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Mechanisms and Causality in Sociology

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1 Mechanisms and Causality in Sociology
Rubén D. Flores Sandoval Mechanisms and Causality in the Sciences, University of Kent, 2009

2 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

3 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: 3

4 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

5 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

6 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

7 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

8 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

9 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

10 Social Theory Pragmatism Communicative Action Functionalism
System Theory Critical Realism Competing conceptions of entities and activities? Social theory has occupied itself for a while about questions of social ontology, so it is in a good position to inform us about the entities and activities that constitute the social world. 10

11 How to think about society?
Archer: Structures/Agents (Analytical Dualism) Giddens: Structure/ Agency Habermas: Lifeworld/System Luhmann: System/Environment Different accounts of E&A may have different implications for our understanding of SM 11

12 Social Ontology (1): Social Action
Actors Habitus Reflexivity Agency Lifeworld How to characterise entities and activities in the realm of social action? 12

13 Social Ontology (2): Systems
Social things Lifeworld Structures Figurations Systems How to characterise entities and activities in the realm of emergent social entities? 13

14 When assessing causality, mechanisms are only part of the story…
2. Precision 3. Breadth 1. Specification Block 1 6. Parsimony 4. Boundedness 5. Strenght 7. Differentiation 9. Independence 8. Priority 10. Contingency 11. Mechanism 12. Coherence 15. Innovation 13. Intelligibility 14. Relevance 16. Comparison Criteria for Assesing Causal Propositions (Gerring 2005) 14

15 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

16 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

17 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

18 THANK YOU Comments & Questions

19 References Abbott, Andrew (1998). The Causal Devolution. Sociological Methods & Research, 27(2), pp 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 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. Gerring, John. (2005). Causation: A Unified Framework for the Social Sciences. Journal of Theoretical Policits, 17(2), Gross, Neil. (2009). A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms. American Sociological Review, 74, June, pp Hedstrøm, Peter and Swedeberg, Richard (1996). Social Mechanisms. Acta Sociologica. 39(3), p Machamer, Peter (2004). Activities and causation: The metaphysics and epistemology of mechanisms, International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 18(1), March, pp 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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