Sunday, May 27, 2012

Are there meso-level social causes?

Social structures and other social "things" are ontologically peculiar in some ways. Most especially, they are abstract, distributed, and non-material. We can't put a culturally dominant food aversion or a group prejudice in a box and weigh it. And yet many of us want to say that social structures are "real", not merely theoretical constructs.

One important aspect of something's being real is that it has causal powers: the specific properties of the thing bring about differences in the world on the behavior of other things. This is a version of the interventionist theory of causation associated with Jim Woodward: change something about C and you bring about a change in E (link).

So let's consider this question: Can meso-level social structures have meso-level effects?

Of course meso-level structures have effects -- on individuals. The fact that there are laws and enforcement mechanisms governing highway speed has some effect on drivers' behavior. The question here is whether it is legitimate to postulate causal powers for structures whose effects are realized in other meso-level structures. And I want to explore the affirmative answer to the question: it is legitimate and coherent to assert meso-meso causal interactions, and we sometimes have empirical evidence to support such assertions.

(It would be possible, of course, to take the view that social structures are epiphenomenal and have no causal properties whatsoever. On that approach, what seems to be the effect of the legal system on individual behavior is really just the aggregate effect of the many individuals involved in the legal system. I don't find this view at all compelling, however.)

My question is relevant to two groups of sociological theorists, each of whom thinks the answer is trivial and obvious -- but in opposite directions. The new methodological individualists, represented by analytical sociology, think the answer is trivially "no", because social causation proceeds always and exclusively through actions and interactions of individuals (link). This is the fundamental idea underlying Coleman's Boat as a model of the relationship between macro and micro.  And a range of anti-individualists -- Giddens, Elder-Vass, Archer -- believe it is self evident from everyday experience that causal structures do have causal powers, and that it is a waste of time to defend the notion (link). It is obvious.

My position is a precarious one. On the one hand I advocate an actor-centered approach to sociology and the social sciences. I defend the idea that social claims need microfoundations in a specific (weak) sense. And on the other hand I believe that structures have a degree of stability that permits us to couch causal claims in terms of those structures directly, rather than needing to supplement those claims with disaggregated foundations at the level of the individual. So I argue for the idea that we can sometimes regard causal powers of social entities as "relatively autonomous" from individual-level facts.

By meso-level structures I mean to refer to things like these:
  • National Science Foundation
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • IBM corporation
  • German paramilitary organizations 1930
  • German ideology of cultural despair 1910
  • Islamic norms of Zakat
  • ...
In each case there are numerous actors assigned to roles, governed by rules defining their activities, and leading to a certain kind of functioning in the broader social environment.

Generically I would define a meso-level structure as --
A composite of individuals and roles that incorporates a set of rules and norms for internal and external actors, and that possesses procedures of inculcation and enforcement through which internal and external actors are brought to comply with the rules and norms (to some degree).
I would define a normative system as ...
a set of rules, norms, and expectations embodied in a population of actors and meeting a threshold level of success in coordinating and constraining behavior.
We have a number of sociological concepts that capture social items at this level: organization, bureaucracy, institution, normative community, social network, communications system, legal system, civil war, military coup, advocacy group.

It is evident that social entities often incorporate elements of several of these kinds of things. Organizations and structures often incorporate or depend upon normative systems, and normative systems often generate organizations and institutions that convey their impact to the young and adult actors.
What about other mid-level social nouns -- ethnic group, electorate, financial crisis, ...? These strike me as being compounds of a miscellaneous set of social things -- there are bits of organizations, normative systems, affinity groups, and social networks in each of them. The concept of assemblage seems to fit these nouns well.

The "meso" qualifier is a bit more difficult to specify. It is intended to focus our attention on mid-level social arrangements, between actors and global institutions like the US state, global Islam, and the world trading system. The intuitive idea is straightforward. These are the smaller-scale, lower-level social arrangements or units of which macro structures are composed. Bert Leuridan makes an effort to offer a more specific definition based on causal roles.

So I have a simple but important question in mind here. Is it ever legitimate to assert something like this:
  • Meso structure X produced changes in meso structure Y,
without being obliged to demonstrate the individual-level pathways through which this effect is thought to have come about? Is a type 4 causal claim ever supportable (link)?

The question I am posing is related to the idea of the methodological individualism associated with James Coleman. Basically the idea propounded by Coleman and more recently by the analytical sociologists is that all social properties, including causal powers, work through the activities of individuals, and we need ideally to replace claims that appear to attribute causal powers to structures with theories that disaggregate these powers onto the patterned activities of individuals. This is a reductionist theory.

Other theorists, notably Dave Elder-Vass, want to assert that social structures have "emergent" properties and powers (link). An emergent property according to E-V, is one that is possessed by the aggregate but not by the composing units. On this account, there are causal properties of structures that cannot be represented as the aggregate effect of individual actors.

