Between Mechanism Talk And Mechanism Cult: New Emphases in Explanatory Sociology And Empirical Research

Zwischen Mechanismus-Gerede und Mechanismus-Kult: Neue Schwerpunkte in der Erklärendenden Soziologie und empirischen Forschung

Abstract

The study of mechanisms has received increased attention in recent years and contributed to the formation of so-called ‘analytical sociology’ that has put the idea of social mechanisms at its core. We discuss the crucial characteristics of mechanism-based explanations and their relation to the longstanding tradition of explanatory sociology. Looking at the widespread and growing number of references to ‘mechanisms’ in the current research literature, we identify typical deviations from the ideal of a mechanism-based explanation. Many references come down to mechanism talk insofar as it is not explicated in detail how and why particular inputs tend to result in particular outputs. To this end, researchers have to give a detailed verbal account of how exactly a mechanism is thought to unfold under specified conditions, or to specify a formal generative model which can be analysed analytically or by simulation. This agenda has been at the core of methodological individualism, sociological rational choice theory, and explanatory sociology for some time, but has received a new coat of whitewash by analytical sociology. This more recent theoretical movement offers a fresh problem-centred agenda based on the well-known macro-micro-macro model and could inspire a new generation of research that places greater weight on analysing social dynamics than on developing theories of action. However, we submit that, rather than constituting a competing approach, these impulses should be located within the longstanding and multifaceted explanatory agenda in sociology. Avoiding any form of mechanism cult and choosing from the full toolbox of explanatory/analytical sociology will be crucial to answer key questions in established areas of sociological research.

Zusammenfassung

Das Konzept der Mechanismen hat in den letzten Jahren zunehmende Aufmerksamkeit erfahren. Es bildet den Kern der sogenannten Analytischen Soziologie und hat maßgeblich zu deren Entwicklung beigetragen. Wir diskutieren die Beziehung dieses neueren Ansatzes zur Tradition der Erklärenden Soziologie und arbeiten zentrale Merkmale einer Mechanismen-basierten Erklärung heraus. In der aktuellen Forschungsliteratur wird zwar vermehrt der Mechanismus-Begriff bemüht, es lassen sich aber einige typische Abweichungen vom Ideal einer Mechanismen-basierten Erklärung identifizieren. Viele Verwendungen des Begriffs bleiben floskelhaft, weil sie nicht genau genug explizieren, warum bestimmte Anfangsbedingungen zu bestimmten Ausgängen führen. Dazu sind detaillierte und lückenlose verbale Ausführungen erforderlich oder formale Modelle, aus denen sich analytisch oder durch Simulationsmethoden die zu erklärenden Phänomene ableiten oder generieren lassen. Diese Agenda steht seit geraumer Zeit im Zentrum des Methodologischen Individualismus, der soziologischen Rational-Choice-Theorie und der Erklärenden Soziologie. Die theoretische Bewegung der Analytischen Soziologie verleiht dieser Agenda einen neuen Anstrich und gibt ihr neue Impulse: Im Rahmen des bekannten Makro-Mikro-Makro-Modells plädiert dieser Ansatz für eine neue Generation von Forschungsarbeiten, die das Gewicht und die Aufmerksamkeit von den handlungstheoretischen Grundlagen hin zur Analyse sozialer Dynamiken verlagern. Wir argumentieren, dass diese neue Schwerpunktsetzung nicht als konkurrierendes Programm zur Erklärenden Soziologie angesehen, sondern innerhalb der etablierten und vielschichtigen erklärenden Tradition der Soziologie verortet werden sollte. Anstatt eines Mechanismen-Kults um bestimmte Spezialtechniken ist substanzieller Erkenntnisfortschritt in soziologischen Anwendungsfeldern nur durch eine Ausschöpfung des vollen theoretischen Repertoires einer Erklärenden Soziologie zu erwarten.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See the notion of a ‘complexity turn’ in the description of ‘analytical sociology’ at the website of the International Network of Analytical Sociology’ (INAS) at http://analyticalsociology.com/about/.

  2. 2.

    Most poignantly, eminent Raymond Boudon characterized analytical sociology as not referring to something different than methodological individualism (MI) but “offering a PowerPoint-style presentation of MI” (Boudon 2013, p. 26).

  3. 3.

    While this is true in most cases, there can be instances where an adequate mechanism-based explanation might be possible by going down to entities larger than individuals. Under rare circumstances it can be justified to analyze the interaction among collective or corporative actors such as states, firms, political parties, or social movements without disaggregating these entities to the level of individual actors.

  4. 4.

    The same holds, by the way, for the physics example. In order to explain the explanandum, i.e. answer why the pressure has increased [to double its size] (S2), we need the structural cause (S1), in this case the fact that the volume has been decreased [by half], and the complete (!) causal chain. In verbal terms this would require an argument like: Holding temperature and number of molecules (mass) constant, decreasing the volume [by half] means decreasing the space for each individual molecule to move [by half] (S1 → A); as the molecules buzz around erratically (A → B) this makes it [two times] likely that an individual molecule will bump into the wall of a cylinder (S1 → A → B), as each crash of an individual molecule into the wall increases pressure on it by the same amount (B → S2); this is why decreasing the volume [by half] leads to an increase in pressure [to double its size] (S1 → A →B → S2).

  5. 5.

    The examples we give were inspired by scanning the latest volumes of the KZfSS as well as comparable journals like the Zeitschrift für Soziologie (ZfS) or the European Sociological Review (ESR). However, we decided against providing more detailed references to specific articles because usage often varies even within a single article and since when giving some examples we consciously exaggerate a bit to make the types very clear.

  6. 6.

    This particular usage of the term might have been encouraged by graphical representations that place a ‘mechanism’ as a box in the middle of a causal diagram between input and output (Hedström and Swedberg 1998, p. 9; see also: Opp 2013, p. 332).

  7. 7.

    This is certainly not the intent of Manzo’s expositions of the principles of analytical sociology: “Far from simply, and naively, relying exclusively on agent-based computational modelling (for this objection, see Abbott 2007b, p. 1; Lucchini 2007, pp. 236–240, 2008, pp. 9–12; Sawyer 2007, p. 260), this strategy establishes a complex interface among multivariate statistics, computational methods, mathematics, and experiments in which each method is mobilised to accomplish specific tasks” (Manzo 2014, p. 37).

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Gianluca Manzo for his helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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Kalter, F., Kroneberg, C. Between Mechanism Talk And Mechanism Cult: New Emphases in Explanatory Sociology And Empirical Research. Köln Z Soziol 66, 91–115 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11577-014-0272-7

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Keywords

  • Analytical sociology
  • Methodology of the social sciences
  • Macro-micro-macro scheme
  • Agent-based models

Schlüsselwörter

  • Analytische Soziologie
  • Methodologie der Sozialwissenschaften
  • Makro-Mikro-Makro-Schema
  • Agenten-basierte Modelle