Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guest post by Jeroen Van Bouwel: On microfoundations and macrofoundations

[Jeroen Van Bouwel accepted my invitation to offer his thoughts about several recent posts here on the topic of microfoundations. Jeroen is co-author (with Erik Weber and L. De Vreese) of Scientific Explanation (Springer, 2013). Jeroen is a post-doctoral fellow at Ghent University and a visiting scholar in philosophy at Uppsala University. Thanks, Jeroen!]

In his recent contributions on this blog (link, link), Daniel Little develops an interesting position advocating the legitimacy and “relative explanatory autonomy” of the meso-level, while maintaining a microfoundations requirement. I am grateful that Daniel invited me to comment on his views and I will try to do so in a concise way, discussing four issues:

  1. There are more than two levels of social explanation.
  2. Levels of explanation are perspectival; neither absolute, nor unique.
  3. Seeking for microfoundations and macrofoundations as good heuristics.
  4. Social scientific practice and plurality as objects of study.

(1) There are more than two levels of social explanation. Daniel Little’s defense of meso-level explanations adds a welcome extra explanatory level in between the individualist micro-level and the macro-level. As such, it supersedes the dichotomous thinking in the individualism/holism debate in which there would always be an individual micro-level – which would always be the same (cf. point (2) below) – that is contrasted with a macro-level. I agree with Little (2012, p.138) that: “more realistic is the understanding that there are social compounds at a range of levels of organization, with different scope and reach” – as social scientific practice teaches us.

(2) The levels of explanation are perspectival levels; neither absolute, nor unique. Little wants to combine his advocacy of meso-level explanations with a microfoundations requirement. Let us first zoom in on microfoundations (for the requirement, see point (3) below). In the philosophy of social science debate, the microfoundations are usually understood as individual-level microfoundations, see, for instance, most recent work on analytical sociology. It is presupposed that there be some comprehensive, unique, and privileged individual level, the level of individual actors (cf. Ylikoski 2012, p.26). However, microfoundations do not necessarily have to be understood in that way. They could also just be understood as looking for foundations on any lower-level, e.g., on a sub-individual level focussing on cognitive capacities and processes that might be important in explaining certain social phenomena (Tuukka Kaidesoja gives us the example of contextual priming (link)).

The latter understanding of microfoundations would be more in line with actual social scientific practice in which we notice that the specification and amount of levels of explanation is perspectival, depending on the phenomena and research approaches involved. Analysing and explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (cf. Van Bouwel, forthcoming) or criminality (cf. Van Bouwel et al. 2011) requires (different) multiple levels. A philosophy of social science that wants to say something meaningful about explanatory practices in, e.g., neuro-economics, evolutionary sociology as well as in World-Systems Analysis, will also have to go beyond the traditional two levels, i.e. the individual micro-level versus one contrasting macro-level. The refinements of the traditional dichotomous way of thinking about levels in the individualism/holism debate obviously do not imply that we should stop thinking in terms of higher- and lower-levels, or micro-macro, only that levels are perspectival, rather than absolute and unique. Thus, the micro in microfoundations is perspectival too!

(3) Seeking for microfoundations and macrofoundations as good heuristics? Now let us have a look at the microfoundations requirement. This requirement stipulates “that all social facts, social structures, and social causal properties depend ultimately on facts about individuals within socially defined circumstances. Social ascriptions require microfoundations at the level of individuals in concrete social relationships.” (Little 2012, p.138) Advocates of the microfoundations approach have often been defending that a macro-explanation would never be satisfactory, or, could only be satisfactory if a micro-level part of the social explanation was provided. For instance, in their presentation of the social mechanisms approach, Hedström and Swedberg state (1998, p.11): “In the social sciences, however, the elementary “causal agents” are always individual actors, and intelligible social science explanations should always include explicit references to the causes and consequences of their actions.” Thus, they consider a reference to (individual actions on) the individual, micro-level as a condition sine qua non of a satisfactory explanation. Underlying this claim about explanations seems to be an ontological conviction, namely that causal agents are always individual actors.