My own approach depends on a line of reasoning long familiar in the special sciences. It is anti-reductionist, in that it denies that we need to derive higher-level properties from lower-level properties. It accepts the compositional ontology: social structures are composed of individual actors. But it asserts explanatory autonomy for theoretical statements about mid-level mechanisms (link, link, link).

One particularly direct way of supporting the idea that structures have meso effects is to establish correlations at that level for a few examples. But this isn't the only way we establish causation in other areas of the sciences. We do experiments ("remove X and observe whether Y persists"), we analyze the outcomes of "natural" experiments, we do comparative studies, and we engage in process tracing of particular cases. We even engage in theoretical analysis to try to determine what causal powers a certain entity ought to be expected to have given its constitution.

So it seems that there is ample room for sociologists to assert and investigate the causal properties of social structures. And given appropriate attention to the principle of microfoundations, we have a social ontology that supports the legitimacy of such claims as well.

A related question is whether there are "mechanisms" that operate at the meso level, or whether all social mechanisms must operate at the individual level (as Hedstrom and the AS world believe).  I will return to this question.


Tuli said...

but first for this kind of question, I have to buy into the idea, that society and organisations (macro and meso level) are entities, which do exist aT a higher level than individuals (micro level) do.

I don't mean to be reductionist, and say it's just the lower level.

What I'm saying (or rather guessing) is that society and social phenomena are so deeply rooted in every individual, that it makes no sense to say, that this level caused it and not the other. That is because they are not levels in my eyes, but different relations and processes of varying complexity, which can coexist in the same physical matter. So this different relations are interwoven but still have causal powers, which are gradually different but not completely distinct. So it makes no sense to say, that a meso level entity has power over this other meso level entity but not by passing through this macro level entity, because they are all at every moment coinciding. Of course its passing through the micro level cause it is part of what we call the micro level.

I hope the paragraph above still makes sense.

jed said...

I agree with your conclusion, as far as I understand it. But unfortunately a lot of interpretation is needed which can easily go wrong.

To help forestall that, I'd like you to elaborate on one point. You use the term "role" in crucial ways, e.g. you define a meso-level structure as "A composite of individuals and roles..."

So what is the micro-level definition or correlate of "role"? As I understand your ontology, perhaps you could translate this as "What is the patterning of individual activities that constitutes a 'role'?"

I'm trying to say this in a way that is ontologically neutral (do "patternings" really exist? mu) but of course that is difficult.

This is not a trick question. Personally I believe "roles" are an important theoretical construct and that we need to be able to treat them as having causal powers. But I also think we face a big risk of talking past each other unless we put a fair amount of work into being explicit.

Dan Little said...


Good questions! I think I would respond this way about "role": a role is a set of duties, tasks, and practices assigned to an individual within an organization. This then raises the questions, how is it that individuals perform their roles when appointed? (Here the answer is something like this: training and management oversight mechanisms; internal norms of performance.) And how do organizations come to have "roles" -- is this a matter of evolution and growth, or a matter of design? Obviously these attempts at definition invoke norms and they invoke the reflexive knowledge of other individuals within the organization about who needs to do what.

Dan Little said...

Tuli, I appreciate your reflections about this concept. What would you say to this: the existence and workings of paramilitary organizations (a meso-level structure) brought about the fall of democratic systems of governance (another meso-level structure). This is part of Michael Mann's analysis of the rise of fascism in Europe. How does this example sit with your concerns about not being able to distinguish "levels"?

jed said...

Thanks Daniel. I think this is an example of us talking past each other (at least partly).

I'll break down my request more specifically and maybe we can work this out.

You say "a role is a set of duties, tasks, and practices..." and I agree at that level.

But I'm looking for a description of the micro level definition or correlates of "role". That is to say, characteristics of individuals that collectively constitute or are consistently and strongly correlated with the existence of the role. Note that I am not trying to reduce roles to just an individual level phenomenon, I don't believe this would be correct.

You come close to providing what I want when you say accounts "invoke reflexive knowledge of other individuals within the organization about who needs to do what."

Possibly that is all we need. But even if it is, we need to be more specific before we can be sure we understand each other. For example:

- What do you mean by "reflexive"? And what work does reflexiveness do in this definition? Is it like common knowledge?? Etc.

- Do you want to say that any consistent beliefs about who needs to do what, within an organization or group define a role? It seems like we probably need more than this but I'm not sure what (beyond perhaps common knowledge).

These questions may seem picky, but I'm very concerned that we can easily fail to understand each other rendering the discussion pointless.

Leigh Caldwell said...

I think it's quite legitimate to say that meso-level structures can have effects on other meso-level structures, with the caveat that there are limits to the reliability of those effects.

