Sunday, August 7, 2011

Relative explanatory autonomy

In an earlier post I indicated a degree of disagreement with the premises of analytical sociology concerning the validity of methodological individualism (link). This disagreement comes down to three things.

First, for reasons I've referred to several times here and elsewhere (link), I prefer to refer to methodological localism rather than methodological individualism.
This theory of social entities affirms that there are large social structures and facts that influence social outcomes. But it insists that these structures are only possible insofar as they are embodied in the actions and states of socially constructed individuals. The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules. (link)
I believe that the ideas of localism and socially constructed, socially situated actors do a better job of capturing the social molecule that underlies larger social processes than the simple idea of an "individual". Structural individualism seems to come to a similar idea, but less intuitively.

Second, the requirement of providing microfoundations for social assertions is preferable to methodological individualism because it is not inherently reductionist (link). A microfoundation is:
a specification of the ways that properties, structural features, and causal powers of a social entity are produced and reproduced by the actions and dispositions of socially situated individuals. (link)
We need to be confident that our theories and concepts about social structures, entities, and forces appropriately supervene upon facts about individuals; but we don't need to rehearse those links in every theory or explanation. In other words, we can make careful statements about macro-macro and macro-meso links without proceeding according to the logic of Coleman's boat -- up and down the struts. Jepperson and Meyer make this point in "Multiple Levels of Analysis and the Limitations of Methodological Individualisms" (link), and they offer an alternative to Coleman's macro-micro boat that incorporates explanations referring to meso-level causes (66).

Third, these points leave room for a meta-theory of relative explanatory autonomy for social explanations. The key insight here is that there are good epistemic and pragmatic reasons to countenance explanations at a meso-level of organization, without needing to reduce these explanations to the level of individual actors. Here is a statement of the idea of relative explanatory autonomy, provided by a distinguished philosopher of science, Lawrence Sklar, with respect to areas of the physical sciences:
Everybody agrees that there are a multitude of scientific theories that are conceptually and explanatorily autonomous with respect to the fundamental concepts and fundamental explanations of foundational physical theories. Conceptual autonomy means that there is no plausible way to define the concepts of the autonomous theories in terms of the concepts that we use in our foundational physics. This is so even if we allow a rather liberal notion of “definition” so that concepts defined as limit cases of the applicability of the concepts of foundational physics are still considered definable. Explanatory autonomy means that there is no way of deriving the explanatory general principles, the laws, of the autonomous theory from the laws of foundational physics. Once again this is agreed to be the case even if we use a liberal notion of “derivability” for the laws so that derivations that invoke limiting procedures are still counted as derivations. (link)
The idea of relative explanatory autonomy has been invoked by cognitive scientists against the reductionist claims of neuro-scientists. Of course cognitive mechanisms must be grounded in neurophysiological processes. But this doesn't entail that cognitive theories need to be reduced to neurophysiological statements. Sacha Bem reviews these arguments in "The Explanatory Autonomy of Psychology: Why a Mind is Not a Brain" (link). Michael Strevens summarizes some of these issues in "Explanatory Autonomy and Explanatory Irreducibility" (link). And here Geoffrey Hellman addresses the issues of reductionism and emergence in the special sciences in "Reductionism, Determination, Explanation".

These arguments are directly relevant to the social sciences, subject to several important caveats. First is the requirement of microfoundations: we need always to be able to plausibly connect the social constructs we hypothesize to the actions and mentalities of situated agents. And second is the requirement of ontological and causal stability: if we want to explain a meso-level phenomenon on the basis of the causal properties of other meso-level structures, we need to have confidence that the latter properties are reasonably stable over different instantiations. For example, if we believe that a certain organizational structure for tax collection is prone to corruption of the ground-level tax agents and want to use that feature as a cause of something else -- we need to have empirical evidence supporting the assertion of the corruption tendencies of this organizational form.

Explanatory autonomy is consistent with our principle requiring microfoundations at a lower ontological level. Here we have the sanction of the theory of supervenience to allow us to say that composition and explanation can be separated. We can settle on a level of meso or macro explanation without dropping down to the level of the actor. We need to be confident there are microfoundations, and the meso properties need to be causally robust. But if this is satisfied, we don't need to extend the explanation down to the actors.

Woven throughout this discussion are the ideas of reduction and emergence. An area of knowledge is reducible to a lower level if it is possible to derive the statements of the higher-level science from the properties of the lower level. A level of organization is emergent if it has properties that cannot be derived from features of its components. The strong sense of emergence holds that a composite entity sometimes possesses properties that are wholly independent from the properties of the units that compose it. Vitalism and mind-body dualism were strong forms of emergentism: life and mind were thought to possess characteristics that do not derive from the properties of inanimate molecules. Physicalism maintains that all phenomena -- including living systems -- depend ultimately upon physical entities and structures, so strong emergentism is rejected. But physicalism does not entail reductionism, so it is scientifically acceptable to provide explanations that presuppose relative explanatory autonomy.

