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The Heterogeneous Social:

New Thinking About the Foundations of the Social Sciences

Daniel Little

University of Michigan-Dearborn

Introduction: reconsideration of the foundations of social science research

An inventory of social change in China

Why the philosophy of social science?

Current discussions of the social sciences in the United States


A philosophy for the social sciences

Methodological localism

The centrality of causal mechanisms in social explanations

Generalizations and predictions





Introduction: reconsideration of the foundations of social science research

This paper is an effort to contribute to an ongoing discussion in China about the future of the social sciences in Chinese universities.  Chinese social sciences are presently in a period of deep uncertainty.  Marxist ideas about method and theory are no longer governing, and new paradigms have not yet taken full form. This transition is especially important because of the magnitude and novelty of the social changes that China is experiencing today.  This paper argues for the timeliness of engagement between innovative Chinese and Western sociologists and philosophers in an effort to arrive at models of social research and explanation that work well for contemporary China.  It gives reasons to be doubtful about positivist quantitative methodology as the sole foundation for social science research.  And it advocates for the importance of post-positivist approaches for Chinese sociology.  The essay has several purposes: to bring the perspective of the philosophy of social science into engagement with Chinese social scientists; to review some very interesting current areas of innovation in American social science research communities; to identify some of the threads that might guide a “post-positivist” social science paradigm; and to relate these issues to the current challenges facing Chinese social scientists.[1]

If Western observers were to respond by saying, “China’s methodenstreit is only of parochial interest,” it is worth observing that China’s social changes are as deep, rapid, and perplexing as those associated with the process of industrialization in nineteenth-century England—and consider how profoundly the experience of Manchester and Birmingham stimulated new sociological thinking in the hands of Engels, Tocqueville, Marx, and the other founders of modern Western sociology.  So China has the intellectual and practical opportunity of recasting our thinking about the scientific study of society and social problems.

This is a particularly important time for Chinese universities to develop effective and innovative programs of social science research, if Chinese scholars and policymakers are to have a reliable basis for understanding and managing the changes China is currently undergoing.  China is today undergoing processes of social change that are both momentous and globally unprecedented.  The processes themselves are complex and large.  The causal connections between one set of changes and another set of consequences are obscure.  The social, political, and human effects of these changes are large and unpredictable.  And these processes are not adequately understood.  We do not have comprehensive social theories for which China’s experience is the special case—whether “modernization theory,” “world systems theory,” “social functionalism,” “rational choice theory,” or “theory of exploitation.”  In fact, it is a radical misunderstanding of the nature of the social, to imagine that there might be such comprehensive theories.  Rather, China’s social development is a contingent, multi-threaded social fabric.  We should expect unpredictable twists and turns, the forming and dissolving of institutions and social compromises; regional and sectoral differences in social processes; the changing policies of the state and the party; the strategic behavior of various social groups; and myriad other contingent and variegated forms of social processes.

            There is a tempting response to this sociological challenge.  It is to turn to the methods of positivist quantitative social science.  These approaches have much prestige in the West, and gain the greatest share of research funding, and they were important influences in the generation of Chinese sociology of the 1920s and 1930s (Zheng and Li 2006), (Kejing 1993).  The positivist approach recommends, in its simplest formulation, that social scientists should observe, measure, and count social variables across populations, and use the tools of quantitative statistical methodology to discover correlations and associations among social variables. If causation is to be attributed within the social world, according to this positivist approach, it depends on the evidence of regression coefficients for a group of independent variables as explanatory of the behavior of the dependent variable, or correlations among variables, or other forms of evidence of regular association among a group of variables.  (Andrew Abbott refers to this as the “variables paradigm”; (Abbott 1999).  See also the technical discussions of statistical approaches to social-causal analysis in (McKim and Turner 1997).)

As is well known, there are persistent debates among American social scientists over the divide of quantitative versus comparative and qualitative research.  But the high-prestige end of these debates is the more positivistic quantitative approach.  In raising concerns about this approach, my reasoning is not that quantitative social science is always flawed.  On the contrary, the social sciences need powerful quantitative tools at their disposal.  But we should not imagine that these tools are appropriate to every research question in the social sciences; and in fact, there are other approaches that permit substantially greater insight into the causal and cultural processes that are at work.  The nature of the social gives us good reason to believe that we need a plurality of methods and theories in order to understand social processes.  A social science research community will be most successful when it has a wide variety of methods and theories at its disposal, and is thereby able to match its inquiry and explanatory strategies to the particular features of the domain of phenomena to be understood.

An inventory of social change in China

            The challenge for Chinese sociology is the challenge of Chinese society.  This section provides a brief inventory of the many social processes and challenges that are underway in China today, and that constitute an agenda of research for a distinctive China-centered sociology of the future. 

Most visible among China’s current social changes is the economic transformation associated with market reforms in the past two decades.  The reform of agriculture in the 1980s had massive effects that continue to reverberate in Chinese rural society.  The reforms in the 1990s of the institutional setting of manufacture and international trade have created large currents and pressures in Chinese society: smashing of the brass rice bowl, stimulus to massive internal migration, creation of new ensembles of powerful players, creating of wealth, immiseration of some workers, …  Seen from a narrowly economic point of view, the question is this: How can China sustain 10% rates of economic growth?  What further policy changes and institutional reforms will be necessary in order to both support and accommodate rapid economic growth? 

            Seen from the broader point of view, the question is: What are the social implications of this massive economic transformation? What changes have occurred within factories? How do workers reason about the choices they are faced with when privatization occurs? What is happening to displaced workers?  What implications are emerging for public health, for the care of the elderly, or for access to education?  What are the conditions of social well-being across China?  How much inequality is resulting from these reforms, and how is it distributed across region and sector?  How are these circumstances changing over time?

            Something like 70% of China’s population is rural, with a sizeable percentage swinging back and forth between rural residence and low-paid urban work.  The transformations that are underway in the countryside are very important.  There is a profound readjustment of property rights underway, with a corresponding struggle between farmers and power-holders over ownership and control of land.  The inequalities that have commonly existed between city and countryside are evidently more extreme than ever since 1949; incomes are rising rapidly in the urban manufacturing and service economy, and farmers’ incomes are stagnant. Western provinces such as Shaanxi continue to witness rural incomes in the range of $300 per year—the World Bank’s standard of extreme poverty.  And farmers’ access to social services is very limited, including access to education; so opportunities for inter-generational improvement are much more limited than those presented to urban people. 

