Social scientists are generally interested in "explaining" social outcomes: why did such-and-so take place as it did? Why did the Indochina War occur, and why did it end in the defeat of two modern military powers? Why did the French fail so miserably at Dien Bien Phu? Why was the Tet Offensive so consequential for US military plans in Vietnam? Here are some fundamental questions surrounding the search for social explanations:
- What is involved in "explaining" a social event or circumstance?
- In what sense is there a kind of "order" in the social world?
- Can we reconcile the idea that some social events are "explained" and others are "stochastic"?
- Are there general and recurring causes at work in the social world?
- Is there any form of "unity" possible in the social sciences?
It is tempting to hold that many social events are more akin to the white noise of wind in the leaves than planets moving around the sun. That is, we might maintain that many social events are stochastic; they are the result of local contingencies and conjunctions, with little or no underlying order or necessity. This is not to say that the stochastic event is uncaused; rather, it is to say that the causes that led to this particular outcome represent a very different mix of conditions and events from the background of other similar events, so there is no common and general explanation of the event.
I referred to this kind of explanation as an "institutional logic" explanation in The Scientific Marx (link). And this kind of explanation has much in common with the explanatory framework associated with the "new institutionalism" (link).