Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dissecting the social

The past dozen years or so have witnessed the emergence of a distinctive approach to the social sciences that its practitioners refer to as "analytical sociology." Peter Hedström's Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of Analytical Sociology (2005) serves as a manifesto for the approach, and Pierre Demeulenaere, ed., Analytical Sociology and Social Mechanisms, and Peter Hedström and Peter Bearman, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology provide substantive foundations for several areas of research within this approach.  And the European Network of Analytical Sociologists provides an institutional framework within which research approaches and findings can be shared (link).

Hedström describes the analytical sociology approach in these terms:
Although the term analytical sociology is not commonly used, the type of sociology designated by the term has an important history that can be traced back to the works of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sociologists such as Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville, and to prominent mid-twentieth-century sociologists such as the early Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton. Among contemporary social scientists, four in particular have profoundly influenced the analytical approach.  They are Jon Elster, Raymond Boudon, Thomas Schelling and James Coleman. (kl 113)
One important characteristic of the analytical approach is that it aims to gain understanding by dissecting the social phenomena to be explained.  To dissect, as the term is used here, is to decompose a complex totality into its constituent entities and activities and then to bring into focus what is believed to be its most essential elements. (kl 65)
And here is how Hedström and Bearman describe the approach in the Handbook:
Analytical sociology is concerned first and foremost with explaining important social facts such as network structures, patterns of residential segregation, typical beliefs, cultural tastes, common ways of acting, and so forth. It explains such facts not merely by relating them to other social facts -- an exercise that does not provide an explanation -- but by detailing in clear and precise ways the mechanisms through which the social facts under consideration are brought about.  In short, analytical sociology is a strategy for understanding the social world. (3-4)
Two interrelated aspects are of particular importance: the explanatory principles guiding the approach and the type of explanatory factors being evoked. Analytical sociology explains by detailing mechanisms through which social facts are brought about, and these mechanisms invariably refer to individuals' actions and the relations that link actors to one another. (4)
In my assessment, AS rests on three central ideas.

First, there is the idea that social outcomes need to be explained on the basis of the actions of individuals.  This position is referred to variously as methodological individualism, methodological localism, or microfoundationalism.  It is often illustrated by reference to "Coleman's Boat" in James Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory (1994:8) describing the relationship that ought to exist between macro and micro social phenomena:

The diagram indicates the relationship between macro-factors (Protestant religious doctrine, capitalism) and the micro factors that underlie their causal relation (values, economic behavior).  Here are a few of Hedström's formulations of this ontological position:
In sociological inquiries, however, the core entity always tends to be the actors in the social system being analyzed, and the core activity tends to be the actions of these actors. (kl 106)
To be explanatory a theory must specify the set of causal mechanisms that are likely to have brought about the change, and this requires one to demonstrate how macro states at one point in time influence individuals' actions, and how these actions bring about new macro states at a later point in time. (kl 143)
Further, Hedström is drawn to a broad version of rational-choice theory -- what he calls the "Desire-Belief-Opportunity theory".
Desires (D), beliefs (B) and opportunities (O) are the primary theoretical terms upon which the analysis of action and interaction will be based.  ... The desires, beliefs and opportunities of an actor are here seen as the proximate causes of the actor's action. (kl 507)
This is a variant of rational choice theory, because the actor's choice is interpreted along these lines: given the desires the actor possesses, given the beliefs he/she has about the environment of choice, and given the opportunities he/she confronts, action A is a sensible way of satisfying the desires. It is worth pointing out that it is possible to be microfoundationalist about macro outcomes while not assuming that individual actions are driven by rational calculations. Microfoundationalism is distinct from the assumption of individual rationality.

