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Causal Powers & Social Science Conference Highlights

The Critical Realism Network held its first conference on Causal Powers and Social Science from March 4-5 in New Haven, Connecticut. The conference was co-organized by Professor Philip Gorski (Sociology, Yale University) and Professor Ruth Groff (Political Theory, St. Louis University). The aim of the conference was to discuss what a powers approach might look like in the case of phenomena of interest to sociologists and philosophers who are interested in social ontology. The emphasis was on discussion and the collaborative exchange of ideas between scholars from disciplines that have a tendency to talk past one another especially when discussing topics such as causality, social powers, structures, and agency. As Ruth Groff notes in her recent blog post reflecting on the conference, “there are all sorts of ways for people to talk past one another” and “some of the disagreement is semantic”. In bringing together these scholars from all too often isolated disciplines, there was plenty of room for fruitful discussion and clarification on both sides.

In addition to the co-organizers, ten participants gathered at Yale University to present and workshop their papers addressing various questions about the nature of causal powers. In what sense can a social structure “do” anything? Do sociological entities have any emergent mental powers? How exactly should we understand emergent entities and/or emergent powers? Do any or all sociological entities have essential properties? If not, how ought we to understand their identities?

Along with the co-organizers, participants included Margaret Archer (Sociology, University of Warwick), Hugh Lacey (Philosophy, Swarthmore College), Douglas Porpora (Sociology, Drexel University), Dave Elder Vass (Sociology, Loughborough University), Daniel Little (Philosophy, University of Michigan-Dearborn), Stephen Mumford (Philosophy, University of Nottingham), Thomas Mueller (Philosophy, University of Konstanz), Margarita Mooney (Sociology, Yale University), Isaac Reed (Sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder), and Timothy Rutzou (Sociology, Yale University).

Day 1 of the conference began with Porpora and Little discussing whether or not causal powers are essential and/or reducible. Groff underscored the importance of defining entities, structures, and mechanisms in relation to causal powers. In an effort to delineate between different types of emergence, Lacey pondered if distance has causal power, and more broadly, how causal powers are mediated. For Porpora, causal powers are mediated between individual actors. For Gorski, distance is a functional parameter, to which Archer added that conditions can be generative; thus raising important points about the social ties and bonds between people. For Mooney, if causality is the condition for making something happen, then how is inequality multi-form? Does causality manifest itself in multiple of ways?

Building on this, Groff continued to flesh out the conceptual and metaphysical dimensions of the relationships and causes undergirding the discussion of mechanisms, essences, and properties. At the level of metaphysics, what category do we want to put patriarchy? Would social structures, such as patriarchy, pass the test for being a cause? Are essences themselves properties or do they have properties? In response, Reed asked Groff to expound upon the concept of mediation and how it fits in the schema of causes, properties, and essences, asking if patriarchy is a configuration of the sex-gender order or an expression of [it]? Offering a line of important reflection, Archer elaborated on the morphogenetic cycle and the role of reflexivity in terms of the structure and agency question. For Archer, it seems the relations of patriarchy are always mediated via reflexivity and the causal powers of agents, thus allowing agents to reflect upon, transform, and change the situation in which they find themselves. In short, the causal powers of changing structures interact with the causal powers of changing agents.

Reed then shifted gears to probe more about power in the sociological sense of the term—power as domination, control, authority, the ability to give commands and produce subjects etc.– and how the concept of power has been subject to historicization. During the course of Reed’s presentation, questions about the term “persons” arose in relation to questions of power. In what way does power operate upon a person? In what do persons resist power? Does the term refer to the creativity and malleability of the subject or is human nature the ability to be anything you want to be? Finally, in the last presentation of the day, Little questioned how we can best understand heterogeneity and whether critical realism has the resources to do so. How do we avoid essentializing particular relations or end up being committed to affirm social kinds?

As day 1 of the conference came to a close, the following questions began to emerge: emerge: How strong a theory of human nature is needed to do social research? Do we want one that is so strong that it reflects an explanation? Can something causally matter and not have causal powers? What is the difference between causal powers that are mediated between individual actors and ontological individualism?

Day 2 of the conference began with Mumford exploring instances of strong emergence, explaining how downward causation works in theory, and elaborating on his concept of “demergence” (See Rani Lill Anjum’s blog post to access the paper). In response, Gorski asked if we should consider instances of downward causation as synchronic, diachronic, or both. Mumford made clear, for him, causes and effects must be understood in such a way that causal accounts which position synchrony against diachrony come under strain. Causation is not the succession of events. Sugar does not immediately dissolve in tea, such that S+T= a sweet solution. Rather, the sweet solution indicates that causation must be understood simultaneously i.e. a progressive process. Given this account of powers and causation, the group began discussing the tendencies or conditions under which causal powers emerge. The interaction between Mumford, Groff, and Elder-Vass was one of the highlights of the conference for me. The question turned on the relation between things, properties, necessities, and tendencies. Consider the explosive stick of gelignite. Does gelignite necessarily explode under the right conditions or does it only have a tendency to explode? What does necessity mean? For Elder-Vass and Groff, gelignite must necessarily explode under the right circumstances and conditions. For Mumford, even under the right circumstances, gelignite only has a tendency to explode. As Rutzou helpfully suggested, this is a questions of internal verses external conceptions of tendency. In sum, for Elder-Vass, tendencies are extrinsic i.e. only the results of external constraints. For Mumford, tendencies are intrinsic to all things. Given this distinction, how should we employ terms likes condition, tendency, or mechanism when explaining emerging powers? The verdict in the room was divided.

Using this exchange as the springboard for further conversation, Gorski shifted the focus to the critical realist understanding of the causal power of social structures and the material dimension of social reality. Here, Gorski elaborated on his expanded definition of social structure that resembles Archer’s “SAC” model, but stressed that person, structures, and artifacts are the basic constituents of a minimalist ontology which sociologists must address.

A short break later, Elder-Vass and Rutzou engaged issues of social relations and materiality, including recent developments in social theory like Actor-Network Theory and assemblage theory. For Elder-Vass, causal powers are always and possessed by things. In and through this, power is produced by a process of interaction between its parts. Following on, Rutzou explored the contingent oriented nature of causation through a more direct engagement with assemblage theory. Social causation, he argued, must be understood as a productive intersection and hybrid of various material forms, practices, and social resources and forms of expression.

The second day of the conference came to a close with presentations from Lacey and Mooney, whose research exemplifies how a critical realist methodology can be applied. Lacey challenged us to think about the emergent properties of agroecosystems and their causal properties. Here, Lacey applied it to the notation of a seed as involved in a complex system or social-environmental network. Lacey argued that when this kind of emergence is considered, commonly accepted lines between the social and natural sciences tend to be muddied. In closing, Mooney’s empirical research focuses on the complex causality behind experiences of mental health disorders. In so doing, she underscores the importance of narratives for scientific explanations and how they can provide the framework for further understanding moral agency and causal powers.

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