Mechanisms: Integrating sociology and neurosciences


In a recent communication, Don Ross pointed out that the discussion on mechanistic explanations in the neurosciences mostly identifies with reductionistic explanations, and that my proposal to build an integration with sociology is new. This matches with his ‘modular’ approach to neuroeconomics which aims at grounding neuroeconomics on an externalist philosophy of mind. As I have argued in previous blogs, this means that mechanistic explanations in the neurosciences would always remain incomplete if they do not include external facts as constitutive elements of a causal explanation.

If one looks at mechanistic explanations in sociology, this is by no means a new idea, though not directly referring to neurosciences (for a comprehensive and excellent survey on mechanism in sociology, see Schützeichel 2015). Interestingly, there is a parallel discussion about reductionism here. One of the intellectual leaders of this movement is Jon Elster, who bridges sociology and economics. In many publications, he suggests that theory in the social sciences should aim at fixing the ‘nuts and bolts’ (one of his book titles) of mechanisms that generate behavioural and social phenomena. In doing this, he pursues methodological individualism, that is a reductionist strategy. Hence, mechanistic explanations in this strand of sociology boil down to a sort of economic explanation that, however, does not adapt a neoclassical model à la Becker but is geared towards more open and flexible modelling, mainly based on game theory and also importing insights from the behavioural sciences. For example, Elster very early contributed a JEL paper on emotions in economic theory. Obviously, this already opens the door widely to an integration between sociology and neuroscience: Sociological models of explanation would be enriched by models of the individual that highlight emotional and cognitive mechanisms.

One probably unexpected early contributor to such an integration is the historian Charles Tilly who argued (and produced rich empirical work) that in the historical sciences, theorizing should result into the identification of process mechanisms that might hold over a range of contexts, spatially and temporarily. Tilly also suggested that cognitive mechanisms would play a pivotal role, and one of his core notions are narratives which structure the perception and action of historical agents. As readers of this blog will realize, narratives have been one of my favourite topics recently.

Tilly’s approach is very interesting, because it motivates the idea of a ‘psychoneurohistorical’ approach to mechanistic explanations (I moved in this direction with my work on money). A central question in mechanistic analysis is identifying process boundaries. One result of integrating sociology and neuroscience would be that mechanisms in the neurosciences would transcend the boundaries of the body. For example, a neuroscientific approach to the self would explicitly include narratives of the self that are objects in the social context of an individual. This bridge has already been built by Damasio in his book on ‘How Self Comes to Mind’. But the other question is what are the temporal boundaries of processes?

I envisage a temporal structure of interlocked processes of the formation of agent’s identities through time. Consider the role of narratives. Agents evolve perceptions of their self via construction individual narratives that build on a repertoire of narratives that is available in society. These narratives evolve, in turn, partly via the feedback of individual narratives which always have a creative and idiosyncratic component. The evolution of narratives is tied to longer-term changes in structural roles that agents have in the larger social context.

A case in point for this is the study of risk and gender, which immediately shows the relevance of the methodological considerations for INSOSCI work (for a survey, see Maltby and Rutherford 2012). A conventional neuroscientific approach to this topic would consider bottom-up explanations of certain neurophysiological mechanisms that might manifest sexual differences, such as hormones. My suggestion would connect this research to the sociological analysis of changing gender roles in the financial sector. For example, risk and finance were seen as being ‘feminine’ phenomena in the early stages of the development of financial markets (which had a pejorative connotation, and referred to the males active in the incipient business), and only in the course of the 19th century the gender focus was shifted to treating finance as a ‘male’ domain, what it remains until today, with an emphasis on alleged male properties such as rationality and self-constraint. Hence, what we see is a long-term historical process of shaping agent roles in the financial sector, which embeds self-perceptions of identities, and ultimately, contextualizes specific neurophysiological mechanisms that generate individual actions. At the same time, these mechanisms provide the stuff of which the narratives are built that tell the stories about those actions in society. It seems to me that such as approach can explain phenomena such as the increasing incidence of fraud and violations of regulations in the financial sector, which seems to reflect changing attitudes to risk, self-restraint and responsibility which are well recognized by leading scholars in the field (just read Luigi Zingales’ 2015 ‘Presidential Address’ to the American Finance Association…).

The framework of mechanistic explanations can become a powerful methodological framework of integrating processes on different levels (individual, group, society etc.) and with different temporal reach (from individual decisions at a certain point of time to the long-run processes of the formation of agent identities tied to social roles).


Damasio, Antonio R. (2010), Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, New York: Pantheon.

Elster, Jon (1989), Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elster, Jon (1998), ‘Emotions and Economic Theory’, Journal of Economic Literature, XXXVI, 47–74.

Herrmann-Pillath, Carsten (2016): Constitutive Explanations in Neuroeconomics: Principles and a Case Study on Money, Journal of Economic Methodology 23(4): 374-395.

Maltby, J. and J. Rutherford (2012): Gender and Finance, in Knorr-Cetina, K. und Alex Preda (Hrsg.), The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Finance, Oxford.

Schützeichel, Rainer (2015): Pfade, Mechanismen, Ereignisse. Zur gegenwärtigen Forschungslage in der Soziologie sozialer Prozesse, In Prozesse, ed. Rainer Schützeichel and Stefan Jordan, 87–147, Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden

Zingales, L. (2015): Presidential Address: Does Finance Benefit Society? The Journal of Finance 70 (4), 1327-63

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