Explanations by mechanisms in the social sciences. Problems, advantages and alternatives

Mind and Society 4 (2):163-178 (2005)

Abstract

This paper discusses various problems of explanations by mechanisms. Two positions are distinguished: the narrow position claims that only explanations by mechanisms are acceptable. It is argued that this position leads to an infinite regress because the discovery of a mechanism must entail the search for other mechanisms etc. Another paradoxical consequence of this postulate is that every successful explanation by mechanisms is unsatisfactory because it generates new ``black box'' explanations. The second – liberal – position that is advanced in this paper regards, besides explanations by mechanisms, also the discovery of bivariate correlations as a first step of an explanation by mechanisms as meaningful. It is further argued that there is no contradiction between causal analysis and the explanation by mechanisms. Instead, explanations by mechanisms always presuppose the analysis of causal structures (but not vice versa). The final point is that an explanation by mechanisms is not inconsistent with the Hempel-Oppenheim scheme of explanation

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