Step 4: Generative mechanisms are the powers that effect behaviour. They make a difference; they cause things to happen

ImageIn the previous step I made reference to William Outhwaite’s observation that social relations are as real as human actions. In this step I want to go further and bundle up social relations, human actions, and ideas under one term—generative mechanisms.

These generative mechanisms are the powers, liabilities, dispositions, and resources that fire to produce dynamic (social) processes. They act to shape and describe social regularities. Indeed, as Pawson and Tilley (1997:68) observe, these generative mechanisms are regularities. They are ‘an account of the make-up, behaviour, and interrelationships of those processes which are responsible for the regularity’.

For realists there are real connections between events, that cause things to happen. The existence of causal powers and an acceptance that these powers exist independent of our knowing them sets realism apart from anti-realism (including social constructivism and empiricism) (Brock and Mares, 2007).

In Step 2 I suggested that to explain social reality we must get beyond the surface appearance of social objects and describe the underlying mechanisms that fashion and shape these objects. This, for Malcolm Williams (Letherby et al., 2013), is the ‘trick’ of explanation.

These 39 steps accept that social research is as much a social object as the social objects we investigate (a thought that might seem trivial to state, but is rarely acknowledged in methods textbooks). And because a realist strategy of choosing cases is a dynamic social process we are involved in a double trick of explanation. We must explain the choices researchers make through the interplay of researcher and institution and researcher and researched, as much as the historically and institutionally contingent powers, liabilities, and dispositions that fire to bring about particular social processes and outcomes.

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