explanation, causality and mechanisms in social science

I am in the throes of teaching that philosophy of social science doctoral seminar. We had a nice first meeting: we discussed levels (is there a fundamental level?, aggregation and emergence issues, levels and causality, etc).

Our second meeting — we are only meeting three times this summer — will cover explanation, causality and mechanisms in social science. (Our third meeting will cover social reality, epistemology and reflexivity.) We are reading the following articles for our second meeting:

Explanation, Causality and Mechanisms in the Social Sciences

Boudon, R. 1998. Social mechanisms without black boxes. In P. Hedstrom & R. Swedberg (Eds.), Social mechanisms: An analytical approach to social theory: 172-203. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bunge, M. 1997. Mechanism and explanation. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 27: 410-465.

Coleman, J. 1990. Meta-Theory: Explanation in Social Science: Chapter 1. In Coleman, J. Foundations of Social Theory. Harvard University Press.

Gerring, J. 2003. Causation: A unified framework for the social sciences. Journal of Theoretical Politics, 17: 163-198.

Hedstrom, P., & Swedberg, R. 1998. Social mechanisms: An introductory essay, pages 1-31. In P. Hedstrom & R. Swedberg (Eds.), Social mechanisms: An analytical approach to social theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mahoney, J. Tentative answers to questions about mechanisms. Working Paper, Brown University.

Stinchcombe, A. 1991. The conditions of fruitfulness of theorizing about mechanisms in social science. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 21: 367-388.

Thanks to readers for suggesting one-two of the above readings!

Written by teppo

June 18, 2008 at 10:20 pm

Posted in philosophy, teppo

12 Responses

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  1. For “throws” read “throes”

    Howzabout: Elster, Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge, 2007)



    June 19, 2008 at 1:07 am

  2. Right, thanks, changed.

    Yes, Elster’s definitely in the mix, though in spirit: there’s quite a bit of Elster-like/inspired logic in many of the above pieces. (My previous post had two Elster books in the mix for the seminar, but it just proved easier to go with articles/chapters.)



    June 19, 2008 at 1:09 am

  3. How about Skryms, Choice and Chance: An Introduction to Inductive Logic? OK, so I admit it’s really different from your other books because it’s not about social science, but it is one of the very best introductions to the nature of logic and its role in science. FYI, Skyrms is a philospher of science who now does evolutionary game theory to study the evolution of norms.



    June 19, 2008 at 4:50 am

  4. Mike, thanks. A nice potential option for me to look at in the future .



    June 19, 2008 at 5:18 am

  5. […] Posted in uncategorized by mikemcbride on June 19th, 2008 A tangent from Teppo’s post…  A well-known, true story goes like this.  Nobel-winning economist Paul Samuelson, […]


  6. Any chance we can see the whole syllabus for this class when it’s done? I’m very curious.


    Dan Hirschman

    June 19, 2008 at 5:46 pm

  7. Absolutely — I’ll post it once we are done. Again, some of the readings are a bit idiosyncratic (e.g., tailored to student interests), but I’ll post the readings nonetheless.



    June 19, 2008 at 7:16 pm

  8. 3 must reads on my list: Judea Pearl’s 2000 Cambridge UP book, Causality. James Woodwards’s 2003 Oxford UP book, Making Things Count. Machamer, Darden, and Craver’s 2000 article in Philosophy of Science. (And, Chapter 8, Mechanisms and Causal Explanation, of Morgan and Winship 2007 … of course. Sorry, had to do it. Read the others first.)


    Steve Morgan

    June 19, 2008 at 7:38 pm

  9. Thanks, Steve. Yes, I considered/read the Machamer et al piece (I think Omar suggested it in a past comment) — and have skimmed the others. Yes, I’ll definitely look up your work!



    June 19, 2008 at 8:49 pm

  10. On the “is there a fundamental level?”-question (the Schaffer Nous reading is the best start, well — Oppenheim and Putnam is probably the place to start), here’s an interesting working paper I ran into [pdf]: “science without levels.”



    June 19, 2008 at 9:56 pm

  11. An interesting discussion of levels (because it attends to the interrelatons between mechanisms and levels) that I recently came across is:

    Craver, Carl F. (2002) Interlevel Experiments and Multilevel Mechanisms in the Neuroscience of Memory. Philosophy of Science, Vol. 69, No. 3, S83-S97.