            Corresponding to some of these points about rural property ownership and inequalities, is a dramatic increase in the volume of rural protest and collective action.  Tens of thousands of instances of collective protest and unrest occur every year in the countryside—and the incidence is rising.  The state is concerned about conditions in the countryside; but its response is muted and confused.  At some points the rhetoric of the state has been pro-farmer in the past few years; but there is also a “law and order” thread that offers the stick rather than social reform.  Complicating the issue is the disconnect between the central government’s policies and the actions of local and provincial governments.  The interests of the local and provincial governments are often tilted towards “development” and modernization – with corresponding lack of support for farmers’ rights.  The central state appears to lack the ability to control the use of coercion by local authorities in putting down peasant collective action and protest.

            A common cause of rural unrest is the fact of local corruption and abuse of the powers of local authorities.  The study of corruption, and the institutions of state and market that might help to control corrupt practices, is an important subject for Chinese social scientists.  Parallel to corruption is the question of the extension of the system of law.  To what extent are players able to appeal to their rights and to gain access to processes of law enforcement?  Are there emerging non-governmental organizations and other independent organizations that support workers’ and farmers’ rights?  How can this institutional framework be extended and made more effective?

            Internal migration and the status of ethnic minorities are other important subjects for study by Chinese social scientists.  Once again, these are processes that are changing rapidly; it will be important for Chinese demographers, social policy analysts, and ethnographers to put together effective research programmes that will track and explore these processes.

            The social behaviors that affect the environment and energy use, including changes in the volume of transportation and motor vehicles, present evident challenges for the future of Chinese society.  Social scientists need to provide insight into the drivers of these behaviors, and social scientists can help to design social policies and institutions that might steer Chinese consumption patterns in directions that are more compatible with China’s longterm environmental sustainability.

            Many Chinese intellectuals are posing questions about the role of values in Chinese society.  Are there traditional Chinese values that might help secure a stable and harmonious future for Chinese society? Are there strategies or policies that might help to stabilize a social consensus about the legitimacy of governmental institutions and the distributive justice of China’s economic development? Social scientists can probe these questions at a variety of levels, asking the empirical question of the current distribution and variation of social values and the institutional question of the forces that influence future developments in social values.

            Finally, the social challenges that will be posed by an aging Chinese population, in the context of a dramatically smaller cohort of younger workers as a result of the one-child policy, will be increasingly important in the coming two decades.  Health care, income support, housing, and mental health services will all be important challenges for Chinese society, and once again, there is very little precedence for the magnitude of these challenges in other parts of the world.

            Plainly, there is an urgent need for a new surge of effective social-science research in China.  But equally, it is clear that these many areas of change represent a mix of different kinds of social processes and mechanisms, operating according to a variety of temporal frameworks, with different manifestations in different regions and sectors of Chinese society.  So we should not expect that a single sociological framework, a unified sociological theory, or a unique sociological research methodology will suffice. Instead, Chinese sociological research needs to embrace a plurality of methods and theories in order to arrive at results that shed genuine light on China’s social development.

Why the philosophy of social science?

            The philosophy of social science is especially important in these circumstances.  Most broadly, the goal of this discipline is to provide a careful, analytical treatment of the most basic problems that arise in the scientific study of society and social behavior: for example, ontology, methodology, theory, and explanation. I believe that the intellectual challenges posed by the social sciences are, if anything, more difficult and obscure than those in other areas of the sciences.  What do we mean by a “social” “science”?  What is the nature of the social?  How can we investigate its properties and structures?  What is involved in a scientific study of the social?  What is the role and scope of social theory in investigating and explaining the social world?  How are social science hypotheses justified, confirmed, or tested?  What, after all, is a good social explanation? 

            Some philosophers have approached this family of questions on the basis of abstract philosophical theory, much as logical positivism derived from the tenets of British empiricism.  I take a different view.  I believe that philosophy of social science will only make genuine progress when it arrives at its formulation of the issues and approaches in deep engagement with working social scientists.  I believe that we cannot pose these questions in the abstract; it is necessary to develop our questions and answers in close partnership between practitioners and philosophers.  In other words, we need to probe in depth, the ontologies, research methodologies, puzzles, debates, and theories of sociology, political science, economics, anthropology, the area studies—and then arrive at some more informed ideas about what is involved in studying and explaining aspects of the social world.  What are the real and practical issues of methodology that social scientists are facing?  How can the tools of philosophical analysis shed new light on these issues?  And to what extent can we determine the underlying and often erroneous assumptions about “science” that motivate some social science doctrines (e.g. logical positivism or behaviorism)?  There is no master theory of science that can simply be “applied” to the social sciences.  Instead, it is necessary for the philosopher to bring some general ideas about reasoning, rigor, and rationality into engagement with concrete problems of social science problem formation and research, and to construct new representations of the forms of knowledge that can emerge from social science research and theory.

If we were to say, “the social sciences are everywhere the same,” we would be beginning with an enormous error. Politics, culture, institutions, and history affect the ways in which scientists are educated; the methodologies that they respect as most “scientific”; the questions that are taken to be the most important; the theoretical perspectives that are thought to be most promising in explaining social outcomes. This is true in all areas of science—physics, biology, climate science. But it is especially true in the social sciences, for two large reasons: the political and practical salience of social interpretation and explanation, and the amorphousness and frangibility of social phenomena themselves. There are multiple processes underway at any given time within a social order; these co-exist in a messy complexity; and therefore the “systematizing” or universalizing impulse that has guided the development of so many of the sciences is less valid in the social sciences.

            The aspiration represented by the philosophy of social science is an important one.  Good work in this area can contribute to better social science frameworks and theories.  It can contribute to more effective research methodologies.  And it can help formulate a more adequate background “metaphysics” on the basis of which social scientists can approach their research.

