Analytical Sociology Peter Hedstro¨m, Institute for Futures Studies, Stockholm, Sweden Petri Ylikoski, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland Ó 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Abstract The core idea of analytical sociology is the importance of mechanism-based understanding of social processes. Sociological theories should provide clear and precise accounts of the social mechanisms by which the intentional activities of social agents bring about social phenomena. Theories about social mechanisms can be characterized as theories of middle range as they provide clear, precise, and simple explanations for speciﬁed aspects of range of different phenomena, without pretense of being able to explain all social phenomena. Intentional action plays an important role in social mechanisms, but the analytical sociology perspective suggests that our account of human agency should be based on ﬁndings and theories of psychological and cognitive sciences rather than on some preconceived ideas about human motivation or cognitive processing. Much of the development of mechanism-based knowledge consists of developing how-possibly explanation schemes. Agent-based computer simulations can be very useful for this kind of endeavor.
Analytical sociology is a reform movement within sociology and social theory. Its identity is not based on a common object of study, a shared historical tradition in sociological theory, or an empirical research method. Rather, it is founded on the idea that the social sciences should do more than describe and classify social processes. According to its supporters, the primary epistemic aim of the social sciences should be causal explanation of social phenomena. Sociological theory should aim to develop clear and precise accounts of the social mechanisms by which the intentional activities of social agents bring about social phenomena (Hedström, 2005; Manzo, 2010). The emphasis on causal explanation sets analytical sociology apart from the interpretive – cultural studies-inﬂuenced – sociology that either shuns any explanatory ambitions or regards social scientiﬁc explanations as noncausal and noncontinuous with the natural sciences. For analytical sociology, the same causal and explanatory ideals that motivate natural sciences should also drive the social sciences. The natural sciences are a source of occasional inspiration and evidential support, rather than an enemy. The emphasis on mechanism-based explanation separates analytical sociology from the quantitatively oriented and variable-based sociology that prefers to stay very close to empirical data and provides explanations mostly on an ad hoc basis. Analytical sociologists do not oppose the use of quantitative data but they argue that social research should be more theory driven and that causal claims should be supported by a theoretical understanding of the causal mechanisms underlying the observed statistical regularities. Finally, the emphasis on precision and clarity and on the importance of tightly linking theory and empirical research contrasts analytical sociology with mainstream social theory. It advocates the idea that sociologists should focus on theories of middle range that can be tested and elaborated via empirical research. The historical roots of analytical sociology can be traced back to the works of late nineteenth and early twentieth century sociologists such as Max Weber and Alexis de Tocqueville, and to prominent mid-twentieth century sociologists such as the early Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton. Among
contemporary social scientists, Jon Elster, Raymond Boudon, Thomas Schelling, and James Coleman have profoundly inﬂuenced the analytical approach. Although they are rather different types of scholars, they complement each other in important ways, and they all share a commitment to precise, abstract, and action-based explanations. The current generation of analytical sociologists is building upon the foundations laid by these authors aiming to develop an analytical middle-range approach to sociological theory that avoids the somewhat empiricist and eclectic tendencies of Merton’s original middle-range approach. Examples of the recent work in this tradition can be found in anthologies edited by Hedström and Swedberg (1998), Hedström and Bearman (2009), Demeulenaere (2011), and in a monograph by Hedström (2005).