    Here’s the take-away gist of the discussion of levels in that paper:

    Talk of “levels” is nearly ubiquitous in neuroscience and its philosophy. Both philosophers of mind and science are increasingly recognizing the difficulties and ambiguities attending such talk…But it is possible to take some initial steps toward greater clarity by disambiguating three different kinds of “levels”: levels of mere aggregates, functional levels, and mechanistic levels. Each of these kinds is individuated by a different asymmetrical decomposition relation…

    Begin with levels of mere aggregates and the corresponding notion of an aggregative decomposition. An aggregative decomposition involves dividing some chunk of matter-some entity (it is always an entity that is aggregatively decomposed)-into smaller chunks of matter….The intended sense of aggregativity is that developed by Wimsatt (1986): The properties of wholes are simple sums of the properties of parts (e.g., volume and mass); the wholes are stable under disaggregation and reaggregation of parts; and the parts do not significantly interact with one another…

    Where aggregate levels are relationships among entities, functional levels are relations among abstract roles. Functional decomposition of one level into another involves taking a task, a routine, or a faculty and breaking it into sub-tasks, sub-routines, or sub-faculties. Functional decompositions are often treated by neuroscientists as if they were, at best, necessary oversimplifications in the generation of testable sketches or, at worst, pie in the sky speculations that are replaced or obviated as the details of a mechanism become available. This is because decomposition by functional role alone does not adequately embody those roles in the entities and activities that the ontic store of contemporary neuroscience has to offer. For the neuroscientist, purely functional decompositions are disembodied “how-possibly” descriptions of a mechanism; they are some- times denigrated as “boxology.”

    What neuroscientists are after is neither an aggregative decomposition nor a purely functional decomposition, but rather a mechanistic decomposition into mechanistic levels-a decomposition into entities and activities organized in the performance of a higher level role. The activities and properties of the entities in the lower level mechanism may themselves be subject to mechanistic decomposition. In such cases, each mechanistic decomposition adds another level to what may become a multilevel mechanism. It is typically possible to distinguish levels by the different entities and activities that populate them and, as we will see, by the different techniques that are used to investigate those entities and activities. But how many levels there are and what kinds of entities are found at each level are empirical questions to be answered within a given research program.


    The elaboration and refinement of such multilevel descriptions typically proceeds piecemeal with the goal of integrating the entities and activities at different levels (Craver and Darden 2001; Craver 2001). Integrating a component of a mechanism into such a hierarchy involves, first, contextualizing the item within the mechanism for the role to be explained. This involves “looking up” a level and identifying a mechanism that has the item as a component. Integrating involves, second, “looking down” a level and showing that the properties or activities of an entity can be explicated in terms of a lower level mechanism… [S88-S91]

    You can cut the levels pie in many different ways, but I think the differentiation between agregative (which usually is called “mereological” by philosophers), functional and mechanismic levels is useful. I was struck by Craver’s characterization of the attitude that neuroscientists have in relation to purely functional decomposition as being mere “boxology” because that is exactly what Parsons ended up getting lost in (boxes within AGIL boxes) and what he was doing can exactly be characterized as functional decomposition of the “social system” into functional but not actual mechanismic levels.

    I think a lot of the time social scientists don’t make this differentiation, and end up providing functional decompositions of very stylized and schematically characterized phenomena rather than mechanismic ones even as they proffer to have faith in the power of mechanisms as explanatory devices (I think for instance that Elster falls into this trap very often). I think the reason for this is that from the armchair that is really all you can do. Only real world empirical settings force analysts to wrestle with mechanistic levels (and interlevel explanation).



    June 20, 2008 at 2:39 pm

  12. I was struck by Craver’s characterization of the attitude that neuroscientists have in relation to purely functional decomposition as being mere “boxology” because that is exactly what Parsons ended up getting lost in (boxes within AGIL boxes) and what he was doing can exactly be characterized as functional decomposition of the “social system” into functional but not actual mechanismic levels.

    Nicos Mouzelis made this criticism of the Parsonian system: his argument was that it might be useful to impose an AGIL-like analytical division on some system for the purposes of figuring out what was going on, but the repeated nesting of AGIL boxes within others was a big mistake. In other words, while you could do a functional analysis of the A, G, I and L components of some entity like an organization or community, having done so it would be a mistake to then go on and say, “Now, next we must look at the lower-level A, G, I and L functional units of the initial A component,” because in fact there was no such lower level given the original, purely analytic, distinction.



    June 20, 2008 at 5:43 pm

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