I’m not a huge fan of the language of mechanisms. In a blog post today, John Levi Martin found just the words I’d been searching for, and now I’m going to run out and buy his newish book, The Explanation of Social Action. JLM’s post comes as a response to Dan Little’s critique of the book (critique here). JLM and Little disagree about whether or not we should engage in causal analysis at a supra-individual level, “‘Why?’ questions [that] involve understanding the workings of institutions and structures.” In his response, JLM unpacks his own problem with so-called causal mechanisms:
The problems with our desperate belief in causation even where it adds nothing but confusion is best seen in the line of work emphasized by Little on causal “mechanisms.” I did not devote any of ESA to a critique of these ideas in part because I believed that my general points were best made without “going negative,” because I believed that Tilly’s approach to explanation was an improvement over most others, and because of my great admiration for and gratitude to Charles Tilly. This opened space for confusion.
Tilly identifies recurring patterns of social action and calls these “mechanisms” because they can be envisaged as discrete parts of a clockwork that, assembled in a certain way, will produce a certain result. In itself, this is a laudable endeavor; the word “mechanism” to describe the pattern nicely highlights the modular nature of these explanatory nuggets, at the cost of some misleading imagery. But to call these accounts “causal” and to argue that this demonstrates the stability of TPC seems very puzzling. For the mechanisms themselves are nothing other than patterns of action. They do not explain the action, they are it.
Although I am not sure yet if I agree with JLM’s approach (not yet having read the book!), I find his summary and critique of the mechanisms approach pitch-perfect. I highly recommend Little’s summary and critique of JLM’s book, and the response.