Peter Hedstrom and Richard Swedberg (eds.), Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory (1998), Chapter 1.


Summary: ‘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… Much of modern social theory has a tendency – just like the Parsonianism of yesterday – to label, relabel, and to describe rather than to expain. (1)


  • Refocus on explanatory social mechanisms to move away from mere description
  • Centered around the concept of a ‘mechanism’, as distinct from nomothetic laws
  • Mechanisms are middle grounds between social laws and description.
    • Mechanisms are bits of theory about entities at a different level than the main entities being theorized about
  • Argument: The identification and analysis of social mechanisms is of crucial importance for the progress of social science research


The explanatory importance of social mechanisms

  • One key defining characteristic of an explanatory mechanism is the function it performs in an explanatory account
  • Generative mechanisms help distinguish between genuine causality and coincidental association
  • Black box explanations assume the link between X and Y is devoid of (interesting) structure – Mechanisms explain the how and why

Methodological Individualism

  • In social science, the elementary ‘causal agents’ are always individual actors and intelligible social science explanations should always include explicit references to the causes and consequences of their actions
  • Weak version of methodological individualism is best for explanatory theory – it is focused on on actor’s most recent history

The Primacy of the Analytical

  • It is through abstraction and analytical accentuation that general mechanisms are made

Variables vs. Social Mechanisms

  • Variables pay little attention to explanatory mechanisms


 Macro Level
 Situational                                Transformational
  Mechanisms                                   Mechanisms
   (Type 1)                                     (Type 3)
     |                                             |
 Micro Level -------- Action-Formation Mechanisms ---
                              (Type 2)

Focus on

  • 1) How macro-level events or conditions affect the individual
  • 2) How the individual assimilates the impact of these macro-level events
  • 3) How a number of individuals, through their actions and interactions, generate macro-level outcomes

Mechanism Approach characterized by:

  • 1) Action – Actors, not variables, do the acting
  • 2) Precision – Explanations should be aimed at a limited range of phenomenon
  • 3) Abstraction – Effective theorizing is not possible without a prompt elimination of irrelevant factors
  • 4) Reduction – Opening up black boxes