Monday, July 1, 2013

Social causation


The idea of social causation is a difficult one, as we dig more deeply into it. What does it mean to say that "poor education causes increased risk of delinquency" or "population growth causes technology change" or "the existence of paramilitary organizations contributed to the rise of German fascism"? What sorts of things can function as "social causes" -- events, structures, actions, forces, other? What social interactions extend over time in the social world to establish the links between cause and effect? What kinds of evidence are available to support the claim that "social factor X causes a change in social factor Y"?

Helen Beebee, Christopher Hitchcock, and Peter Menzies' The Oxford Handbook of Causation is a valuable resource on topics involving the philosophy of causation, and several of the contributions are immediately relevant to current debates within the philosophy of social science.

Harold Kincaid considers a number of the hard questions about social causation in his contribution to the Handbook, "Causation in the Social Sciences". Perhaps most relevant to my ongoing concerns is his defense of non-reductionist claims about social causation. It is often maintained (by methodological individualists) that causal relations exist only among individuals, not among higher-level social entities or structures. (Elster and Hedstrom make claims along these lines in multiple places.) Kincaid rejects this view and affirms the legitimacy of macro- or meso-level causal assertions.
When a particular corporation acts in a market, it has causal influence. The influence of that specific entity is realized by the actions of the individuals composing it just as the influence of the baseball on the breaking window is realized by the sum of particles composing it. The social level causal claims pick out real causal patterns as types that may not be captured by individual kinds because multiple realizability is real. (kl 16102)
These arguments are a valuable antidote to the tendency towards reductionism to the level of individual activity that has often guided philosophers when they have considered the nature of social causation.

Phil Dowe's discussion of causal process theories is useful for the social sciences ("Causal Process Theories"). It is hard to think of the social world as an amalgam of discrete events; it is easier to think of a variety of processes unfolding, subject to a range of forces and obstacles.  Dowe gives much of the credit for current interest in causal process language to Wesley Salmon (along with resurrection of the idea of a "rope of causation" to replace that of a "chain of causation").
For Salmon the causal structure of the world consists in the nexus of causal processes and interactions. A process is anything with constancy of structure over time. (kl 4924)
The language of causal processes seems to fit the nature of social causation better than that of events and systems of billiard balls. And we have the makings of a metaphysics of process available in the social sciences, in the form of a stream of actions and reactions of individuals aggregating to recognizable social patterns. So when we say that "population increase stimulates technology innovation", we can picture the swarming series of interactions, demands, and opportunities that flows from greater population density, to rewards for innovation, to a more rapid rate of innovation.

Another useful contribution in the Handbook with special relevance to the social world is Stephen Mumford's contribution, "Causal Powers and Capacities."
The powers ontology accepts necessary connections in nature, in which the causal interactions of a thing, in virtue of its properties, can be essential to it. Instead of contingently related cause and effect, we have power and its manifestation, which remain distinct existences but with a necessary connection between. (kl 5971)
The language of causal powers allows us to incorporate a number of typical causal assertions in the social sciences: "Organizations of type X produce lower rates of industrial accidents," "paramilitary organizations promote fascist mobilization," "tenure systems in research universities promote higher levels of faculty research productivity." In each case we are asserting that a certain kind of social organization possesses, in light of the specifics of its rules and functioning, a disposition to stimulate certain kinds of participant behavior and certain kinds of aggregate outcomes. This is to attribute a specific causal power to species of organizations and institutions.

Stuart Glennan's "Mechanisms" is also highly relevant to causation in the social realm. Here is how Glennan puts the mechanisms theory (quoting his own earlier formulations):
Glennan ... characterizes mechanisms in this way: 'A mechanism underlying a behavior is a complex system which produces that behavior by the interaction of a number of parts according to direct causal laws (Glennan 1996: 52). Glennan then suggests that two events are causally related when and only when they are connected by an intervening mechanism. (kl 7069)
This definition works pretty well with typical examples of social mechanisms, with one important exception -- the reference to "direct causal laws". When we say that Organization X works to minimize accidents, the sub-transactions that are involved in the workings of the overall process are not typically "direct causal laws," but rather the intelligible results of individual actors performing their actions within the rules, incentives, and sanctions of the organization. We can tell a mechanism story along these lines: "Organization X embodies a set of protocols of operation, a training regime, a supervisory regime, and and enforcement regime. The protocols have the result that, when followed consistently, accidents are rare. Employees are 'programmed' to perform their tasks according to this set of protocols. Supervisors are trained to observe and measure employee performance against the protocols. Enforcement provides sanctions and incentives for bad and good performance." The complex mechanism of the organization works to implement and maintain the smooth functioning of the guiding protocols. So the organization embodies just the kind of complex system that Glennan describes as a mechanism.

So the Handbook is a good resource for all of us who are interested in working through a more satisfactory account of what it means to look at social phenomena as embodying causal relations in ways that support explanations.

(The photo of ice forming on glass included above is a metaphorical reference to social causation. Intricate patterns have emerged from a causal process; but it is a process that reflects a high degree of contingency and path-dependency across the expanse of the scene. And there is no overall order to the multiple patterns that emerge; each location is independent of other locations, and there is no answer to questions like this: "Why is Structure A located in the particular position and orientation that it is found to be?" Patterns coalesce and they do so as a result of locally operative causal processes, but there is no overall guiding hand or teleology to the process. The greatest disanalogy I can see here is the fact that the ice-formation process is much simpler than typical social-causal systems. Instead of a single causal mechanism at work in the ice case, there are dozens of overlapping and interactive causal mechanisms at work in most social processes.)