Current discussions of the social sciences in the United States

            So what can we learn from some innovative social scientists at work today, that might be helpful in addressing the problems of social study currently encountered in China?  The past several years have witnessed a surge of path-breaking discussions of the nature and direction of the social sciences among a wide range of innovative social scientists and historians in the United States. A range of authoritative voices have called for fundamental rethinking of the foundations of the social sciences—beginning with Alvin Gouldner’s work, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (Gouldner 1970), but gaining new impetus in the 1990s with the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences (Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. 1996), (Wallerstein 1999), handbooks on social-science methodology (Turner and Risjord 2006), and a variety of reports to the U.S. Social Science Research Council.  Debates within the social sciences in the United States are taking up this challenge.  Particularly important are contributions by (Adams, Clemens, and Orloff 2005), (Steinmetz 2005), (Sewell 2005), (McDonald 1996), (Mahoney and Rueschemeyer 2003), (Ortner 1999), (Lieberson 1987), and (Abbott 1999, 2001).  Each of these works (including especially the extensive introductions provided in Adams et al and Steinmetz) provides an analysis of the new currents that are emerging in social science research.  Steinmetz and Adams, Clemens, and Orloff organize their volumes around two large meta-constructs within the social sciences, and the need to go beyond these formulations: positivism and modernity.  Steinmetz and the contributors to The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences track the role that positivist theories about social science knowledge have had in the development of the social science disciplines, and the epistemic and ontological limitations of positivism as a guide to social science theorizing.  In Remaking Modernity Adams et al identify the concept of “modernity” as problematic but salvageable; more interesting, in their assessment, is the proliferation of insights and perspectives that have emerged in the social and human sciences in the past twenty years and that offer a new perspective on the concept of modernity. 

            A series of important methodological and substantive insights have emerged from these discussions.  Several topics have particular importance for us as we consider what the sociology of the next twenty years might look like.  I will very briefly refer to several of these areas of discussion and methodology.  First, there has been lively discussion of the importance and promise of the intellectual framework of comparative historical sociology.[2]  The core of the approach is a concern for large historical structures embodied in different social settings, and a conviction that we can discover historical causes by comparing in detail the unfolding of some important historical processes in different social settings.  The approach insists that “history matters”—that we need to consider the historical context and contingent pathways from which a given complex of social structures emerged.  And the approach postulates that we can discover concrete the social causal mechanisms that combine to produce macro-outcomes through careful study of a small set of detailed historical cases.  The most studied topic within comparative historical sociology is that of revolution; what historical circumstances combine to make successful revolution more likely (Skocpol 1979), (Goldstone 1991)?  But the approach has been also used fruitfully to study such mid-level topics as official corruption, union organization, and public welfare systems. 

            A second important development in contemporary sociology is a focus on concrete causal social mechanisms.  Charles Tilly’s recent work illustrates this approach.  His current work takes up once again the topic of social contention (Tilly 2003), (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001).   Now, rather than turning to large sociological theories to explain social outcomes, Tilly has come to emphasize social variability, path-dependence, and a methodology emphasizing the discovery of specific social mechanisms that combine in novel ways in different historical circumstances.  In The Politics of Collective Violence he puts his approach this way: “We are looking for explanations of variability: not general laws or total explanations of violent events, but accounts of what causes major variations among times, places, and social circumstances in the character of collective violence.  We search for robust mechanisms and processes that cause change and variation.  Mechanisms are causes on the small scale: similar events that produce essentially the same immediate effects across a wide range of circumstances” ((Tilly 2003) : 20).  What is most important about this approach is Tilly's abandonment of the ideal of discovering regular historical patterns—“food crisis in the presence of local social organization leads to social contention”—in favor of specific historical trajectories in specific settings.

Related to both these threads of discussion is an approach that attempts to discover causal relationships through the study of a single important historical case (case study methodology).  If we believe that there are effective social causal mechanisms that occur in multiple settings (causal realism), then it is credible that we can examine single instances, and the events and conditions that led up to them, in order to discern some of the causal mechanisms that were instrumental in bringing the event about.  An important current body of methodology and theory in the social sciences provides support for the case-study method, including especially (George and Bennett 2005) and (Goertz and Starr 2003).  Analysis of the causes involved in a single outcome is referred to as “process-tracing.”  George and Bennett describe process-tracing as a method “which attempts to trace the links between possible causes and observed outcomes.  In process-tracing, the researcher examines histories, archival documents, interview transcripts, and other sources to see whether the causal process a theory hypothesizes or implies in a case is in fact evident in the sequence” ((George and Bennett 2005) : 6)).  A variety of scholars have argued, then, that it is possible to provide evidence in favor of or contrary to singular causal claims, and that this approach can provide substantial and systematic insight into important social transitions.

The historical turn in sociology has given a major impetus to detailed study of specific institutions as a primary causal mechanism of social processes ((Brinton and Nee 1998), (Knight 1992), (North 1990)).  The new institutionalism has made the point very convincingly that the specific rules that constitute a given institution make a substantial difference to the behavior of persons subject to the institution—and this has major social consequences.  So detailed sociological study of the specific institutions surrounding a given kind of social behavior can provide the basis for a compelling causal explanation of a large resulting social outcome.  And differences among roughly similar institutions can likewise explain substantial differences in the social outcomes observed in the different settings.  For example, different systems for collecting and verifying taxes have very different collection rates and very different patterns of evasion and. Historical sociologists have pushed this insight deeper, by examining specific institutions in detail (corruption (Klitgaard 1988), training regimes (Thelen 2004), technology regimes (Dobbin 1994), conscription regimes (Levi 1988)); examining the social factors that sustain them over time; and examining the factors that lead to the creation and development of new institutions.  Once we abandon the reifying assumption that institutions are stable, coherent entities, we are obliged to consider the ways in which institutions maintain some degree of stability over time, and the ways in which specific institutions change over time.  We should look at institutions as a dynamic fabric of overlapping behaviors, cognitive frameworks, and networks of actors, rather than as an abiding and unchanging structure (Abbott 1999).

There has been valuable discussion of the nature of social entities in the recent sociology literature.  Andrew Abbott is one of the most innovative and fruitful sociologists working in the United States today.  His primary field of research is on the sociology of the professions: medicine, psychiatry, university professoriate, law, etc. (Abbott 1988, 2001).  Beyond his empirical studies, he has made a very important contribution through his formulation of the ontological questions that sociologists need to raise—but seldom do: what is a social structure or entity? How do actors create, embody, and change the social world around them? His ontological insights are most clearly expressed in Department and Discipline, a micro-study of the “Chicago school of sociology.”  He analyzes the historical twists and turns of this “school”—the founders, the theories, the department politics, the American Journal of Sociology, the American Sociological Association.  But more profoundly, he draws sharp attention to the fluidity and permutability of this social “entity” (Abbott 1999) : 223).  A social entity is not a fixed thing with stable properties.  It is rather a continuing swirl of linked social activities and practices, themselves linked to other “separate” social traditions.  And particularly important, he endorses a social localism—that all social facts are carried by socially constructed individuals in action. For these reasons, Abbott is deeply critical of the prevailing positivist paradigm for sociology—which he refers to as the “variables paradigm”—according to which the task is to discover social variables and assess relationships among them ((Abbott 1999) : 222).

