Mechanistic explanations and components of social mechanisms


The past two decades have witnessed an increase in interest in social mechanisms and mechanistic explanations of social macro-phenomena. This paper addresses the question of what the components of social mechanisms in mechanistic explanations of social macro-phenomena must be. Analytical sociology’s initial position and the main new proposals by analytical sociologists are discussed. It is argued that all of them are faced with outstanding difficulties. Subsequently, a minimal requirement regarding the components of social mechanisms is introduced. It is held that a component of a social mechanism in a mechanistic explanation of a social macro-phenomenon must not have the explanandum phenomenon as a part of it.

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  1. 1.

    In this paper, I will focus on analytical sociology, which is the main approach in the discourse on social mechanisms and mechanistic explanations in social science. Nevertheless, it should be noted that there are several authors who have addressed those issues from alternative perspectives (see Bunge 1997, 2004; Tilly 2000, 2001, 2004; Abbott 2007; Gross 2009).

  2. 2.

    For an exhaustive exposition of the emergence of analytical sociology and its relationship with previous proposals see (Manzo 2010).

  3. 3.

    For other critiques against covering-law explanations and statistical explanations in social science see (Hedström 2005).

  4. 4.

    It is generally accepted that structural individualism does not imply the principle of mechanism-based explanations (Ylikoski 2011). Explanations of social macro-phenomena in terms of individuals’ interactions are possible even if the mechanisms responsible for them are not specified.

  5. 5.

    This idea was originally introduced by Stinchcombe (1991) (although he understood mechanisms as abstract entities). Stinchcombe held that, in social mechanisms, units of analysis can be individuals, social actors, situations, or patterns of information. He argued that, while units of analysis are generally at a lower level than the explanandum, they do not need to be individuals.

  6. 6.

    Karl-Dieter Opp (2005) has argued that mechanistic explanations must include laws because “[o]nly a law provides a selection criterion for the factors that have caused a phenomenon” (2005, p. 174) and without them the election of explanatorily relevant factors is arbitrary. Nevertheless, new mechanists have raised several alternative criteria of explanatory relevance in mechanistic explanations. For instance, Carl Craver (2007, p. 153) has introduced the requirement of mutual manipulability and Stuart Glennan (2017, p. 43) has proposed the requirement of contributing to the activity of the mechanism as a whole.

  7. 7.

    In the first version of his notion of mechanism, Glennan (1996) considered that interactions among parts of mechanisms must be according to direct causal laws. Nevertheless, Glennan (2002, 2017) has later modified his characterization of interactions among mechanisms’ parts and removed that requirement.

  8. 8.

    Several new mechanists (e.g. Craver 2007) consider that the explanandum of a constitutive mechanistic explanation is a behaviour of a system. However, Ylikoski (2013) argues that the notion of behaviour can refer to both properties and events, and is potentially confusing. He claims that explananda of constitutive mechanism-based explanations must be characterized as properties of entities.

  9. 9.

    Apparent cases of whole-part (or part-whole) causal relation can be finer understood as causal interactions among parts associated with one or more constitutive relations (Craver and Bechtel 2007). For instance, many putative whole-part causal relations can be analysed as a particular constellation of states of parts, which constitutes certain state of the whole, that causes changes in some parts. Consider, for example, the apparent causal relation between societies’ political polarisation and individuals’ discrimination against opposing partisans (Iyengar and Westwood 2015). A society’s political polarisation is constituted by the divergence of individuals’ political attitudes to ideological extremes. Divergence of political attitudes causes affection toward copartisans and animosity toward opposing partisans, and this affective separation results in discriminatory behaviour (in both political and non-political domains) toward opposing partisans.

  10. 10.

    As it has been argued (see section 4), in Ylikoski’s perspectival proposal, micro-macro relations are not accurately characterised. Consequently, it is difficult to precisely compare that proposal with the minimal requirement. Nevertheless, any sensible characterisation of micro-macro relations would exclude the possibility that a macro-phenomenon is part of a micro component. So, it is reasonable to compare both proposals in those general terms.

  11. 11.

    It should be noted that failing to satisfy the minimal requirement does not necessarily mean that an explanation is illegitimate or lacks explanatory power. The minimal requirement aims to distinguish legitimate from non-legitimate mechanistic explanations. If a mechanism-based explanation does not meet the minimal requirement, it cannot be considered a legitimate mechanistic explanation. Nonetheless, an explanation that does not meet the minimal requirement could be a legitimate non-mechanistic explanation. For example, an explanation that accounts for people’s attitude in terms of the properties of a group to which they belong could be a legitimate non-mechanistic explanation.


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I would like to thank Marc Artiga, Antonio Gaitán, Valeriano Iranzo, Tuukka Kaidesoja, Aki Lehtinen, Cristian Saborido, David Teira, Petri Ylikoski, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. This work was supported by the Spanish Ministry of Universities under grant FPU16/03274 and the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation under grant FFI2017-89639-P.

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Correspondence to Saúl Pérez-González.

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Pérez-González, S. Mechanistic explanations and components of social mechanisms. Euro Jnl Phil Sci 10, 35 (2020).

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  • Mechanism
  • Scientific explanation
  • Analytical sociology
  • Structural individualism