(1) Daniel Little is a philosopher of science who specializes in social science. He has an impressive record of publications (see below), and he writes with great clarity. I especially want to recommend his blog, Understanding Society. He has recently written a number of posts on explanation, and these are well worth reading by archaeologists:
- Recent thinking about scientific explanation (Jan 9, 2012)
- Emergence (Jan 6, 2012)
- Supervenience and social entities (Dec. 30, 2011)
- Do organizations have causal powers? (Sep. 1, 2011)
- Relative explanatory autonomy (Aug 7, 2011)
1988 Collective Action and the Traditional Village. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 1(1):41-58.
1998 Microfoundations, Method, and Causation: On the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Transaction, New Brunswick.
2007 Levels of the Social. In Philosophy of Anthropology and Sociology, edited by Stephen P. Turner and Mark W. Risjord, pp. 343-371. Handbook of the Philosophy of Science. Elsevier, New York.
2010 New Contributions to the Philosophy of History. Springer, New York.
2011 Causal Mechanisms in the Social Realm. In Causality in the Sciences, edited by Phyllis McKay Illari, Federica Russo, and Jon Williamson, pp. 273-295. Oxford University Press, New York.
(2) Charles Tilly was one of the leading social scientists of the late 20th-early 21st century. His field was historical social science, applying political and sociological models to historical data. He was a highly original thinker, and published numerous books and articles (see below for a few). The following scheme outlines five ways that social scientists and social historians have approached the topic of explanation. It is a synthesis and paraphrase of three sources: Tilly (2001, 2008), and Tilly and Gooden (2006).
1. Skepticism. The world is too complex to explain. Sounds like post-processual archaeology (oops, I think I mean social archaeology).
2. Law-seeking accounts. Social life is said to exhibit empirical regularities that at their highest level take the form of laws; explanation then consists of subsuming particular cases under broadly validated empirical generalizations or even universal laws. This approach, associated with Carl Hempel, was considered outdated and inappropriate for social science even BEFORE Binford and the New Archaeologists adopted it as the standard for archaeological explanation (leading to Flannery's observation that this approach could only produce "Mickey Mouse Laws").
3. Propensity accounts. Social units are seen as self-directing, whether driven by emotions, motives, interests, rational choices, genes, or something else. Explanation then consists of reconstructing the state of the social unit—for example, an individual’s beliefs at a given point in time and space—and plausibly relating its actions to that state. Even if this were considered a valid social science approach (see Tilly for critiques), it pretty clearly would not work for archaeology.
4. Systemic explanations. Particular features of social life are explained by specifying their connections with putative larger entities: societies, cultures, mentalities, capitalist systems, world systems, and the like. Explanation then consists of locating elements within systems. Functional explanation is a subcategory of systemic explanations. This approach is valuable for explaining some aspects of some past phenomena, but inadequate or incomplete as a general approach to explanation.
5. Mechanism-based accounts. This approach claims that explanation consists of identifying in particular social phenomena reliable causal mechanisms and processes of general scope. Causal mechanisms are events that alter relations among some set of elements. Processes are frequent (but not universal) combinations and sequences of causal mechanisms.
A few works by Charles Tilly:
1984 Big Structures, Large Processes, and Huge Comparisons. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
1990 Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990. Blackwell, Oxford.
1999 Durable Inequality. University of California Press, Berkeley.
2001 Relational Origins of Inequality. Anthropological Theory 1(3):355-372.
2008 Explaining Social Processes. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.
2010 Mechanisms of the Middle Range. In Robert K. Merton: Sociology of Science and Sociological Explanation, edited by Craig Calhoun, pp. 54-62. Columbia University Press, New York.
Tilly, Charles and Robert E. Goodin
2006 It Depends. In Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis, edited by Robert E. Goodin and Charles Tilly, pp. 3-32. Oxford University Press, New York.