Explaining and Understanding by Answering ‘Why’ and ‘How’ Questions

Ulf Tranow / Tilo Beckers / Dominik Becker
Analyse & Kritik. Band 38, Heft 1, Seiten 1–30, ISSN (Online) 2365-9858, ISSN (Print) 0171-5860, DOI: 10.1515/auk-2016-0102



“The last decade has seen a growing interest in the concept of social mechanisms in the social sciences and the philosophy of social sciences. The social mechanism debate focuses on the question of which methodological and theoretical principles define a satisfactory way of doing social sciences (Demeulenaere 2011; Becker 2016). The social mechanism approach follows the idea that social sciences should not only describe and classify social phenomena, but should also attempt to provide causal explanations. Although alternative definitions and concepts of social mechanisms can be found in social sciences literature, there is a principle on which most advocates of the social mechanism approach agree: social phenomena should be explained by opening up the black box of (social science) explanation and making explicit the causal “cogs and wheels” Elster 1989) through which these social phenomena are brought into existence. Social scientists committed to the mechanism approach (aim to) explain why social phenomena exist by explaining how they come into existence. and social mechanisms identify the causal sequences of the production steps. […] In this programmatic introduction, we will begin by providing a review of the mechanism approach, introducing its core ideas and the positions of its central adherents and critics, and assessing its overall usefulness. The social mechanism approach follows the idea that the primary aim of social sciences is to understand social phenomena, i.e., in the domain of mechanism based explanations, to specify how “X leads to Y through the steps A, B, C” (George/Bennett 2005, 141).” […] To overcome the stagnation of the social mechanism debate, theoretical and empirical applications are needed in which both the mechanism idea is taken seriously and the value of this approach is demonstrated on the basis of concrete social phenomena (cf. Greshoff 2015). this special issue on Social Mechanisms is a collection of contributions to this task.”

Special Issue on “Social Mechanisms”

Special Issue on “Social mechanisms”

Analyse & Kritik

Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory

edited by: Baurmann, Michael / Leist, Anton

guest editors: Ulf Tranow, Tilo Beckers, Dominik Becker



Featuring 12 articles on “Social Mechanisms”, including three written by AnaGramm team members:

Ulf Tranow / Tilo Beckers / Dominik Becker
Analyse & Kritik. Band 38, Heft 1, Seiten 1–30, ISSN (Online) 2365-9858, ISSN (Print) 0171-5860, DOI: 10.1515/auk-2016-0102
Analyse & Kritik. Band 38, Heft 1, Seiten 149–178, ISSN (Online) 2365-9858, ISSN (Print) 0171-5860, DOI: 10.1515/auk-2016-0108


Dominik Becker
Analyse & Kritik. Band 38, Heft 1, Seiten 287–308, ISSN (Online) 2365-9858, ISSN (Print) 0171-5860, DOI: 10.1515/auk-2016-0113 

AnaGramm at ESRA 2015 in Reykjavik

The researchers of AnaGramm will host a session on “Multilevel survey research, agent based modeling and social mechanisms: towards new frontiers in theory-based empirical research” at the conference of the European Association for Survey Research (ESRA) taking place 13-19 July 2015 in Reykjavik.

Session program


A closer look at the relation between religiosity and formal volunteering. A cross-regional analysis using Swiss data 

(Ms Elena Damian)

[1 \/]
Middle-range theories, moderator models and marginal effects: What does sour grapes make taste sweeter?

(Dr Dominik Becker)

[2 \/]
Resilience as a Mechanism for Educational Success Despite Disadvantaged Circumstances

(Ms Jennifer Tork)

[3 \/]
Unraveling the paradox of job search via personal contacts and wages: Evidence combining agent based modelling and empirical research

(Dr Gerhard Krug)

[4 \/]
Case study data for validating agent-based models

(Professor Sharon Purchase)

[5 \/]


Call for Papers (was due January 2015)
Session convenor: Dominik Becker (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf)
Coordinator 1 Tilo Beckers (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf)
Coordinator 2 Ulf Tranow (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf)

This session will lay the spotlight on the link between empirically-oriented theories and empirical research by focusing on the explanatory concept of social mechanisms. When explaining macro-level phenomena such as network structures or social diffusion outcomes, establishing the underlying social mechanisms is a strategy to overcome incomplete explanations which remain restricted on the macro level. Instead, the theoretical and empirical objective is to unveil the meso- or micro-level social mechanisms causing the macro-level explananda. Whether following Coleman’s explanatory macro-micro-macro model, (`wide´) rational action theory or DBO theory (desires, beliefs and opportunities), social scientists address the need for more fine-grained explanatory approaches.

Since about two decades, social mechanism research evolves to be an important paradigm in the social sciences. Yet, though survey data allow for and are often used to study social mechanisms, their methodological potential to do so is only rarely addressed systematically.