Second is the idea that social actors are socially situated and socially constructed; the values, perceptions, emotions, and modes of reasoning of the actor are influenced by social institutions, and their current behavior is constrained and incented by existing institutions. (This position has a lot in common with the methodological localism that I've defended.) Practitioners of analytical sociology are not reductionist about social behavior, at least in the way that economists tend to be; they want to leave room conceptually for the observation that social structures and norms influence individual behavior and that individuals are not unadorned utility maximizers. (Gary Becker's effort to explain much of social life on the basis of the premise of maximizing utility is an example of the reductionist tendency of purist rational choice theory; Uncommon Sense: Economic Insights, from Marriage to Terrorism.) In the Hedström-Bearman introduction to the Handbook they put the point this way:
Structural individualism is a methodological doctrine according to which social facts should be explained as the intended or unintended outcomes of individuals' actions. Structural individualism differs from traditional methodological individualism in attributing substantial explanatory importance to the social structures in which individuals are embedded. (4)
This is a direction of thought that is not well advanced within analytical sociology, but would repay further research.  There is no reason why a microfoundational approach should not take seriously the causal dynamics of identity formation and the formation of the individual's cognitive, practical, and emotional frameworks.  These are relevant to behavior, and they are plainly driven by concrete social processes and institutions.

Third, and most distinctive, is the idea that social explanations need to be grounded in a hypothesis about the concrete social causal mechanisms that constitute the causal connection between one event and another. Mechanisms rather than regularities or necessary/sufficient conditions provide the fundamental grounding of causal relations and need to be at the center of causal research.  (This is a position developed and discussed many times in this blog; thread.) This approach has several intellectual foundations, but one is the tradition of critical realism and some of the ideas developed by Roy Bhaskar (A Realist Theory of Science). Hedström advocates for a theory of causal explanation that is grounded in the idea of a causal mechanism:
The position taken here, rather, is that mechanism-based explanations are the most appropriate type of explanations for the social sciences.  The core idea behind the mechanism approach is that we explain a social phenomenon by referring to a constellation of entities and activities, typically actors and their actions, that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about the type of phenomenon we seek to explain. (kl 65)
A social mechanism, as defined here, is a constellation of entities and activities that are linked to one another in such a way that they regularly bring about a particular type of outcome. (kl 181)
In addition to these three orienting frameworks for analytical sociology, there is a fourth characteristic that should be mentioned.  This is the idea that the tools of computer-based simulation of the aggregate consequences of individual behavior can be a very powerful tool for sociological research and explanation.  So the tools of agent-based modeling and other simulations of complex systems have a very natural place within the armoire of analytical sociology.

In short, analytical sociology is a compact, clear approach to the problem of understanding social outcomes.  It lays the ground for the productive body of research questions associated with the "aggregation dynamics" research program (link).  There is active, innovative research being done within this framework of ideas, especially in Germany, Sweden, and Great Britain.  And its clarity permits, in turn, the formulation of rather specific critiques from researchers in other sociological traditions who reject one or another of the key components.  (This is the thrust of Andrew Abbott's article on mechanisms, discussed previously.)

(An earlier post described John Levi Martin's effort to show how social structures come to be as the result of the accretion of patterns of individual social interaction.  Where Levi Martin proceeds from micro to macro through aggregation, Hedström proceeds from macro to micro through disaggregation (or dissection, in his words). But both are fundamentally interested in analyzing the micro-macro link.)


Jeroen said...

Thanks for this Daniel. Do have a couple of questions, though?

-First, wouldn't Bhaskar find explanations on the social level (the deck of Coleman's boat) acceptable? I do think so, so associating him with Hedström seems confusing.

-Secondly, I think there might be some confusion between providing an explanation and confirming a causal relation. For the latter you might require lower-level mechanisms, for the former I do not see any convincing philosophical arguments. You?

Dan Little said...


Great comments -- thanks. I think the relation to Bhaskar is simply the "realism of social processes" point. You're right that Bhaskar rejects the individualism part of AS, and would give causal legitimacy to structural features; whereas AS would say something more like this: structural features are "real"; but they require microfoundations. But the two positions are united in opposition to an instrumentalism that says that theories are just ways of conveniently summarizing empirical regularities. Both Hedstrom and Bhaskar agree that a reference to a social mechanism is intended to be interpreted as a statement about real social things.