Another important theme in recent debates is the importance of the cultural turn in social research.  Social scientists and historians have come to recognize the irreducibly “cultural” nature of social behavior (Sewell 2005), (Darnton 1984), (McDonald 1996).  Human beings construct their worlds and their actions around a set of understandings, values, and identities that are variable from place to place, and that make a difference in large social outcomes.  It is always important for social researchers to be aware of the constitutive role that cultural formations play within social processes, and sometimes exploration of this role is crucial to an adequate understanding and explanation of a social pattern. The “cultural turn” in the social sciences has come to highlight that culture is a feature of all social life, and that every area of social science research needs to have some theoretical and methodological ability to analyze the role of culture in a given domain.  This entails that there is an important place for qualitative research in all areas of social investigation, complementary to other methods of research and analysis.

I turn, finally, to some new critical thinking about traditional quantitative sociological research. Stanley Lieberson is a gifted and prolific sociologist, skilled in standard methods of quantitative sociology.  He has written extensively on the sociology of race and urban life in the United States (Lieberson 1963, 1980; Lieberson and Waters 1988).  But he takes on distinctly non-standard sociological questions as well: can we give causal explanations of the success rates of professional sports teams (Lieberson 1997)?  Are there regularities in the “tastes” that a population exhibits (manifested, perhaps, in changing frequencies of first names over time) (Lieberson 2000)?  Can we offer causal hypotheses about these sociological changes, and can we rigorously evaluate these hypotheses?  Lieberson's work is important because he asks novel questions, and because he casts doubt on the methodological common sense of sociology as a discipline.  His book, Making it Count and numerous methodological articles (Lieberson and Lynn 2002), provide sharp and sustained critique of standard assumptions involved in quantitative sociology.  He writes that it is necessary to come to “a different way of thinking about the rigorous study of society implied by the phrase ‘science of society’” ((Lieberson 1987) : 3-4). His central criticisms of standard assumptions about quantitative methods in sociology are, first, that standard quantitative models assume that sociology is an experimental science, whereas it is almost always impossible to perform experiments on sociological topics; that sociology has not clearly specified the types of causal questions that are accessible to sociological research; that quantitative sociologists usually misunderstand the logic of selectivity and control variables; and that sociologists have not given enough attention to the assumptions they make about sociological causation.  Lieberson does not reject quantitative reasoning.  Rather, he insists upon clearer thinking about causes and mechanisms, and he rigorously criticizes sloppy thinking about quantitative methods.  His approach demands that the researcher give careful attention to the possible social mechanisms that may be involved in the sociological outcomes of interest, and then to design a study that permits elucidation and evaluation of those causal hypotheses.


            This brief review of some important recent work within the social sciences on foundational issues is relevant in several ways.  First, these authors provide substantive and innovative insights into some very important foundational issues, about the nature of the social and some good ways of investigating and explaining the social. Second, this review demonstrates very clearly the value of interaction between philosophers and social scientists. All these thinkers are engaging in clear, rigorous, and intelligent interrogation of foundational issues of ontology and epistemology of social science. They are doing the philosophy of social science, whether they call it that or not. And therefore it is highly productive, on both sides of the equation, for working sociologists and philosophers to interact in a sustained way on these important foundational issues. Better social science and better philosophy will be the result.

            Several specific insights about the social sciences emerge from these debates.  There is the “historic turn” in the social sciences: the recognition that the history of social processes and institutions is deeply significant for understanding their current functioning. What are the contingent pathways that have brought a given phenomenon to its current configuration? How does this history inform and condition the current workings? There is the “cultural turn” in history and several areas of the social sciences: the idea that social phenomena is always invested with meaning, and it is important for social scientists to consider some of the methods through which it is possible to investigate and explore these cultural meanings.  Individuals act in the context of their own understandings of the social world and their position within it; and this requires analysis of culture.  There is a surging interest in identifying social causal mechanisms as a basis for explanation of social outcomes and processes: the idea that social outcomes have come to be as the result of specific social mechanisms that can be uncovered through case studies, comparative analysis, and the resort to various areas of social theory (rational choice theory, new institutionalism, learning theory).  There is strengthening focus on institutions—how they constrain social processes, and how they emerge and change over time.  And there is renewed attention to the role of comparison within the social sciences—comparative historical analysis.

            At a more abstract level, we can identify a set of ontological insights that are emerging within these debates: doubt about the availability of strong universal laws among social phenomena; attention to the multiple pathways and structural alternatives that exist in large-scale historical development; awareness of the deep heterogeneity of social processes and influences—in time and place; attention to the substantial degree of contingency that exists in historical change; attention to the plasticity of social organizations and institutions; and attempts at bridging between micro- and macro-level social processes.  Almost all of these points amount to a fundamental challenge to positivist social science.  The skepticism that is now well established about social regularities is a deep blow to the positivist program.  The emphasis on causal mechanisms suggests a post-positivist, realist approach to scientific explanation.  The point about heterogeneity of social processes suggests the importance of theoretical pluralism rather than unified grand theories of social phenomena. 

A philosophy for the social sciences

            In the remainder of this essay I offer a particular approach to the philosophy of social science, because I believe these ideas can help to organize our thinking about the social world and the strategies we use to investigate social phenomena.  These observations are organized within a perspective I label “methodological localism,” according to which all social facts, social structures, and social causes must be understood to possess their characteristics in virtue of the “socially situated individuals” who make them up.  I argue that social conjectures need to be supported by analysis of the “microfoundations” of the social structures and processes that are postulated.  I argue that social explanation depends on identifying the concrete social causal mechanisms that bring about social outcomes and types of outcomes.  I argue that we should think of the social world as a fabric built up out of a myriad of overlapping “local social environments.”  And I argue against the idea of there being strong “social laws” that could be discovered, in analogy with laws of nature.  These views support a perspective on the social world that emphasizes contingency of social outcomes, plasticity of social structures, and variability of social behavior.

Methodological localism

I offer a social ontology that I refer to as methodological localism (ML) (Little 2006).  This theory of social entities affirms that there are large social structures and facts that influence social outcomes.  But it insists that these structures are only possible insofar as they are embodied in the actions and states of socially constructed individuals.  The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules.  With methodological individualism, this position embraces the point that individuals are the bearers of social structures and causes.  There is no such thing as an autonomous social force; rather, all social properties and effects are conveyed through the individuals who constitute a population at a time.  Against individualism, however, methodological localism affirms the “social-ness” of social actors.  Methodological localism denies the possibility or desirability of characterizing the individual extra-socially.  Instead, the individual is understood as a socially constituted actor, affected by large current social facts such as value systems, social structures, extended social networks, and the like.  In other words, ML denies the possibility of reductionism from the level of the social to the level of a population of non-social individuals.  Rather, the individual is formed by locally embodied social facts, and the social facts are in turn constituted by the current characteristics of the persons who make them up. 

