Book review in AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY 113: 258-260, 2007
Dissecting the Social: On the Principles of analytical Sociology. By Peter Hedström. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. x+ 177. $70.00 (cloth); $27.99 (paper).
This book, by a Swedish sociologist who recently moved to Oxford, is an enjoyable and important addition to the meager library of serious philosophy of social science. It gives pleasure to read because it is clearly conceived and elegantly written, and because–contrary to the philosophical tradition– it is chock full of examples of current research. And Hedström’s book is important because it emphasizes the thesis that to explain facts of a type is to exhibit or hypothesize the mechanisms that brings them about.
Though not novel in the natural sciences, the mechanism-based explanatory strategy is alien to most social scientists as well as to practically all philosophers. Besides, contrary to the hermeneutic, “reflexive”, rhetorical, narrativist, “critical theory”, and similar fashions, Hedström’s philosophy is ratioanalist (rather than postmodern) and realist (rather than subjectivist or instrumentalist). Hence his intellectual sobriety, his interest in explanation, and his contempt for empty formulas such as Pierre Bourdieu’s characterization of habiti as “systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures.”
Hedström assumes that individual action is the root of the social, yet the latter possesses “collective properties that are not definable by reference to any single member of the collectivity” (p. 5). Examples: division of labor, social stratification, form of government. The sociologist is expected to describe individual actions and the resulting collective results, but–as James Coleman emphasized–he is also expected to explain how they emerge from the microsocial level. To this end, statistical analysis, though necessary, is not enough. For instance, we need to know why the Lorentz curve of wealth distribution has the shape it has: what are the mechanisms of wealth concentration.
Nor can we be satisfied with the subsumption of particulars under laws, à la Mill, Popper and Hempel. Thus, it is true that the British empire collapsed because it was en empire, and all empires end up in collapse. But this–an instance of the “covering law explanation”–does not tell us why the British empire had to collapse. To explain why it collapsed the way and at the time it did, we need to know that for half a century its industry had been lagging behind the industries of other powers; that its colonies caused more expense than revenue; that two world wars had debilitated its economy, class structure, and culture; and that the new generation of Brits, disenchanted with Queen and country, preferred enjoying themselves at home or in the Med, to risking their skin for a lump of rubber or a sack of tea leaves.
Having praised Hedström book, allow me to note two of its flaws. The first is the definition of a social mechanism as “a constellation of entities and activities that are linked to one another in such a way that they bring about a particular type of outcome.” (p. 11). There are several problems with this definition. One is that it includes the word ‘constellation’, which is metaphorical rather than descriptive. The second problem is that it places entities and activities in the same bag. The third is that the definition in question is at variance with the concept of mechanism used in the natural sciences, where mechanisms were first encountered. In those sciences a mechanism is conceived of as a process (or sequence of states, of pathway) in a concrete system.
Note the word ‘system’, missing from Hedström’s account. And yet systems are central to any true and general account of mechanisms: The simple things, namely the elementary particles, have no mechanisms. I suggest that there are social mechanisms because there are social systems. (See, e.g., my books Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge [University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2003] and Chasing Reality: Strife Over Realism [University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2006].)
A second mistake of Hedström’s is his adoption of Jon Elster’s claim, that mechanisms are inconsistent with laws. If this were true, everything social would be miraculous. (I adopt Hume’s equation of the miraculous with the lawless.) I submit that sociology includes some law statements, and that some of them involve explicit reference to mechanisms. Take, for instance, the biosocial law that birds of a feather flock together–that is, they tend to form social systems because they have similar needs that are met through cooperation–a central social mechanism.
Thomas Schelling, in a work praised by Hedström (Micromotives and Macrobehavior [W.W. Norton, NewYork,1978], p. 139) used that law to explain social and ethnic segregation as a spontaneous process resulting from free and mutually independent individual choices: Similar people like to clump together. Thus, “[t]o choose a neighborhood is to choose neighbors. To pick a neighborhood with good schools, for example, is to pick a neighborhood of people who want good schools.” I venture to add that, admittedly, sometimes people make the wrong choices. But such violation of the homophily law will be quickly corrected. For instance, an African American family who ventured to move into a White neighborhood would be isolated or even chased away–two standard mechanisms of ethnic cleansing.
On balance, Dissecting the Social is an exceptionally good work in a field characterized by fuzziness, ideological bias, or remoteness from live sociology. For these reasons, I hope that Dissecting the Social will become compulsory reading in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on social theory, sociological method, and the philosophy of social science.