I think I do want to endorse the point that a valid explanation depends on having an account of causal mechanisms linking something to the event or regularity to be explained; so explanation requires mechanism. It's a further assumption, that I also want to endorse, that the mechanisms identified in social explanations need to have microfoundations at a more individual-actor level. In other words: there are no macro-macro causal mechanisms that fail to have microfoundations.

Unknown said...

Excellent post, very clear and helpful to those of us trying to understand/explain the mechanics underlying the linkages between the social and the individual!

Jeroen said...

Daniel, thanks for your reply.

I would be interested in learning more about "It's a further assumption, that I also want to endorse,". Fair enough that you want to endorse it. But why? Aren't we losing interesting explanatory information on the social level by introducing this condition of micro-foundations? Furthermore, the classic comment: you can make this kind of requirements all the way down to the physical level?

Secondly, I do agree on how you use Bhaskar in relation to Hedstrom in your first post, but confusion is all around. What about your sentence in your reply: "Both Hedstrom and Bhaskar agree that a reference to a social mechanism is intended to be interpreted as a statement about real social things." Hedstrom and Bhaskar could easily interpret *social mechanism* very differently here - for Bhaskar there are mechanisms on the social, macro-level with causal capacities, something Hedstrom does not accept at all. Secondly, *real social things* for Bhaskar are entities with causal capacities, while for Hedstrom this are entities (are they for him?) without causal capacity/agency. So, saying *Both Hedstrom and Bhaskar*, what shall we call it, recuperation ;-)?

Dan Little said...


Again, very good and probing questions. Thanks.

Here is my reason for endorsing the microfoundations requirement: social entities are constituted by individuals situated in social relationships and developed through concrete social experiences. There is no other possible substrate for a social entity. Therefore the causal powers of a social entity must depend upon features of the (typical) actors and actions that make it up. This might be directly reducible; or it might be a supervenience relation. But the discipline of the microfoundations dictum is simply that we need to be able to identify (at some level of description) what those underlying actions, dispositions, and actors might be. Otherwise we have spooky holism.

My point about Bhaskar and Hedstrom re realism: I agree with you that they disagree about the nature of the sorts of social things that exist; Hedstrom sees social wholes as composites that are determined by the individual-level substrate; whereas Bhaskar is open to some kind of structuralism/holism. So their social ontologies differ. What they agree about is how we should interpret social entity statements. For example, consider "class power causes economic inequality." Bhaskar may think that class power is real in that it exists independently from individuals, whereas Hedstrom thinks class power exists insofar as there are recurring structures of individual activity that create class advantages. But both agree that "class power" exists. I don't see this as a logical inconsistency, but rather a substantive difference about social ontology. You may think that "colors" exist independently from perceivers; I may think that "color" supervenes upon physical properties of objects and the detailed structure of the neuro-anatomy of the perceiver. But we both think that "color" exists. And it is entirely open to Hedstrom to agree that "class power" has causal powers; but he needs to insist that these powers derive from the features of the micro-phenomena of class.

Jeroen said...


thanks for your replies. It is fun to discuss these issues, but I think we might go on forever, so think I will stop for now.

Just one last observation, our exchange on social explanation and methodology ended up in one on social ontology (the realm of intuition and political preferences) - as is often the case especially in the social sciences. Why?

Best Wishes,

Michael E. Smith said...

In your 2 posts on analytical sociology and mechanisms, you highlight the opposition between the mechanism approach and a relational view of society. You also emphasize the dependence of mechanism thinking on rational choice theory. But what about the work of Charles Tilly? Tilly championed mechanisms while promoting a relational view of social reality, and he also criticized rational choice theory.

As someone new to this line of thinking (which I find very attractive), I am trying to understand out how Tilly fits with Hedtsrom and the analytical sociologists. Ultimately I am interested in figuring out how to apply the mechanism approach to archaeological research.