Analytical Realism The philosophy underlying analytical sociology could be characterized as realistic in a number of respects. First, in contrast to empiricist and instrumentalist views, it regards explanation as the principal epistemic aim of science. Sociological theories are not merely intellectual constructions that can be used for the purposes of prediction and control of social events. The primary goal is to represent causal processes that generate the observable phenomena. For the same reason, sociological theories that merely aim to classify social processes and institutions are regarded as misdirected and lacking proper ambition. The accurate description of social phenomena is a very important part of the social sciences, but it should not be the only one. Second, in contrast to empiricist and behaviorist views, it does not regard the use of theoretical concepts to be illegitimate or suspicious. As in the natural sciences, social scientists can employ theories that refer to unobservable entities and processes. There is no need to reduce them to observable variables. According to analytical sociologists, it is not possible to represent general causal knowledge in the social sciences as
International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 1
invariant empirical regularities. Rather, the social scientiﬁc knowledge is based on understanding the causal mechanisms underlying observable regularities. In the same spirit, analytical sociologists employ the conceptual scheme of intentional psychology that refers to unobservable psychological states like beliefs and desires. Furthermore, intentional explanations are regarded as causal explanations. Third, contrary to the instrumentalist attitude common among many rational choice theorists, especially economists, analytical sociologists regard explanation as factive. It is not enough that the theory or model ‘saves the phenomena’; it should represent the essential features of the actual causal structure that produces the observed phenomena. Thus, analytical sociology does not accept the ‘as if’ attitude displayed by many economists; those theoretical assumptions that have a central explanatory role should be both empirically valid and compatible with the results of other scientiﬁc ﬁelds. Fourth, analytical sociology embodies the realistic spirit by not letting the considerations of elegance, simplicity, or tractability to override the aim of accurately describing the real causal mechanisms producing the observable phenomena. Contrary to a widespread practice among mathematically oriented economists and rational choice sociologists, analytical sociologists do not accept the instrumentalist attitude according to which assumptions are instruments that can be freely tinkered with until one arrives at simple and elegant models. Parsimonious models with clear analytical solutions deserve praise only if they are not achieved at the cost of implausible theoretical assumptions. Rather than seeking excessively precise ﬁctions, social scientists should aim for theoretical assumptions known to be at least roughly correct about the phenomenon that they are analyzing. Such a modest and realist strategy characterizes some of the best theoretical work in sociology. Robert K. Merton’s work on self-fulﬁlling prophecies (Merton, 1968) provides a good example. At the core of this elegant and highly inﬂuential piece of work is the assumption that the actions of others inﬂuence individuals’ beliefs and subsequent actions. However, Merton never speciﬁed any precise model of the decision calculus for the individuals. Although such model would be possible, it would not add any insights to those found in Merton’s analysis. Formalization often is required for explaining social phenomena but, if the model does not properly describe action principles observed in the real world, it is of little explanatory use. It is more advisable to base the analysis on clear and empirically plausible assumptions about the actions and interactions of individuals, as Merton did, and then on this basis develop theoretical models that allow us to get a handle on the social outcomes that the actors are likely to bring about. Such analyses either generate tendency statements about patterns likely to be observed or suggest plausible processes through which the phenomena to be explained could have been brought about. More precision might be desirable, but not excessive precision that simply amounts to precisely stating and assuming to be true what is known to be untrue. Like most economists, but unlike some sociologists, analytical sociologists regard the method of isolation and abstraction as an indispensable part of theory development: empirical reality is complex and it is futile to try to capture it as
a whole. Building a complex model of a complex phenomenon does not provide much explanatory insight. For this reason, the strategy of intentional simpliﬁcation is preferable: the scientist tries to capture the central features of the phenomenon ﬁrst. The achievement of understanding is only possible by studying quite simpliﬁed but realistic theoretical models and gradually increasing the complexity of these models. The employment of this research strategy does not commit the scientist to the denial of the complexity of social life. To the contrary, the strategy of model building intends to avoid the hubris associated with one sweep attempt to capture complexity. According to analytical sociology, an adequate sociological theory is abstract, realistic, and precise, and it seeks to explain speciﬁc social phenomena on the basis of explicitly formulated theories of action and interaction.