This account begins with the socially constituted person. Human beings are subjective, intentional, and relational agents. They interact with other persons in ways that involve competition and cooperation. They form relationships, enmities, alliances, and networks; they compose institutions and organizations. They create material embodiments that reflect and affect human intentionality. They acquire beliefs, norms, practices, and worldviews, and they socialize their children, their friends, and others with whom they interact. Some of the products of human social interaction are short-lived and local (indigenous fishing practices); others are long-duration but local (oral traditions, stories, and jokes); and yet others are built up into social organizations of great geographical scope and extended duration (states, trade routes, knowledge systems). But always we have individual agents interacting with other agents, making use of resources (material and social), and pursuing their goals, desires, and impulses.

At the level of the socially constituted individual we need to ask two sorts of questions: First, what makes individual agents behave as they do? Here we need accounts of the mechanisms of deliberation and action at the level of the individual. What are the main features of individual choice, motivation, reasoning, and preference? How do these differ across social groups? How do emotions, rational deliberation, practical commitments, and other forms of agency influence the individual’s deliberations and actions?  This area of research is purposively eclectic, including performative action, rational action, impulse, theories of the emotions, theories of the self, or theories of identity.

Second, how are individuals formed and constituted? Methodological localism gives great importance to learning more about how individuals are formed and constituted—the concrete study of the social process of the development of the self. Here we need better accounts of social development, the acquisition of worldview, preferences, and moral frameworks, among the many other determinants of individual agency and action. What are the social institutions and influences through which individuals acquire norms, preferences, and ways of thinking? How do individuals develop cognitively, affectively, and socially? So methodological localism points up the importance of discovering the microfoundations and local variations of identity formation and the construction of the historically situated self.

            So far we have emphasized the socially situated individual. But social action takes place within spaces that are themselves socially structured by the actions and purposes of others—by property, by prejudice, by law and custom, and by systems of knowledge. So our account needs to identify the local social environments through which action is structured and projected: the inter-personal networks, the systems of rules, the social institutions. The social thus has to do with the behaviorally, cognitively, and materially embodied reality of social institutions. An institution, we might say, is an embodied set of rules, incentives, and opportunities that have the potential of influencing agents’ choices and behavior.[3]  An institution is a complex of socially embodied powers, limitations, and opportunities within which individuals pursue their lives and goals. A property system, a legal system, and a professional baseball league all represent examples of institutions.[4]  Institutions have effects that are in varying degrees independent from the individual or “larger” than the individual. Each of these social entities is embodied in the social states of a number of actors—their beliefs, intentions, reasoning, dispositions, and histories. Actors perform their actions within the context of social frameworks represented as rules, institutions, and organizations, and their actions and dispositions embody the causal effectiveness of those frameworks. And institutions influence individuals by offering incentives and constraints on their actions, by framing the knowledge and information on the basis of which they choose, and by conveying sets of normative commitments (ethical, religious, interpersonal) that influence individual action.

It is important to emphasize that ML affirms the existence of social constructs beyond the purview of the individual actor or group.  Political institutions exist—and they are embodied in the actions and states of officials, citizens, criminals, and opportunistic others.  These institutions have real effects on individual behavior and on social processes and outcomes—but always mediated through the structured circumstances of agency of the myriad participants in these institutions and the affected society.  This perspective emphasizes the contingency of social processes, the mutability of social structures over space and time, and the variability of human social systems (norms, urban arrangements, social practices, …).

This approach highlights the important point that all social facts, social structures, and social causal properties depend ultimately on facts about individuals within socially defined circumstances.  Social ascriptions require microfoundations at the level of individuals in concrete social relationships.  According to this way of understanding the nature of social ontology, an assertion of a structure or process at the macro-social level (causal, functional, structural) must be supplemented by two things: knowledge about what it is about the local circumstances of the typical individual that leads him or her to act in such a way as to bring about this relationship; and knowledge of the aggregative processes that lead from individual actions of that sort to an explanatory social relationship of this sort.[5]  So if we are interested in analysis of the causal properties of states and governments, we need to arrive at an analysis of the institutions and constrained patterns of individual behavior through which the state’s characteristics are effected.  We need to raise questions such as these: How do states exercise influence throughout society?  What are the institutional embodiments at lower levels that secure the impact of law, taxation, conscription, contract enforcement, and other central elements of state behavior?[6] If we are concerned about the workings of social identities, then we need to inquire into the concrete social mechanisms through which social identities are reproduced within a local population—and the ways in which these mechanisms and identities may vary over time and place.  And if we are interested in analyzing the causal role that systems of norms play in social behavior, we need to discover some of the specific institutional practices through which individuals come to embrace a given set of norms.[7]

The microfoundations perspective requires that we attempt to discover the pathways by which socially constituted individuals are influenced by distant social circumstances, and how their actions in turn affect distant social outcomes.  There is no action at a distance in social life; instead, individuals have the values that they have, the styles of reasoning, the funds of factual and causal beliefs, etc., as a result of the structured experiences of development that they have undergone as children and adults.  On this perspective, large social facts and structures do indeed exist; but their causal properties are entirely defined by the current states of psychology, norm, and action of the individuals who currently exist.  Systems of norms and bodies of knowledge exist—but only insofar as individuals (and material traces) embody and transmit them.  So when we assert that a given social structure causes a given outcome, we need to be able to specify the local pathways through which individual actors embody this causal process.  That is, we need to be able to provide an account of the causal mechanisms that convey social effects. 

It is evident that methodological localism implies a fairly limited social ontology.  What exists is the socially constructed individual, within a congeries of concrete social relations and institutions.  The socially constructed individual possesses beliefs, norms, opportunities, powers, and capacities.  These features are socially constructed in a perfectly ordinary sense: the individual has acquired his or her beliefs, norms, powers, and desires through social contact with other individuals and institutions, and the powers and constraints that define the domain of choice for the individual are largely constituted by social institutions (property systems, legal systems, educational systems, organizations, and the like).[8]  Inevitably, social organizations at any level are constituted by the individuals who participate in them and whose behavior and ideas are influenced by them; sub-systems and organizations through which the actions of the organization are implemented; and the material traces through which the policies, memories, and acts of decision are imposed on the environment: buildings, archives, roads, etc.  All features of the organization are embodied in the actors and institutional arrangements that carry the organization at a given time.  At each point we are invited to ask the question: what are the social mechanisms through which this institution or organization exerts influence on other organizations and on agents’ behavior? 

