Thursday, February 9, 2012

Social mechanisms and scientific realism

From Social Epistemology ...

(Editor’s Note: Johannes Persson’s article “Mechanistic Explanation in Social Contexts”, to which Daniel Little replies, appears in Social Epistemology 26.1 available through Taylor & Francis Online.)

The social mechanisms approach to explanation (SM) has filled a very important gap in the theory of social explanation in the past twenty years, between the covering-law model and merely particularistic accounts of specific events. The SM approach is particularly prominent in the emerging programme of analytical sociology, but has made its mark in comparative historical sociology and other areas of the social sciences as well. But what exactly do various contributors mean by a “social mechanism”? And how does reference to hypothesized mechanisms help in explaining social outcomes? The literature is still not very specific in its responses to these questions. James Mahoney includes some 24 definitions of mechanism in “Beyond Correlational Analysis: Recent Innovations in Theory and Method” (Mahoney 2001), and it is not clear to me that the field has settled on a shared definition in the subsequent ten years.


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