Social Mechanisms The core idea of analytical sociology is that sociological theory explains by specifying causal mechanisms that bring about social phenomena. The speciﬁcally social causal mechanisms are called social mechanisms (Hedström and Ylikoski, 2010). Analytical sociologists are dissatisﬁed with the traditional covering-law account of explanation that has a large number of philosophical problems and embarrassing counterexamples. It has also provided justiﬁcation for the use of ‘black box’ explanations in the social sciences as it does not require that the mechanism linking explanans and explanandum be speciﬁed in order for an acceptable explanation to be at hand. This omission has given leeway for sloppy scholarship. In contrast to this fundamentally empiricist account of explanation, analytical sociologists require that explanations should articulate causal mechanisms rather than simply subsume phenomena under empirical generalizations (Hedström and Ylikoski, 2010). Analytical sociology draws from recent debates about the importance of mechanism-based explanation in the social sciences and philosophy of science (Darden, 2006; Craver, 2007; Hedström and Ylikoski, 2010). Because the entities and processes studied by different sciences are quite heterogeneous, it is difﬁcult to propose a mechanism deﬁnition that would both be informative and cover all examples of mechanisms. Some disciplines, such as cell biology (Bechtel, 2006) and the neurosciences (Craver, 2007), study highly integrated systems, whereas others, such as evolutionary biology and the social sciences, study more dispersed phenomena. For this reason, a characterization of a mechanism that applies to one ﬁeld might not be informative when applied to another. However, some general ideas are shared by most accepted mechanism deﬁnitions (Hedström and Ylikoski, 2010). First, a mechanism is identiﬁed by the kind of effect or phenomenon it produces. A mechanism is always a mechanism for something (Darden, 2006). Second, a mechanism is an irreducibly causal notion. It refers to the entities of a causal process that produces the effect of interest. Third, the mechanism has a structure. When a mechanismbased explanation opens the black box, it discloses this structure. It turns the black box into a transparent box and makes visible how the participating entities and their properties, activities, and relations produce the effect of interest. Fourth,
mechanisms form a hierarchy. While a mechanism at one level presupposes or takes for granted the existence of certain entities with characteristic properties and activities, it is expected that there are lower level mechanisms that explain them (Craver, 2007). It is an inherent feature of the mechanism view that the entities and mechanisms of various sciences are ultimately related to each other. Although the explanatory entities and mechanisms employed by one science always bottom out somewhere (Darden, 2006) and are therefore taken as fundamental, their fundamental status is relative because they are mechanistically explainable by other ﬁelds of science. A mechanism-based explanation describes the causal process selectively. It does not aim at an exhaustive account of all details but seeks to capture the crucial elements of the process by abstracting away the irrelevant details. The relevance of entities, their properties, and their interactions is determined by their ability to make a relevant difference to the outcome of interest. If the presence of an entity or of changes in its properties or activities truly does not make any difference to the effect to be explained, it can be ignored. This counterfactual criterion of relevance implies that mechanism-based explanations involve counterfactual reasoning about possible changes and their consequences (Ylikoski, 2011). Roughly, mechanism-based explanations have two kinds of explananda. First, they might address particular empirical facts. In such cases, the description of the mechanism is often a modiﬁed adaptation and combination of more general mechanism schemes. Second, they might address stylized facts. Although the explanation of particular empirical facts is the ultimate goal of mechanism-based theory development, most of the time theorists are addressing highly stylized theoretical explananda that do not necessarily have close resemblance to any particular empirical fact. Consider, for example, the smallworld problem of Milgram (1967). Watts and Strogatz (1998) identiﬁed some salient and abstract features of the small-world problem – average path length and local clustering – and developed a model that could explain them. The explanation of simpliﬁed and heavily idealized facts such as those identiﬁed by Watts and