Methodological localism has numerous intellectual advantages.  It avoids the reification of the social that is characteristic of holism and structuralism, it abjures social “action at a distance,” and it establishes the intellectual basis for understanding the non-availability of strong laws of nature among social phenomena.  It is possible to offer numerous examples of social research underway today that illustrate the perspective of methodological localism; in fact, almost all rigorous social theorizing and research can be accommodated to the assumptions of methodological localism.[9]

The centrality of causal mechanisms in social explanations

A second major component of this philosophy of social science has to do with the most fundamental assumptions we make about the nature of explanation.  I maintain that social explanation requires discovery of the underlying causal mechanisms that give rise to outcomes of interest.[10]  On this perspective, explanation of a phenomenon or regularity involves identifying the causal processes and causal relations that underlie this phenomenon or regularity, and causal mechanisms are heterogeneous.[11]  Social mechanisms are concrete social processes in which a set of social conditions, constraints, or circumstances combine to bring about a given outcome.[12]  On this approach, social explanation does not take the form of inductive discovery of laws; rather, the generalizations that may be discovered in the course of social science research are subordinate to the more fundamental search for causal mechanisms and pathways in individual outcomes and sets of outcomes.[13]  This approach casts doubt on the search for generalizable theories across numerous societies.  It looks instead for specific causal influence and variation.  The approach emphasizes variety, contingency, and the availability of alternative pathways leading to an outcome, rather than expecting to find a small number of common patterns of development or change.[14]  The contingency of particular pathways derives from several factors, including the local circumstances of individual agency and the across-case variation in the specifics of institutional arrangements—giving rise to significant variation in higher-level processes and outcomes.[15]

This approach places central focus on the idea of a causal mechanism.  To identify a causal relation between two kinds of events or conditions, we need to identify the typical causal mechanisms through which the first kind brings about the second kind.  What, though, is the nature of the social linkages that constitute causal mechanisms among social phenomena?  I argued above for a microfoundational approach to social causation: the causal properties of social entities derive from the structured circumstances of agency of the individuals who make up social entities—institutions, organizations, states, economies, and the like.  So this approach advances a general ontological stance and research strategy: the causal mechanisms that create causal relations among social phenomena are compounded from the structured circumstances of choice and behavior of socially constructed and socially situated agents. And hypotheses about social mechanisms will generally find their grip on the social world through identifying features of agency, features of institutional setting, or both.

The general answers I propose as a theory of social causation flow from the assumption that the “molecule” of social causation is the deliberative agency of the socially situated agent—what is referred to here as “methodological localism”.  This perspective affirms that there is such a thing as social causation.  Social structures and institutions have causal properties and effects that play an important role within historical change (the social causation thesis).  They exercise their causal powers through their influence on individual actions, beliefs, values, and choices (the microfoundations thesis).  Structures are themselves constituted by individuals, so social causation and agency represent an ongoing iterative process (the agency-structure thesis).  There are no causal powers at work within the domain of the social that do not proceed through structured individual agency.  And hypotheses concerning social and historical causation can be rigorously formulated, criticized, and defended using a variety of tools: case-study methodology, comparative study, statistical study, and application of social theory.  (See (Little 1998) for further exposition of these ideas.)

            Is there such a thing as “macro-macro” causation—that is, causal relations between higher-level social structures?  Yes—but only as mediated through “micro-foundations” at the level of structured human agency.  State institutions affect economic variables such as “levels of investment,” “levels of unemployment,” or “infant mortality rates”.  But large institutions only wield causal powers by changing the opportunities, incentives, powers, and constraints that confront agents.  So the hard question is not: “Do institutions and structures exercise autonomous and supra-individual causal primacy?”, since we know that they do not.  Instead, the question is, “To what extent and through what sorts of mechanisms do structures and institutions exert causal influence on individuals and other structures?”

On this approach, the causal capacities of social entities are to be explained in terms of the structuring of preferences, worldviews, information, incentives, and opportunities for agents.  The causal powers or capacities of a social entity inhere in its power to affect individuals’ behavior through incentives, preference-formation, belief-acquisition, or powers and opportunities.  The micro-mechanism that conveys cause to effect is supplied by an account of the actions of agents with specific goals, beliefs, and powers, within a specified set of institutions, rules, and normative constraints. 

Generalizations and predictions

A final large issue for the philosophy of social science is the question of the availability of general laws that might be said to govern social processes and outcomes.  Is the social world law-governed?  Are there social laws, analogous to laws of nature, that give rise to social phenomena?  And is it a central task of the social sciences to discover law-like regularities among social phenomena?  Some social scientists believe that the scientific credentials of their disciplines rise or fall on the strength of the law-like generalizations and regularities that they are able to identify.[16]  The task of social science research is to discover the laws that govern social processes.  I disagree with this view.  The general view I defend is that there are regularities to be found within the social sciences, at a variety of levels of social description; that these regularities derive from features of individual agency in the context of specific social arrangements; and that discovery of such regularities is one important goal of social science research.  But I also maintain that these regularities are substantially weaker than those that obtain among natural phenomena.  Moreover, I maintain that these regularities have a much more limited role within good social explanations than they are often thought to do.  The upshot of these arguments is that we should have little confidence in the projectability of social regularities as a basis for prediction, and must therefore pay more attention to the specifics of the social and individual-level mechanisms that produce the regularities as well as the exceptions.

            Much of the impulse toward emphasizing the explanatory importance of regularities in the social sciences derives from a misleading analogy with the natural sciences.  The successes of the natural sciences have given natural scientists confidence that natural systems operate in accordance with a strict set of laws, that these laws may be given precise mathematical formulation, that they derive from the underlying real properties of constituent physical entities, and, finally, that these facts entail that the future behavior of physical systems is in principle (though perhaps not in practice) predictable.  And this conception of the nature of physical systems in turn gave rise to a paradigm of scientific explanation: to explain a phenomenon is to derive the explanandum from a set of general laws and a description of the initial conditions of the system.  Prediction and explanation go hand in hand, and both depend on the availability of empirically supportable general laws.[17]  However, I do not believe that this is a good way of understanding social phenomena.