We invite colleagues establishing social mechanisms as part of their theoretical explanation and actually researching these mechanisms applying different survey research designs. We would also like to bring together researchers using survey (and/or network) data and linking them to agent-based modeling, an approach which will gain importance to extend and enrich the use of survey data. Finally, we invite presenters discussing either specific micro- or macro-based mechanisms, i.e. both survey-based and experimental approaches (including mediation and moderation analyses) as well as process tracing. We particularly welcome papers applying multilevel mechanism research, e.g. explicating cross-level interaction effects, or controlling for group-induced selection biases and linking analytical theoretical arguments with their data.

Abstracts should include theoretical references, a specification of the mechanism(s) under study and the method and type of data and analyses.

2nd Workshop on “Social Mechanisms” (7-8 Nov 2014 at Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf)


“Social Mechanisms – Methodological Challenges, Empirical Applications & Modeling Techniques”

The 2nd workshop (in English) took place 7-8 Nov 2014 at Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, Haus der Universität).



Friday (7 Nov.): Establishing social mechanisms in quantitative statistical approaches

Dominik Becker & Ulf Tranow (Düsseldorf): Welcome and Introduction

Jürgen Friedrichs (Cologne):
Mechanisms in urban research reconsidered

Johannes Kopp, Nico Richter (Trier):
Social mechanisms and empirical research in the field of sociology of the family: the case of separation and divorce

Carl Berning (Mainz), Elmar Schlüter (Gießen):
The dynamics of radical right-wing populist party preferences and perceived group threat:
A comparative panel analysis of three competing hypotheses in the Netherlands and Germany

Alexandra Nonnenmacher (Siegen) as discussant and plenary discussion

Dominik Becker, Tilo Beckers, Simon Franzmann (Düsseldorf) & Jörg Hagenah (Köln):
Does the cognitive consonance effect on quality paper readership persist over time? A random effects APC analysis of German Media Analysis data 1978-2009

Heiner Meulemann (Cologne) & Ilona Relikowski (Bamberg):
Equality of opportunity and Achievement in Social Change

Robert Birkelbach (Cologne):
Using the intergenerational closure mechanism to explain differences of
school achievements of immigrant children in Germany and the Netherlands

Volker Stocké (Kassel) as discussant and plenary discussion


Saturday (8 Nov.): Social mechanisms, agent‐based modeling and integrative approaches

Clemens Kroneberg & Hanno Kruse (Cologne)
Academic performance and social status among adolescents in Europe

André Grow & Jan Van Bavel (Leuven)
Developing hypotheses about the future of educational assortative mating in Europe:
an agent-based modelling approach

Michael Mäs & Dirk Helbing (Zürich):
The structural effects of randomness on the emergence of social norms

Simon T. Franzmann & Johannes Schmitt (Düsseldorf):
Mechanisms in politics: how institutional veto points affect party system stability

Thomas Grund (Linköping) as discussant and plenary discussion

Michael Baurmann (Düsseldorf) & Jürgen Friedrichs (Cologne):
The methodology of Elinor Ostrom

Jörg Stolz (Lausanne):
Analytical sociology and mixed methods research – for a sociological alliance

Ingo Rohlfing & Christina Zuber (Bremen):

Causality and explanation in the social sciences

Tilo Beckers (Düsseldorf):
Mechanisms and levels of analysis: summary and outlook


Call for Papers, submit until 10 August 2014; e-mail: mechanisms@phil.hhu.de

We would like to bring together researchers doing advanced quantitative empirical survey research (e.g. multilevel and/or moderation/mediation models) and those applying agent-based modeling (simulation studies). Both directions of applying social mechanisms can be integrated to elaborate more appropriate models. The applications of social mechanism- and theory-based explanations presented at the workshop may cover a range of different substantial fields where mechanisms are discussed and elaborated. One objective of our workshop will be to discuss whether ‘substantial’ mechanisms such as mechanisms of social and/or educational inequality, stereotype and prejudice building, preference building, etc. can be traced back to a more fundamental grammar of generative mechanisms such as risk aversion, cognitive dissonance reduction, rational imitation etc.

We invite presenters of papers addressing four different domains:

(1) Methodological aspects of social mechanisms: explanatory status and potential

(2) Quantitative empirical applications of social mechanisms

(3) Agent-based modeling of social mechanisms

(4) Intertwining techniques: combining social mechanisms in quantitative models with agent-based modeling


You will find a more detailed description in the Call for Papers below:

CfP_Social Mechanisms_Düsseldorf_7-8 Nov 2014_final


1st Workshop on “Social Mechanisms” (April 25-26, 2014, at Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf)

(The working language of the 1st workshop is German.)