Once we have reason to accept something like the idea of relative explanatory autonomy in the social sciences, we also have a strong basis for rejecting the exclusive validity of one particular approach to social explanation, the reductionist approach associated with methodological individualism and Coleman's boat. Rather, social scientists can legitimately aggregate explanations that call upon meso-level causal linkages without needing to reduce these to derivations from facts about individuals. And this implies the legitimacy of a fairly broad conception of methodological pluralism in the social science, constrained always by the requirement of microfoundations.


  1. I really really appreciate this post. I'm always looking for a good defense of higher-level conceptual thinking.

  2. Hi Dr. Little,

    First, I want to say how much of an asset this site is. In my research in philosophy of social science, if I ever encounter a vexing question, I always ask myself, "What has Dan Little said about so-and-so?" and am always grateful when I find out.

    But I have some questions about methodological localism. I think there's a sense in which 'collectivism' and 'individualism' are well-understood in the literature, and I can see how localism is meant to be a sort of mid-way position between them. But I'd like to get a finer-grained idea of where localism fits. So I have two questions.

    Mario Bunge advocates a view that he calls 'systemism'. He thinks it is a mid-way position of sorts. Is his view compatible with yours? Are there any deep differences between how you and he conceive of agency and social structure? There's a sense in which Bunge has an ecumenical spirit (so long as we are positing mechanisms in our explanations and not just telling stories), but I also get that sense that you have a similarly ecumenical spirit. It would be wonderful to know if and where you disagree.

    Also, how does localism fit in with Philip Pettit's distinction between "collectivism/individualism" (which is about the extent to which social regularities compromise intentional psychology) and "holism/atomism" (which is about the extent to which mental life and rationality are public)? It would seem to me that the localist, in a sense, is advocating for collectivism and holism; since, if the person is partly 'made up' by their society, then that seems to imply that societies can compromise a person's intentional psychology, and that mental life that is distinctive of a person is partly based on public influence. What do you think?

  3. Benjamin, Thanks for these great questions.

    Bunge's position is described in this essay:

    I don't find the idea of "system" that helpful. And it's not really defined very clearly in the article cited here. It doesn't really seem to be an intermediate position, but rather an alternative -- "neither/nor". Here seems to be the clearest statement:
    "Society is not an unstructured collection of independent individuals. It is, instead, a sysem of interrelated individuals organized into systems or networks of various kinds." (154)

    I'll think about this a bit more.

    As for Pettit -- I haven't yet read "The Common Minds". But in my conception, it's not the definition of intentionality or consciousness that is the difficult issue in social explanation; it's how individuals who are approximately described by one or another theory of the actor, aggregate to social patterns.

    Again, more thinking to do before I try to be more specific!

  4. Hey Dr. Little,

    Thanks for the reply. I gave a quick look at the article, and I think you're right, Bunge does not go into any great detail as to what he means by a 'system' there. He is more explicit in his book, "The Sociology-Philosophy Connection", which I believe was published after that particular essay.

    For Bunge, a system is a structure of units that are linked. Those links can be 'bonds' (like marriage, say) or 'non-bonds' (like ecology). Concrete systems are 'real', in the sense that they're not just models of the world. And systems are constituted by mechanisms, which are processes that explain how the system works and changes.

    Bunge seems to recognize that there is such a thing as 'agency' and such a thing as 'structure', but claims that they are codependent. For him, there are no agents without structure, and no social structure without agents. That's the sense, I think, in which he's somewhere in between individualism and collectivism -- he talks a lot about the unity of the social sciences, and bridge-theories between agency and structure.

    But Bunge has very particular theoretical tastes, and he rebels very strongly against some approaches that he thinks are pseudo-science. So he rejects phenomenological sociology and ethnomethodology, for instance. He also puts less emphasis upon abstract systems, like conceptual or linguistic systems, and more emphasis upon what can be explained in causal terms.

    I find the word, "localism", to be quite evocative. One thing that jumps out at me is your emphasis upon the socially constructed individual. I'm not sure to what extent Bunge would be comfortable in saying that the individual is constructed; it would depend on whether or not you think a 'construction' can be expressed in terms of a concrete system. e.g., if you thought that the concept of a person was really just a useful fiction, as opposed to a real thing in the world, then it would seem that you would disagree.

    Maybe that will help!