Strogatz results in mechanism schemes with wide application domains. By establishing how stylized facts can in principle be explained, theorists contribute to the toolbox of semigeneral mechanisms. Apart from providing explanatory understanding as to why the dependency holds, the information about the causal mechanisms also provides justiﬁcation for causal claims. Distinguishing between real causal claims and spurious statistical associations is a major challenge in the social sciences. The real causal dependences are transmitted via causal processes and the search for causal mechanisms directs the attention to these processes. The idea of causal mechanisms is related to broader ideas about the growth and organization of scientiﬁc knowledge. In mechanism-based accounts, scientiﬁc knowledge is embedded in mechanism schemes and not in empirical generalizations as in more traditional empiricist accounts. According to this view, scientiﬁc knowledge expands by adding items to or improving upon items already present in the toolbox of possible causal mechanisms. Understanding accumulates as the knowledge of mechanisms gets more detailed and the number of known mechanisms increases. This vision of knowledge does not
require that mechanisms be ultimately organized into a grand uniﬁed theory. It is only required that the accounts of mechanisms provided by different disciplines be mutually compatible and that they form an integrated web in which mechanisms at lower levels of organization explain the mechanisms that higher level disciplines take for granted. For example, psychology explains (and corrects) the assumptions that social scientists make about human cognitive processes. The mechanism idea is important in a highly specialized and fragmented discipline like sociology. Although empirical data, research methods, and substantial theories differ from one subﬁeld of sociology to another, the general ideas about possible causal mechanisms are something these ﬁelds could share and thereby beneﬁt from each other’s work. In this vision, sociological theory provides a set of explanatory tools that can be employed and adapted to particular situations and explanatory tasks. The mechanisms are (semi) general in the sense that most of them are not limited to any particular application. For example, the same type of mechanism can be used for (partially) explaining residential segregation (Bruch and Mare, 2006) and success in cultural markets (Salganik and Watts, 2009).
Theories of Middle Range This mechanism-based vision of knowledge has much in common with Robert K. Merton’s idea of sociological theories of the middle range (Merton, 1968). A theory of middle range is a clear, precise, and simple type of theory that can be used for partially explaining a range of different phenomena, but that makes no pretense of being able to explain all social phenomena, and that is not founded upon any form of extreme reductionism in terms of its explanans. Middle-range theories isolate a few explanatory factors that explain important but delimited aspects of the outcomes to be explained (Hedström and Udéhn, 2009). Merton’s account of self-fulﬁlling prophesies provides a clear example of a social mechanism. The basic idea behind the theory of the self-fulﬁlling prophecy is what Merton referred to as the Thomas theorem: “If men deﬁne situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Merton, 1968: p. 475). Merton focused on the process through which an initially false belief evokes behavior that eventually makes the false belief come true. His example was a run on a bank. Once a rumor of insolvency gets started, some depositors are likely to withdraw their savings, acting on the principle that it is better to be safe than sorry. These withdrawals strengthen others’ beliefs that the bank is in ﬁnancial difﬁculties, partly because the withdrawals may actually hurt the ﬁnancial standing of the bank, but more importantly because the act of withdrawal in itself signals to others that something might be wrong with the bank. This causes even more withdrawals, which further strengthens the belief, and so on. By this mechanism, even an initially sound bank may go bankrupt if enough depositors withdraw their money in the (initially) false belief that the bank is insolvent. The theory of the self-fulﬁlling prophecy is a good example of a social mechanism as (1) it refers to a dynamic process; (2) the collective outcome is unintended by the individuals who
bring it about; (3) the process is driven by social interactions between individuals; and (4) the process is endogenous and self-reinforcing. The mechanism is in principle quite general and it can be used to explain a range of different types of phenomena (Biggs, 2009).