Daniel Little develops a different position. According to him, the microfoundations requirement should not be understood as a condition for satisfactory explanations, but rather as a form of confirmation or justification of a macro-explanation: “The requirement of microfoundations is not a requirement on explanation; it does not require that our explanations proceed through the microfoundational level. Rather, it is a condition that must be satisfied on prima facie grounds, prior to offering the explanation.” (Little 2012, p.145) I agree with Little that microfoundations should not necessarily be part of a social explanation in order for it to be satisfactory; we are providing all of the time all kinds of explanations and causal claims, without knowing the underlying mechanisms or foundations. Here as well Little takes into account the actual explanatory practice of social scientists and he avoids the ontological fallacies (i.e., mixing up ontological and explanatory issues) made by earlier advocates of microfoundations. However, I do think Little’s requirement remains vague. It should be understood as constraining explanatory practice (cf. here), but how would that exactly work? How is the microfoundations requirement operationalized (and how would it interfere with our explanatory practice)?

Summarizing, I think Daniel Little’s account of the microfoundations requirement is an improvement to earlier accounts, but it still remains vague. A fruitful role I could see for a microfoundations pursuit is as an engagement to compare one’s own explanatory practice and research approach with other practices and approaches. This might result in more interaction between different approaches through which approaches articulate themselves and their relations to others more explicitly and through which the strengths and weaknesses of the respective approaches are clarified. In this respect, we could not only think of seeking for microfoundations as an heuristic, but also of searching for macrofoundations as a fruitful heuristic. (Some use the term macrofoundations (link), but given that we think of it as something higher up, one could also use macro-roof or macro-covering.) There might be several interesting approaches both on the micro-level and on the macro-level working on the same phenomenon from different angles, using different methods, having different background assumptions, etc.  Philosophers of social science might contribute in analyzing, visualizing (cf. below) and optimizing the interaction among these different approaches.

(4) Social scientific practice and plurality as objects of study.To conclude, a careful analysis of the practice of social scientists reveals the plurality of research approaches and explanatory strategies employed by social scientists on multiple levels. For me the challenge of the debate on microfoundations, emergence, explanatory autonomy, etc. is not so much to develop the ultimate individualistic approach or defending the holist approach, but rather to understand and optimize the way in which different approaches interact, co-exist, can be integrated and/or develop some division of labour among each other, while making the best out of the strengths and limitations of the respective explanatory strategies of holists and individualists.  That is what I try to do with my framework for explanatory pluralism – a normative endorsement of the plurality of forms and levels of explanation used by social scientists (cf. Van Bouwel and Weber 2008, Van Bouwel 2009). Sometimes explanatory interests are best served by decomposition, by reduction as explanatory strategy, sometimes they are better served by higher-level explanations.

One way of taking into account multiple levels and understand the perspectival, non-absolute character of levels, could be to leave the Coleman boat (cf. here) behind and adopt Helen Longino’s (2013, p.127, Fig. 1a) representation of causal space (Longino developed it for studying aggressive behavior, but it could be easily adapted to the social sciences if one would change the causal landscape a bit).

longino diagram

This representation can visualize how different research approaches will focus on different boxes – one or a combination of several – in a causal space or landscape. The focus on just one (or a combination) of these boxes can be very productive as scientific practice shows; some causal aspects of a phenomenon might be emphasised, while other aspects/boxes might be obscured or perhaps even distorted. Such a visualization will help us to clarify the strengths and weaknesses of the respective approaches applying different angles in studying one and the same phenomena, as well as their (lack of) interaction with other approaches and how to use them in an optimal way.


Hedström, P. and R. Swedberg (eds.). 1998. Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory. Cambridge University Press.

Little, D. 2012. Explanatory Autonomy and Coleman’s Boat. Theoria 74: 137-151

Longino, H. 2013. Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality. University of Chicago Press.

Van Bouwel, J. and E. Weber 2008. A pragmatic defense of non-relativistic explanatory pluralism in history and social science. History and Theory 47:168-182.

Van Bouwel, J. (ed.) 2009. The Social Sciences and Democracy. Palgrave MacMillan.

Van Bouwel, J., E. Weber and L. De Vreese 2011. Indispensability arguments in favour of reductive explanations. Journal for General Philosophy of Science 42(1): 33-46.

Van Bouwel, J. (forthcoming). Explanatory Strategies beyond the Individualism/Holism Debate. link.

Ylikoski, P. 2012. Micro, Macro, and Mechanism. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Social Science. ed. H. Kincaid, 21-45. Oxford University Press.

Weber, E., J. Van Bouwel and L. De Vreese 2013. Scientific Explanation. Springer.

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