            We need always to keep in mind that social phenomena are the consequence of intentional human actions (sometimes in vast numbers).  Some social regularities are the intended consequence of individual action--e.g. the revenue-maximizing property of typical states follows from the interest that government officials have in maximizing the power and income of the state.  Others are the unintended consequence of purposive individual action--e.g. the falling rate of profit is the unintended consequence of profit-maximizing strategies by large numbers of individual capitalists (according to Marx).  But in either case the regularity is strictly derivative from the constitution and powers of the individuals whose actions give rise to the social phenomenon in question.  And individuals are not homogeneous or predictable.

            Consider an example.  Are there laws of the modern state as an institution?  Social scientists have discerned a variety of regularities concerning the state: states maximize revenues (Levi); state crises cause revolutions (Skocpol); states create entrenched bureaucracies; and the like.  These statements represent generalizations across a number of cases, and they are intended to have counterfactual import.  But it is plain that these generalizations are subordinate to our hypotheses about the underlying institutional and individual-level circumstances that give rise to the regularities of state behavior identified.  States conform to regularities because they are the product of a number of agents whose purposes, powers, and opportunities are similar in many different social contexts; this leads to a regularity of state behavior. But there is no intrinsic “inner nature” to all states that would constitute the ontological basis for strong regularities governing state behavior.

            An important consequence of this analysis is that the predictive capacity of the social sciences is very limited.  It is certainly possible to make predictions based on microfoundational reasoning, discovery of causal mechanisms, and the like, and it is reasonable to do so for a variety of purposes.  However, we should not have a great deal of confidence in the resulting predictions.  Causal analysis is conditioned by ceteris paribus clauses, incomplete causal fields, and other problems—with the result that predicted outcomes of a given analysis may well fail to obtain because the conditions are violated.  And crude inductive generalizations—e.g. “recessions during election years are usually followed by change of party in office”—have limited applicability to particular cases because of the complexity and conditionality of the causal circumstances that underlie them.  So I conclude that the search for lawlike generalizations that permit confident predictions is not one of the most central tasks for the social sciences.

            So I argue for a position that is neither positivist nor anti-positivist; instead, call it post-positivist.  Against the main line of positivist philosophy of science, I dispute the idea that law-like generalizations are fundamental to successful scientific explanation.  But against current anti-positivist criticisms among some social scientists, I argue for causal realism in social explanation: causal explanation is at the core of much social research, and causal hypotheses depend on appropriate standards of empirical confirmation for their acceptability.  Finally, successful causal analysis permits us to arrive at statements of social regularities--this time, however, based on an understanding of the underlying processes that give rise to them.  And this understanding permits us to assess the limits and conditions of the regularities we affirm, and the likelihood of failure of these regularities in various social circumstances.

            This leads to a fairly clear conclusion.  Social regularities emerge rather than govern.  The governing regularities are regularities of individual agency: the principles of rational choice theory or the findings of social psychology.  Social regularities are strictly consequent, not governing.  They obtain because of the lower-level regularities; they have no independent force (unlike a common interpretation of the force of the laws of gravitation).  Descriptive regularities among social phenomena can be discovered.  But these are distinctly phenomenal laws rather than governing regularities; they have little explanatory import; and they are not particularly reliable as a basis for prediction.  Better on both counts is a theory of the underlying causal mechanisms that produce them.  These theories in turn need to be supported empirically.  We can be most confident in statements of lawlike regularities when we have an account of the mechanisms that underlie them.


            I believe that the social sciences need to be framed out of consideration of a better understanding of the nature of the social—a better social ontology.  The social world is not a system of law-governed processes; it is instead a mix of different sorts of institutions, forms of human behavior, natural and environmental constraints, and contingent events.  The entities that make up the social world at a given time and place have no particular ontological stability; they do not fall into “natural kinds”; and there is no reason to expect deep similarity across a number of ostensibly similar institutions – states, for example, or labor unions.  So the rule for the social world is—heterogeneity, contingency, and plasticity.  And the metaphysics associated with our thinking about the natural world—laws of nature; common, unchanging structures; and predictable processes of change—do not provide appropriate metaphors for our understandings and expectations of the social world; nor do they suggest the right kinds of social science theories and constructs.

            Instead of naturalism, I advocate for an approach to social science theorizing that could be described as post-positivist.  It recognizes that there is a degree of pattern in social life—but emphasizes that these patterns fall far short of the regularities associated with laws of nature.  It emphasizes contingency of social processes and outcomes.   It insists upon the importance and legitimacy of eclectic use of social theory: the processes are heterogeneous, and therefore it is appropriate to appeal to different types of social theories as we explain social processes.  It emphasizes the importance of path-dependence in social outcomes.  It suggests that the most valid scientific statements in the social sciences have to do with the discovery of concrete social-causal mechanisms, through which some types of social outcomes come about.  And finally, it highlights what I call “methodological localism”: the insight that the foundation of social action and outcome is the local, socially-located and socially constructed individual person.  The individual is socially constructed, in that her modes of behavior, thought, and reasoning are created through a specific set of prior social interactions.  And her actions are socially situated, in the sense that they are responsive to the institutional setting in which she chooses to act.  Purposive individuals, embodied with powers and constraints, pursue their goals in specific institutional settings; and regularities of social outcome often result.

            My most central conclusion, however, is ontological.  We ought not think of the social world as a system of phenomena in which we can expect to find a strong underlying order.  Instead, social phenomena are highly diverse, subject to many different and cross-cutting forms of causation.  So the result is that the very strongest regularities that will be ever be discerned will remain the exception-laden phenomenal regularities described here and the highly qualified predictions of regularities that derive from structure-agent analyses.  There is no more fundamental description of the social world in which strong governing regularities drive events and processes.

            It is highly relevant that the examples discussed above of innovative work on the most foundational questions in the social sciences today are very consistent with the broad thrust of this philosophy of social science.  The emphasis on discovering concrete social causal mechanisms; the insistence on the contingency and variability of social outcomes; the emphasis on the path-dependent character of many social outcomes; the recognition of the centrality of socially situated actors as the substance of social relationships; the recognition of the pliability and plasticity of important social institutions and structures—all of these provide intellectual support for the main thrusts of the philosophy of social science offered here.

            These points are highly relevant to the theme of the future of Chinese social science. If Chinese social scientists are captivated by the scientific prestige of positivism and quantitative social science, they will be led to social science research that looks quite different from what would result from a view that emphasizes contingency and causal mechanisms.  And if there are strong, engaging examples of other ways of conducting social research that can come into broad exposure in Chinese social science—then there is a greater likelihood for the emergence of a genuinely innovative and imaginative approach to the problem of social knowledge for China.



