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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics

What are social mechanisms?

Social mechanisms are frequently described as intermediary constructs between covering law propositions at one extreme and pure description at the other. They provide explanations for outcomes and are conceptualized as causal in that they transform an input into an output, a trigger into an effect. They are described in the form of I-M-O (Hedstrom and Swedberg 1998, 9), where I stands for input, O for output, and M for the mechanism in the middle. Indeed, scholars engaged in positivist research often resort to mechanisms in order to explain correlations - mechanisms help them make sense out of observed regularities between phenomena.

Social mechanisms provide answers to how questions. How (i.e., by what generative force) was a certain effect brought about? Mechanisms thus capture processes; they trace the logic of events in the making. In this sense they suggest themselves as methodological tools to explain realities of social construction.

Mechanisms indicate causality. Some have suggested that they break down broad processes into a succession of micro-level events at a lower level of analysis (e.g., George and Bennett 2005). But this technique ultimately would reduce mechanisms to no more than description at an ever-more detailed scale, reformulating mechanisms into intermediary variables. It holds on to an image of efficient causation, which imitates positivist understandings in that it imagines an event or outcome as produced by another event that precedes it. But more usefully, mechanisms should be treated as having generative force or causal power, transforming one event into another. In Banta’s words, they have “dispositional properties . . . that, when activated within a system, generate events” (Banta 2013). For feminist Constructivists, these dispositional properties are gendered norms, rules, discourse, structures, and symbols.

While mechanisms can be identified to explain unique situations (such as, for example, revolutions (e.g., Tilly 2001)), most writers postulate that they have a certain level of generality. They should be applicable to a range of events and in different contexts (Gross 2009). But mechanisms are not predictive in the way covering laws are predictive. That is, it is difficult to assess the conditions under which a mechanism is triggered. Moreover, the same mechanism can lead to different outcomes. Several mechanisms typically operate in parallel, either reinforcing or contradicting each other. And thus the outcomes of a triggering event cannot be known in advance. In this sense, explanations based on mechanisms are supremely attuned to contexts, closely linked to the historical situation and geographical location of events. They cannot provide prediction but they can serve as tools for forecasting. That is, they do not take the form of true/false, but aid in developing open-ended and varied story lines in which theories, propositions, and correlations serve as starting points (Lebow 2014, 48).

Social mechanisms thus offer an interesting tool for feminist Constructivists interested in pushing beyond situated interpretation while unwilling to embrace the logic of theory-testing. Because they are not attached to one particular theory, mechanisms are adaptable to a range of feminist Constructivist agendas. But while the versatility of the instrument is one of its strengths, the concept also is full of pitfalls. Two issues in particular need attention. The first has to do with a bias in the literature towards Methodological Individualism; the second with a bias towards Philosophical Realism.

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