Frank Kalter, Clemens Kroneberg
Between Mechanism Talk and Mechanism Cult: New Emphases in Explanatory Sociology and Empirical Research

Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 2014: 66, issue 1, Suppl., pp. 91-115

The study of mechanisms has received increased attention in recent years and contributed to the formation of so-called ‘analytical sociology’ that has put the idea of social mechanisms at its core. We discuss the crucial characteristics of mechanism-based explanations and their relation to the longstanding tradition of explanatory sociology. Looking at the widespread and growing number of references to ‘mechanisms’ in the current research literature, we identify typical deviations from the ideal of a mechanism-based explanation. Many references come down to mechanism talk insofar as it is not explicated in detail how and why particular inputs tend to result in particular outputs. To this end, researchers have to give a detailed verbal account of how exactly a mechanism is thought to unfold under specified conditions, or to specify a formal generative model which can be analysed analytically or by simulation. This agenda has been at the core of methodological individualism, sociological rational choice theory, and explanatory sociology for some time, but has received a new coat of whitewash by analytical sociology. This more recent theoretical movement offers a fresh problem-centred agenda based on the well-known macro-micro-macro model and could inspire a new generation of research that places greater weight on analysing social dynamics than on developing theories of action. However, we submit that, rather than constituting a competing approach, these impulses should be located within the longstanding and multifaceted explanatory agenda in sociology. Avoiding any form of mechanism cult and choosing from the full toolbox of explanatory/analytical sociology will be crucial to answer key questions in established areas of sociological research.