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[1] An earlier version of this paper was presented to faculty and graduate students at Tsinghua University (Beijing) and Northwest University (Xi’an).  These were delightful opportunities for intellectual exchange, and the discussions displayed a surprising level of agreement by Chinese graduate students concerning the need for a rethinking of the foundations of sociology for China.  I am grateful to my hosts, Professors Li Bozhong and Liu Beicheng in the Department of History at Tsinghua University, and Professor Chen Feng in the Department of History and Cultural Heritage Protection at Northwest University.

[2] Extensive, insightful discussion of the methods and problems of CHS are found in (Mahoney and Rueschemeyer 2003), (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996), and (Adams, Clemens, and Orloff 2005).

[3] “Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure human interaction. They are made up of formal constraints (for example, rules, laws, constitutions), informal constraints (for example, norms of behavior, conventions, self-imposed codes of conduct), and their enforcement characteristics. Together they define the incentive structure of societies and, specifically, economies” ((North 1998) : 247)).

[4] See (Brinton and Nee 1998), (North 1990), (Ensminger 1992), and (Knight 1992) for recent expositions of the new institutionalism in the social sciences.

[5] We may refer to explanations of this type as “aggregative explanations.”  An aggregative explanation is one that provides an account of a social mechanism that conveys multiple individual patterns of activity and demonstrates the collective or macro-level consequence of these actions. 

Thomas Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior (Schelling 1978) provides a developed treatment and numerous examples of this model of social explanation.

[6] An excellent recent example of historical analysis of Chinese local politics illustrates the value of this microfoundational approach: “But the villages were not totally out of the government’s reach; nor was the subcounty administration necessarily chaotic, inefficient, and open to malfeasance.  In fact, during most of the imperial times, the state was able to extract enough taxes to meet its normal needs and maintain social order in most of the country.  What made this possible was a wide variety of informal institutions in local communities that grew out of the interaction between government demands and local initiatives to carry out day-to-day governmental functions” ((Li 2005) : 1).

[7] “Explanations of social norms must do more than merely acknowledge the constraining effects of normative rules on social action.  Such explanations must address the process that culminates in the establishment of one of these rules as the common norm in a community.  One of the keys to the establishment of a new norm is the ability of those who seek to change norms to enforce compliance with the new norm” ((Knight and Ensminger 1998) : 105).

[8] (Hacking 1999) offers a critique of misuses of the concept of social construction.  This use is not vulnerable to his criticisms, however.

[9] Examples of theories and analyses contained in current comparative and historical social science research may be found in (McDonald 1996) and  (Mahoney and Rueschemeyer 2003).  Many of these examples illustrate the fecundity of the approach to social analysis that emphasizes the “socially constructed individual within a concrete set of social relations” as the molecule of social action.  See also (Sewell 2005) for a treatment of historical change that is compatible with this approach.

[10] (Little 1991, 1998).  Important recent exponents of the centrality of causal mechanisms in social explanation include (Hedström and Swedberg 1998), (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001), and (George and Bennett 2005).  George and Bennett offer careful analytical treatment of how the causal mechanisms approach can be developed into specific research strategies in the social and historical sciences.  Volume 34, numbers 2 and 3 of Philosophy of the Social Sciences (2004) contains a handful of articles devoted to the logic of social causal mechanisms, focused on the writings of Mario Bunge.  (Steel 2004) provides a philosophically rigorous assessment of several features of the mechanisms approach and directs particular attention to the claim that discovery of mechanisms is necessary for successful causal explanation.  One specific interpretation of the idea of a social mechanism is formulated by Tyler Cowen: “I interpret social mechanisms … as rational-choice accounts of how a specified combination of preferences and constraints can give rise to more complex social outcomes” ((Cowen 1998) : 125).  The account offered here is not limited to rational choice mechanisms, however.

[11] Other philosophers of science have argued for a similar position in the past decade.  See particularly Salmon (1984) and Cartwright (1983, 1989).

[12] The recent literature on causal mechanisms provides a number of related definitions: “We define causal mechanisms as ultimately unobservable physical, social, or psychological processes through which agents with causal capacities operate, but only in specific contexts or conditions, to transfer energy, information, or matter to other entities” (George and Bennett 2005).  “Mechanisms are a delimited class of events that alter relations among specified stets of elements in identical or closely similar ways over a variety of situations” ((McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001) : 24).  “Mechanisms … are analytical constructs that provide hypothetical links between observable events” ((Hedström and Swedberg 1998) : 13). 

[13] Authors who have urged the centrality of causal mechanisms or powers for social explanation include (Sørensen 2001), (Harré and Secord 1972), (Varela and Harre 1996), (Cartwright 1983), (Cartwright 1989), (Salmon 1984), and (Dessler 1991).  In their important volume devoted to this topic, Hedström and Swedberg write, “The main message of this book is that the advancement of social theory calls for an analytical approach that systematically seeks to explicate the social mechanisms that generate and explain observed associations between events” ((Hedström and Swedberg 1998) : 1).  Jack Goldstone expresses this method in his analysis of the explanation of revolutions: “In making my argument … that population growth in agrarian bureaucracies led to revolution, I did not proceed by showing that in a large sample of such states there was a statistically significant relationship between population growth and revolution….  Rather, I sought to trace out and document the links in the causal chain connecting population growth to revolutionary conflict” (Goldstone 2003) : 48).

[14] An important expression of this approach to social and historical explanation is offered by Charles Tilly: “Analysts of large-scale political processes frequently invoke invariant models that feature self-contained and self-motivating social units.  Few actual political processes conform to such models.  Revolutions provide an important example of such reasoning and of its pitfalls.  Better models rest on plausible ontologies, specify fields of variation for the phenomena in question, reconstruct causal sequences, and concentrate explanation on links within those sequences” (Tilly 1995) : 1594).

[15] McAdam et al describe their approach to the study of social contention in these terms: “We employ mechanisms and processes as our workhorses of explanation, episodes as our workhorses of description.  We therefore make a bet on how the social world works: that big structures and sequences never repeat themselves, but result from differing combinations and sequences of mechanisms with very general scope.  Even within a single episode, we will find multiform, changing, and self-constructing actors, identities, forms of action and interaction” ((McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001) : 30).

[16] Social scientists who have taken this view include Huntington (1968); Adelman and Morris (1967); King et al; and Zuckerman (1991).  Philosophers supporting the idea that lawlike generalizations must undergird social explanations include Hempel  (1942), Thomas (1979), M. Salmon (1989), Kincaid (1990), and McIntyre (1991).

[17] Note, however, the powerful arguments against this general view put forward by Nancy Cartwright in How the Laws of Physics Lie (1983).

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