Social Explananda and Individual Action The main focus of analytical sociology is on social (as distinct from psychological) explananda that are not deﬁnable by reference to any single member of the collectivity. Important examples of such properties include (Hedström, 2005) l
typical actions, beliefs, or desires among the members of a collectivity; l distributions and aggregate patterns such as spatial distributions and inequalities; l topologies of networks that describe relationships between members of a collectivity; and l informal rules or social norms that constrain the actions of the members of a collectivity. A key insight of analytical sociology is that explanations that directly relate macrovariables to each other are unsatisfactory. They do not specify the causal mechanisms by which the changes in one macrovariable brings about changes in another. Deeper explanatory understanding requires opening up the black box and ﬁnding the causal mechanisms that have generated the macrolevel pattern. Rather than analyzing relationships between phenomena exclusively on the macrolevel, one should identify the situational mechanisms by which social structures constrain individuals’ action and cultural environments shape their desires and beliefs, describe the action formation mechanisms according to which individuals choose how to act, and specify the transformational mechanisms by which individuals, through their actions and interactions, generate various intended and unintended social outcomes. Only by understanding the whole chain of situational, action-formation, and transformational mechanisms, have we made sense of the observed macrolevel relationship (Coleman, 1990; Hedström and Swedberg, 1998). This emphasis on detailing mechanisms implies that explanations should refer to individuals, their relationships, and their actions (in addition to whatever other social properties are relevant for explaining the causes and consequences of their actions). It is important to recognize that the basic building blocks of social explanations are not mutually independent actions performed by atomistic individuals, however. Rather, individuals’ actions typically are oriented toward others, and their relations to others therefore are central when it comes to explaining why they do and what they do. In addition, social relations are central for explaining why, acting as they do, individuals bring about the social outcomes they do. Consider, as an example, the case of vacancy chains as analyzed by White (1970). A retirement, motivated perhaps by a desire for a more leisurely life, creates an opportunity for others, that is, a job vacancy waiting to be ﬁlled by a new occupant. The vacancy generated by the retirement is ﬁlled by another individual whose reason for taking the job, perhaps, is to attain more status, a higher salary, or just a change in venue,
but this creates another vacancy in this person’s old job, and in this way vacancy chains create social interdependencies that are important for explaining mobility. Individuals’ desires – for retirement, promotion, status, or change in venue – motivate the system. Without such orientations, people may not move. But explanatory understanding is only achieved by recognizing that actions take place in relational structures that in this case channel mobility opportunities and thereby explain why we observe what we observe (Hedström and Bearman, 2009b). This line of reasoning does not imply commitment to the doctrine of methodological individualism (Ylikoski, 2012). Most formulations of methodological individualism are much stronger than the mechanism-based perspective requires (Udéhn, 2001). Some form of structural individualism (Coleman, 1990; Hedström, 2005) is sufﬁcient for the purposes of mechanism-based explanations of social phenomena. Structural individualism is a doctrine according to which all social facts, their structure and change, are in principle explicable in terms of individuals, their properties, actions, and relations to one another. Structural individualism differs from most formulations of methodological individualism by emphasizing the explanatory importance of relations and relational structures. It does not require that all explanatory facts are facts about individual agents in the strict sense: facts about topologies of social networks; about distributions of beliefs, resources, or opportunities; and about institutional or informal rules and norms can have a signiﬁcant role in mechanism-based explanations. Intentional action plays an important role in social mechanisms, but the idea of a social mechanism in itself does not tell us how to conceptualize human action. Rather than relying on some preconceived ideas about human motivation or cognitive processing, analytical sociology perspective suggests that our account of human agency should be based on ﬁndings and theories of psychological and cognitive sciences. Analytical sociology’s focus on social, rather than psychological, mechanisms has some methodological implications, however. Understanding of complex phenomena is only possible in a piecemeal way, so sociologists must abstract away from many details of human mental life. Only those aspects of cognition that are relevant for the explanatory task at hand should be included in the explanation, and the explanatory task thus determines how rich the psychological assumptions must be. So although the mechanism-based approach emphasizes the importance of action in the explanation of social phenomena, it does not subscribe to an axiomatic vision according to which a speciﬁc action theory should be used for all purposes. As different theories of action emphasize different aspects of human action, the choice between them should be made on methodological grounds. In some modeling contexts, rational choice theory is a natural choice, while in contexts where the emphasis is on the habitual dimensions of human actions, analytical sociologist might choose to employ some psychological dual-process theory (Wilson, 2002). However, for many social scientiﬁc purposes, a relatively simple desire– belief–opportunity model will be sufﬁcient (Hedström, 2005). This simple theory provides a building block for accounts of social mechanisms of interaction through which
the actions of some actors may come to inﬂuence the beliefs, desires, opportunities, and actions of others. Historically, analytical sociology has some of its roots in the tradition of rational choice sociology. However, current analytical sociology does not have any special commitment to the assumptions of rational choice theory. There is nothing in the idea of a mechanism-based explanation that would require the explanation to be articulated in terms of rational choice theory. On the contrary, the requirement that mechanism-based explanations cite actual causes of the phenomenon to be explained often makes rational choice explanations unacceptable, as they are built on implausible psychological and sociological assumptions. Empirically false assumptions about human motivation, cognitive processes, access to information, or social relations cannot bear the explanatory burden in a mechanism-based explanation. In order for unrealistic psychological and social assumptions to be acceptable, they must be simplifying idealizations that help the modeling but do not affect the central explanatory relationships in any crucial manner. This rarely is the case in rational choice theory. For this reason, it is a mistake to take analytical sociology as rebranded rational choice sociology. Rather than relying on some preconceived ideas about human motivation or cognitive processing, the mechanism-based perspective suggests that our account of human agency should be based on ﬁndings and theories of psychological and cognitive sciences.
