Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How can we explain social change in the past?

Philosophers of science and social scientists have identified a variety of perspectives on the meaning of explanation and the ways scholars go about explaining social phenomena in the present and the past. I would guess that I am like many archaeologists in generally avoiding this literature because much of the work and writing is difficult to follow and difficult to relate to archaeology. But over the past couple of years I have become convinced that we need to pay attention to this material so that we can do a better job of explaining the past. I've talked about this issue previously, here, and here. Today I will point to two authors who do discuss issues of explanation, causality, and epistemology in a particularly clear fashion, and in ways that relate to archaeology: Daniel Little and Charles Tilly.  

(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:
A few publications by Daniel Little:

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.

Not surprisingly, the causal mechanism approach is the one favored by Tilly, Little, and many social scientists today. Whereas law-seeking accounts explain events and processes by showing that they fit under a general law, mechanism-based accounts explain events by identifying the causes that brought them about. Thus law-seeking accounts require a general law explaining, for example, the rise of the state in all cases, and a universal trajectory followed by all cases. Mechanisms-based accounts, on the other hand, identify a small number of causal mechanisms (population growth, intensification, etc.) that operate in distinct combinations in diverse settings to bring about parallel (but not identical) processes of social change.

A few works by Charles Tilly:

Tilly, Charles
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.

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