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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About Tilo Beckers

Since October 2009, I am an “Akademischer Rat auf Zeit” (equiv. of assistant professor) in Sociology and Research Methods at the University of Düsseldorf. In the summer term 2010 (April through September), I have been on leave as a substitute full professor (W2) for "Methods of Empirical Research and Social Stratification" at the University of Osnabrück, Germany. I have studied at the University of Düsseldorf (MA 1999) and at the New School for Social Research (New York City; DAAD-scholarship and full fee and tuition waiver of the New School). Thereafter, I have been a research assistant and lecturer at the University of Cologne and accomplished my PhD (2008) with a thesis on "Homosexuality and Human Development. Genesis, Structure and Change of Attitudes Towards Same-Sex Sexual Contacts in a Cross-National Contextual Analysis" (in German; presented at ASA Annual Meeting 2008, Boston). My postdoc study at the University of Cologne has been published as a book chapter on "Islam and the Acceptance of Homosexuality: the Shortage of Socio-Economic Well-being and Responsive Democracy" (in: Samar Habib (ed.) 2009: Homosexuality and Islam. Praeger; presented at ESA Conference 2009, Lisbon). My current substantial research focuses on attitudes towards beginning- and end-of-life issues (i.e. topics evolving around abortion, IVF, PID and also euthanasia, patient's wills, palliative medicine). At the ISA World Congress 2010 in Gothenburg, I have organized an Ad-hoc Session on "Beginning- and End-of-Life-Issues on the Move" (together with Eva Jaspers, Utrecht, and Nora Machado, Lisbon). My methodological research is closely linked to issues of cross-national comparison, the analysis of social change and multilevel analysis. Please find out more about current research projects FAIVA-LIFE, "Boundaries of Life" and AnaGramm on my University website and my blogs.

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