Jim Bogen

    “Explanation: a mechanist alternative”
    Pages 421-441
    William Bechtel and Adele Abrahamsen

    “Modeling mechanisms”
    Pages 443-464
    Stuart Glennan



    November 25, 2007 at 3:12 pm

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