Agent-Based Modeling A recent development in analytical sociology has been the use of agent-based computer simulations (Hedström, 2005; Macy and Flache, 2009; Squazzoni, 2012). Much of the development of mechanism-based knowledge consists of developing how-possibly explanation schemes. These schemes are not intended to explain any particular empirical facts directly, but to provide a general understanding of how things could work. Given the limitations of experimental methods and the complexity of social phenomena, computer simulations are important for this kind of endeavor. Computer simulations allow systematic exploration of consequences of modeling assumptions and make it possible to model much more complex phenomena than was possible earlier. The promise of agent-based simulation is based on the fact that the dynamics observed at the social level typically are complex and hard to understand, but often it is possible to describe the basic cogs and wheels of these social processes with rather simple models. Macrolevel outcomes and relationships tell us very little about why we observe the macrolevel outcomes and the relationships we observe. Only by explicitly considering the microlevel actions and relations and how they unfold over time can macrolevel outcomes be explained. This basic insight is at the heart of analytical sociology: to understand collective dynamics, we must study the collectivity as a whole, but we must not study it as a collective entity. One important feature of agent-based simulations is that they do not impose any a priori constraints on the mechanisms assumed to be operating. Unlike rational choice theory, agentbased modeling is not based on any speciﬁc theory of action or
interaction. It is a methodology for deriving the social outcomes that groups of interacting actors are likely to generate, whatever the action logics or interaction structures may be. Agent-based simulations should not only be regarded as a tool for theoretical exploration, however. Empirically calibrated agent-based models make it possible to integrate theoretical ideas with the results of empirical research (e.g., Bruch and Mare, 2006).
Conclusion Mechanism talk is becoming increasingly popular in the social sciences. Many sociologists use the word ‘mechanism’ in a loose sense without any commitment to the type of mechanism-based explanatory strategy focused upon here. Underlying the mechanism-based approach is a commitment to realism: the explanations should reﬂect the causal processes responsible for the phenomenon to be explained. This requires stringency in theoretical practice and imagination in the design of empirical research. One of the basic premises of analytical sociology is that proper understanding of collective processes requires that the researchers pay attention to the entities that mechanisms are made of (the agents, their properties, actions, and relations) rather than treating them as opaque entities. This dogma of analytical sociology means that theoretical models as well as empirical research must focus on actions and relations and how they unfold over time. This basic principle has far-reaching consequences for the type of empirical data that needs to be used as well as for the type of theoretical work that is needed. As far as data and empirical research are concerned, longitudinal data with relational information are essential, given that the basic entities of social mechanisms are actors, their actions, and relations. Similarly, the mechanism approach has considerable consequences for how theoretical work ought to be conducted: rigorous theorizing is needed that explicitly considers the microlevel mechanisms at work and the dynamic processes that they give rise to.
See also: Explanation: Conceptions in the Social Sciences; Mechanism-Based Causal Analysis; Methodological Individualism in Sociology; Rational Choice Theory in Sociology; Social Simulation: Computational Models; Sociological Theory.
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