„Soziale Mechanismen – theoretische Herausforderungen der Modellbildung in den Sozialwissenschaften“

Der Workshop findet vom 25.-26.04.2014 an der Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf statt (Tagungsort: Haus der Universität)

[…] Anknüpfend an die anhaltende theoretische Auseinandersetzung (Kron & Grund 2010; Demeulenaere 2011; Hedström & Bearman 2011) sollen in diesem Workshop Herausforderungen des Mechanismenkonzepts diskutiert werden. Dabei soll auch das Potential mechanismenbasierter Erklärungen im Hinblick auf das Spektrum der angewandten empirischen Methoden geschärft werden. Während etwa im Rahmen der analytischen Soziologie derzeit agentenbasierte Modellierungen zur Untersuchung der Aggregationslogik dominieren (z.B. Hedström 2005: 114ff.; Bornmann 2010; Epstein 2011; vgl. auch Bruch & Atwell 2013), existieren nur wenige Studien, die explizit soziale Mechanismen im Sinne von Situations– und Selektionslogik zur empirischen Überprüfung mittels Surveydaten aufstellen (z.B. Diekmann 1996; R. Becker 2000). […]

Der Theorieworkshop wird im Rahmen des aus dem Strategischen Forschungsfonds (SFF) der Heinrich-Heine-Universität finanzierten Projekts „AnaGramm – Analytische Soziologie als Grammatik der Sozialwissenschaften“ ausgerichtet. Er ist als Auftaktveranstaltung im Hinblick auf eine weitere nationale und internationale Verstetigung konzipiert: Dazu soll im Herbst 2014 ein weiterer Workshop stattfinden, in welchem die Verbindung von quantitativen Analysen und agentenbasierten Simulationsmodellen zur empirischen Überprüfung mechanismenbasierter Erklärungen im Vordergrund steht. In einer für das Frühjahr 2015 geplanten internationalen Tagung ist zudem die Ausweitung des Forschungsprogramms auf sozialwissenschaftliche Nachbardisziplinen geplant.

cf. details on the workshop topic in the CfP: CfP_Workshop_SozialeMechanismen_2014_Duesseldorf

Final workshop program: Workshopprogramm_AnaGramm_2014_final

Research Agenda

During the last years, analytical sociology established as a research program that aims to explain the social reality by an understanding approach. When explaining macro-level phenomena such as network structures, diffusion of social practices or certain attitudes, analytical sociology intends to overcome incomplete explanations which remain restricted on the macro level. Instead, the crucial objective is to unveil the meso- or micro-level social mechanisms operating as causative factors for the explananda on the macro-level.

While the research program of analytic sociology is comparably well-grounded as regards theory, empirical tests of social mechanisms still need to be advanced. Until now, only a limited amount of quantitative studies within a restricted set of sociological domains explicitly refers to mechanism-based explanations.

The objective of the research project AnaGramm is to close this gap. By using the theoretical and methodological tools of analytical sociology, AnaGramm systematically answers research questions from the fields of theoretical sociology as well as communication and attitude research. A matter of particular importance is to test mechanism-based explanations by means of more elaborated statistical methods.

Forschungsagenda (German version “research agenda”)

Mit der Analytischen Soziologie hat sich in den letzten Jahren ein Forschungsprogramm etabliert, welches darauf abzielt, die soziale Welt in einer verstehenden Weise zu erklären. Bei der Erklärung von Makrophänomenen, wie etwa Netzwerkstrukturen, der Verbreitung sozialer Praktiken oder Einstellungsmustern, reicht es der Analytischen Soziologie nicht aus, diese lediglich mit anderen Makrophänomenen in Zusammenhang zu stellen. Ihr Anspruch besteht vielmehr darin, in detaillierter und präziser Weise die sozialen Mechanismen zu benennen, durch die diese Phänomene ursächlich hervorgebracht werden.

Während das Forschungsprogramm der Analytischen Soziologie über eine umfassende theoretische Fundierung verfügt, sind mechanismenbasierte Erklärungsansätze in der Forschungspraxis noch nicht weit vorangeschritten. Bisher wurde nur vereinzelt und in wenigen Teilbereichen der Sozialwissenschaften sowie mit meist eingeschränkten statistischen Mitteln das Programm der Analytischen Soziologie umgesetzt.

An diesem Forschungsdesiderat setzt das Projekt AnaGramm an. Mit AnaGramm sollen Forschungsfragen aus den Bereichen der theoretischen Soziologie, der Mediensoziologie und der Einstellungsforschung systematisch aus der Perspektive der Analytischen Soziologie untersucht werden. Ein besonderer Fokus liegt darauf, den mechanismenbasierten Erklärungsansatz mit fortgeschrittenen quantitativ-empirischen Methoden zu verknüpfen.

Research Project AnaGramm: Contributors and Funding

Project coordinators and researchers: Jun.-Prof. Dr. Ulf Tranow (Junior Professor in Sociological Theory),  Dr. Tilo Beckers (Akad. Rat auf Zeit/equiv. of assistant professor in Sociology and Research Methods)

Researcher: Dr. Dominik Becker

The project is funded by the “Strategic Research Fund” (SFF) of Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf (11.2013 – 10.2015).

The project is based at the Department of Social Sciences, Sociology Section, at Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf.