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Paper info: Causal Social Mechanisms: The Why not Just the how


Causal Social Mechanisms: The Why not Just the how


Geoff Easton
Lancaster University
United Kingdom
Geoff Easton ,
Katy Mason
Lancaster University
United Kingdom
Katy Mason and
Markus Vanharanta
Lancaster University
United Kingdom
Markus Vanharanta

Place of Publication

The paper was published at the 27th IMP-conference in Glasgow, Scotland in 2011.


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Over 40+ years of research in the IMP tradition has resulted in a variety of different kinds of published outputs ; data, information, knowledge, concepts, stories, models, case studies, frameworks and even some things that we might like to call theories. The espoused objective of all this research is better understanding of the phenomenon of interest; industrial networks. However the nature and quality of those understandings varies enormously and depends not only on the nature of the research and the objectives it was designed to achieve but also upon their, usually implied, epistemology and ontology.
It is possible, though dangerous, to argue that in the social sciences there exist hierarchies of understandings. At the “base” there are very detailed descriptions of particular events and the entities that are involved. But these descriptions are not usually generalisable. At the “summit” there are grand theories which explain, in some sense according to particular ontological / epistemological schools of thought, the descriptions that are provided by the detailed descriptions of “base” research. However it would be difficult to argue that, in the social world, there are any such general theories of quality.
This particular problem has been recognised for many years. In sociology for example Merton was one of the first to acknowledge that there was merit in developing “Theories of the mid range” “Such theories of the middle range consist of sets of relatively simple ideas, which link together a limited number of facts about the structure and functions of social formations and suggest further observations. They are theories intermediate to comprehensive analytical schema and detailed workaday hypotheses” (Merton, 1957). More recently there has developed a school of sociology that seeks to conceptualise and deploy what they term social mechanisms (Hedstrom and Swedberg, 1998.) To date there are over 500 citations of the Hedstrom and Swedberg book across many different social science fields. The concept of causal mechanisms has even been used in research in the IMP group (Tikkanen et al. 2010)
In this paper we describe the birth and development of the Causal Social Mechanism movement and proceed to a set of definitions. Next there is a section in which various possible ontologies are judged in terms of their compatibility with the concept. Examples of a wide range of Causal Social Mechanisms are then described and examples of those we judge may be relevant to Industrial Networks.