Society by Numbers: Studies on Model-Based Explanations in the Social Sciences

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisCollection of Articles


The aim of this dissertation is to provide conceptual tools for the social scientist for clarifying, evaluating and comparing explanations of social phenomena based on formal mathematical models. The focus is on relatively simple theoretical models and simulations, not statistical models. These studies apply a theory of explanation according to which explanation is about tracing objective relations of dependence, knowledge of which enables answers to contrastive why and how-questions. This theory is developed further by delineating criteria for evaluating competing explanations and by applying the theory to social scientific modelling practices and to the key concepts of equilibrium and mechanism.

The dissertation is comprised of an introductory essay and six published original research articles. The main theses about model-based explanations in the social sciences argued for in the articles are the following. 1) The concept of explanatory power, often used to argue for the superiority of one explanation over another, compasses five dimensions which are partially independent and involve some systematic trade-offs. 2) All equilibrium explanations do not causally explain the obtaining of the end equilibrium state with the multiple possible initial states. Instead, they often constitutively explain the macro property of the system with the micro properties of the parts (together with their organization). 3) There is an important ambivalence in the concept ‘mechanism’ used in many model-based explanations and this difference corresponds to a difference between two alternative research heuristics. 4) Whether unrealistic assumptions in a model (such as a rational choice model) are detrimental to an explanation provided by the model depends on whether the representation of the explanatory dependency in the model is itself dependent on the particular unrealistic assumptions. Thus evaluating whether a literally false assumption in a model is problematic requires specifying exactly what is supposed to be explained and by what. 5) The question of whether an explanatory relationship depends on particular false assumptions can be explored with the process of derivational robustness analysis and the importance of robustness analysis accounts for some of the puzzling features of the tradition of model-building in economics. 6) The fact that economists have been relatively reluctant to use true agent-based simulations to formulate explanations can partially be explained by the specific ideal of scientific understanding implicit in the practise of orthodox economics.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationHelsinki
Print ISBNs978-952-10-6295-7
Electronic ISBNs978-952-10-6296-4
Publication statusPublished - 2010
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)

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