One of the catechismal ideas of analytical sociology is the microfoundations model of explanation: to explain a social fact we should provide an account of the microfoundations that produce it. That means identifying the facts about individual motivations and beliefs that lead them to behave in such a way as to bring about the social fact in question. Here I want to ask a deliberately provocative question: is it ever legitimate to look for a meso-foundational explanation?
There is an almost trivial answer to this question that is already implied by Coleman’s famous boat diagram (link): when we want to understand how actors came to have the motivations and beliefs that we have observed.
The local prevalence of Catholic values and practices is the causal factor that explains the distinctive mentality of French Catholic young people in Burgundy in the 1930s. Here we are proposing to give a meso- or macro-level account of a micro set of facts. As another example, we might account for the low percentage of stocks in the retirement plans of men in their 50s in 1970 by the mistrust of the stock market created in people who reached adulthood in the Great Depression. This too is a meso- to micro- explanation.
Are there other kinds of meso-foundational explanations? Can we provide satisfactory meso-level explanations of meso- or macro-level facts? Consider this possibility. Suppose we find that S&L institutions are less likely to become insolvent than large commercial banks. And suppose we find that the regulatory regimes governing S&Ls are more strict than those for commercial banks. The mechanism leading to a lower likelihood of insolvency is conveyed from "strict regulations" to "low likelihood of insolvency". (We can provide further underlying mechanisms, of the traditional microfoundational variety: officers of S&Ls understand the requirements of the regulatory regime; they prudently miminize the risk of civil or criminal penalties; and their institutions have a lower likelihood of insolvency.) This is a meso-level causal explanation of a meso-level fact, representing a causal relationship between one meso-level factor and another meso-level factor.
What about meso-foundational explanations of macro-level features? And symmetrically, what about macro-foundational explanations of meso- and micro-level features? Each of these pathways is possible. Consider a macro-level feature like “American males have an unusually strong identification with guns”. And suppose we offer a meso-level explanation of this widespread cultural value: “The shaping institutions of masculine cultural identity in a certain time and place (mass media, high school social life, popular fiction) inculcate and proliferate this feature of masculine identity.” This is a meso-level explanation of a macro-level feature. Moreover, we can also turn the explanatory lens around and explain the workings of the meso-level factors based on the pervasive macro-level factor: the prevailing male obsession with guns reinforces and reproduces the meso-level influences identified here.
The conclusion to be drawn from these observations is a bit disorienting. The examples imply that there is no “up” and “down” when it comes to explanatory primacy. Rather, social factors at each level can play an explanatory role in accounting for the features of facts at every level. Explanation does not necessarily proceed from “lower level” to higher level entities. "Descending", "ascending", and "lateral" causal explanations all have their place, and ascending (microfoundational) explanations have no special priority. Rather, the requirement that should be emphasized is that the adequacy of any explanation of a social fact depends on whether we have discovered the causal mechanisms that give rise to it. And causal mechanisms can operate at all levels of the social world.
The diagram at the top of the post, originally prepared to illustrate the idea of a "flat" social ontology, does a good job of illustrating the multi-directionality of social-causal mechanisms as well.
Microfoundations or meso-foundational analyses seem like my brother's characterization of 'word salad' to me. And, if I may be honest, the graphic at the beginning of this post looks like geometric spaghetti. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is a lesson learned from physics. Any young person, male or female, who has ever aimed and fired a twelve gauge shotgun, knows that you had better be prepared for the next time. Or, that he/she would rather there not be a next time. I sort of understand why there are so many ways of examining things. We want to know, down to the molecular, even the atomic level, how and why things work and happen the way they do. We get frustrated when we can't do this. Are these kinds of microscopic analyses valuable? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Will quantum mechanics ever unlock the deepest secrets of the Universe? I don't know. I don't understand quantum mechanics.
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