Sunday, May 11, 2014

Are there meso-level social mechanisms?

It is fairly well accepted that there are social mechanisms underlying various patterns of the social world — free-rider problems, communications networks, etc. But the examples that come readily to mind are generally specified at the level of individuals. The new institutionalists, for example, describe numerous social mechanisms that explain social outcomes; but these mechanisms typically have to do with the actions that purposive individuals take within a given set of rules and incentives.

The question here is whether we can also make sense of the notion of a mechanism that takes place at the social level. Are there meso-level social mechanisms? (As always, it is acknowledged that social stuff depends on the actions of the actors.)

This question is analogous to two other similar issues in other special sciences:
  • Are there information-system level causal mechanisms in human cognition?
  • Are there cellular-level causal mechanisms in biological systems?
Or, to the contrary, are all mechanisms in sociology, cognition science, and biology properly understood to be carried out at the level of individuals, neurons, and biochemistry?

Here is my version of a definition of a causal mechanism (link):
A causal mechanism is (i) a particular configuration of conditions and processes that (ii) always or normally leads from one set of conditions C to an outcome O (iii) through the properties and powers of the events and entities in the domain of concern. 
And here is the definition offered by Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Chuck Tilly in Dynamics of Contention:
Mechanisms are a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified sets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations. (kl 354)
We should begin by asking what it is that we are looking for. What would a meso-level mechanism look like?

Here is a start: it would be a linkage between two conditions or entities, each of which is itself a meso-level structure or entity. So a meso-level causal mechanism is one in which both C and O are meso-level entities or conditions and where C leads to O "always or normally".

Earlier I argued that meso-level entities possess causal powers: regular dispositions to produce specified effects, grounded in the substrate of social activity (link). If some of those effects Oi are themselves meso-level outcomes or structures, then our question here is answered. Any pair {C,Oi} is itself a meso-level causal mechanism. If, on the other hand, the causal powers of meso-level entities are restricted to changes in the behavior of individuals, then meso-level mechanisms do not exist.

McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly address a very similar question in Dynamics of Contention, and they argue for what they call "relational mechanisms":
Relational mechanisms alter connections among people, groups, and interpersonal networks. Brokerage, a mechanism that recurs throughout Parts II and III of the book, we define as the linking of two or more previously unconnected social sites by a unit that mediates their relations with one another and/or with yet other sites. Most analysts see brokerage as a mechanism relating groups and individuals to one another in stable sites, but it can also become a relational mechanism for mobilization during periods of contentious politics, as new groups are thrown together by increased interaction and uncertainty, thus discovering their common interests. (kl 376)
Having formulated the question in these terms, it seems that we can provide a credible affirmative answer: it is possible to identify a raft of social explanations in sociology that represent causal assertions of social mechanisms linking one meso-level condition to another. Here are a few examples:
  • Al Young: decreasing social isolation causes rising inter-group hostility (link)
  • Michael Mann: the presence of paramilitary organizations makes fascist mobilization more likely (link)
  • Robert Sampson: features of neighborhoods influence crime rates (link)
  • Chuck Tilly: the availability of trust networks makes political mobilization more likely (link)
  • Robert Brenner: the divided sovereignty system of French feudalism impeded agricultural modernization (link)
  • Charles Perrow: legislative control of regulatory agencies causes poor enforcement performance (link)
We might also consider the possibility of compound meso-level mechanisms, in which M1 produces M2 which in turn produces M3. Does the sequence also qualify as a mechanism? That depends on the strength of the relationships that exist at each link; if the conditional probabilities of the links fall low enough, then the compound probability of the chain is no longer sufficient to satisfy condition (ii) above ("initial condition normally leads to the outcome").

Essentially this question comes down to the tightness of the linkages that exist among the sub-components of social systems. If there are sub-components within bureaucracies that maintain their properties and are tightly linked to specified outcomes, then these can play a role within meso-level causal mechanism narratives. If, on the other hand, the effects of a given subcomponent of a social system vary widely over time and space, then that type of component does not play a useful role in a causal mechanisms analysis. So the question of how extensive meso-level causal mechanisms are is itself an empirical one; it depends on the specific features of the social world.

So it seems as though we can offer two related conclusions about the causal reality of meso-level entities: meso-level structures possess causal powers, and there are causal mechanisms that invoke meso-level entities as both input and output.

No comments: