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.”

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