I think you've used the analogy with physical systems before, and this is a useful one here too. Does a billiard ball hitting a second ball cause it to move? Or do its atoms cause other atoms to move which collectively look like a moving billiard ball? Or is it just that the solution to a particular wavefunction equation looks like atoms, which in turn look like a billiard ball when you group enough of them together?

While one could take a hyper-reductionist view and say that the billiard balls either don't exist, or don't have a causal relationship to each other, this would be a terribly unuseful worldview. And to deny that Facebook can cause Google to invest in its social media strategy is equally unhelpful.

The caveat is important, though: we can neither say that a particular action of Facebook will reliably cause Google to do something, nor ascribe with perfect confidence the launch of Google+ as an effect of the existence of Facebook. Not even Google employees with full information can do that with certainty; but it really does look as if it's the case.

A couple of other thoughts from your post:

"Meso structure X produced changes in meso structure Y"

I am not sure that the past tense is the most useful way to think about this. Causality is a more powerful and meaningful relation when it's predictive and general, rather than historical and specific. It's in fact a moot point whether Facebook caused Google+, but it's quite useful to think about whether choices of one company are likely to affect the future strategy of another company.

"An emergent property according to E-V, is one that is possessed by the aggregate but not by the composing units. On this account, there are causal properties of structures that cannot be represented as the aggregate effect of individual actors."

I don't think this quite follows. A property of a structure can be distinct from the properties of the units, while still being represented by their aggregate effects. The emergent property of yellowness possessed by the billiard ball is not possessed by any of its atoms or molecules; but it is still the aggregate effect of the individual atoms and their relationship to each other.

Emergent properties are simultaneously distinct from the properties of the components, and directly derived from the properties of those components.

Lee A. Arnold said...

Your definition of a meso entity is rather like my definition at New Chart for Descartes--
--At the end of that video, I show that both individuals and groups are formally similar, insofar as they consist of a central context of rules-goals-beliefs, surrounded by a ring of common transactions-transformations-transmissions. Your question to me therefore is whether two groups can have interactions between their central contexts, so as to influence the members in each separate group.

I think a weak case could be made for the financial crisis, in which two meso groups--
-- in other words, the "shadow banks" and the "housing market", interacted at the central contexts. The belief at the center of the shadow banks is that "financial deals are always good for the economy", and the belief at the center of the housing market is (was) that "housing prices will always go up". Both of these ideas are false, of course, but having false ideas is true of many human formations! Inside each group or meso formation, the individuals were doing their own specific sorts of transactions based upon the meso-level conjunction of the two beliefs.

Alyssa said...

I find this discussion intreging. I just did some brief qualitative research on 'sense of place' . I learned some of how coal camps were structured communities down to teaching and enforcing social norms as well as values. This influenced the meso structure at the community level - and out as far as the macro structure of politics and electricity/ fuel consumption nationally.

So in my perspective the coal companies, community, local to national govt are all systems impacted by the meso coal company(ies).

If I am understanding....
BSW , student

Tuli said...

"What would you say to this: the existence and workings of paramilitary organizations (a meso-level structure) brought about the fall of democratic systems of governance (another meso-level structure). This is part of Michael Mann's analysis of the rise of fascism in Europe. How does this example sit with your concerns about not being able to distinguish "levels"?"

well I'd think it in a way similar to Weber I guess: What we call organisations is constituted by perceived chances and they are perceived by individuals (so we could say micro level), but at least in my opinion they are not reducible to them, because the individuals are constituted as social beings.
Now this may sound very much like colemans boat at first, but I mean it in a more radical way, in a way, that you can't make line from one part to the other because they are so strongly intertwined.

Okay but that's the point I already tried to made, the question was, what it would mean for Michael Mann's analysis for fascism. Well it would mean that these perceived chances (which do not reside in something, which I would consider micro-level, but in this intertwined figuration) are responsible for the rise of fascism. I don't think we have any reason to distinguish this into separate spheres. I think doing so hides more than it explains.

Peter T said...

I pick up on Tull's thought. What does it mean in a human context to be an "individual"?

From my reading in neurology, it turns out to mean that our brains are necessarily shaped by input from others - necessarily in that they do not function without this input. And for "shaped" one can substitute "made". I cannot, after all, talk to others unless they have first given me a brain configured by language with which to talk. And as well as language - with all its implicit assumptions, they also gave me all sorts of assumptions about the real and social worlds, so that I can make sense of the world the language is describing/making. Some easily available for me to play with, some not so easily, some so deeply fundamental that I cannot get at them at all. This is what it means for the social world to be emergent - it emerges from, and is embodied in, the back and forth shaping of individuals by each other, in patterns persisting in time. The shapes we cannot get at, cannot even see as individuals because they are a part of seeing itself (so like trying to see your own eyeballs) are visible at the social level. And constructed by the social interactions of the forming brain.

So it's grounded in individuals, but not reducible to them - because their individuality is irreducably social.

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