Gianluca Manzo's Theoretical Research

My empirically-oriented research at the same time informs and is guided by a systematic meta-theoretical reflection on foundational aspects of sociological theorizing like the concepts of theory and model, the concept of mechanism, the micro-macro problem, methodological individualism, and the status of the rationality assumption. These theoretical analyses led me to engage into discussion with central currents of contemporary social theory including analytical sociology, pragmatism, and rational choice theory [see also the debates section].

// Analytical Sociology

Early 2004, after completing the first French draft of my “Variables, Mécanismes et Simulations”, I discovered Filippo Barbera’s Meccanismi Sociali. Elementi di Sociologica Analitica. This book made me aware that the ideas I was proposing in this article were also slowly spreading at the international level. Raymond Boudon and Mohamed Cherkaoui, who was supervising my Ph.D at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, confirmed that the idea of explaining by mechanism was crystallizing into a theoretical perspective called “analytical sociology”. Since late 2008, Peter Hedström has been a regular mentor and interlocutor on this topic.

My initial attempt to answer the question "what is analytical sociology?" progressively evolved around several sub-questions: 1/ what are the historical roots of analytical sociology? 2/ what is the difference between contemporary analytical sociology and Parsons’s project of an analytical theory of society? 3/ is analytical sociology committed to methodological individualism and, if so, to what form of this doctrine?; 4/ is analytical sociology a re-statement of rational choice theory?; 5/ what are the specificities of analytical sociology within contemporary sociology?

The main results of this line of thinking are: 1/ the article published in European Journal of Sociology (2010) in which analytical sociology is presented as a complex research strategy relying on a web of epistemological, theoretical, and methodological building blocks; 2/ the introductory chapter to Analytical Sociology: Actions and Networks (Wiley, 2014) in which the principles of (a specific understanding of) analytical sociology are systematically discussed.

Learn more on my publications and talks on "Analytical Sociology".

// Theory of Action

My interest for the theory of action went back to my Master of Philosophy at the University of Paris-Sorbonne in which, following Raymond Boudon’s suggestion, I compared his conception of rational choice theory with those of James Coleman and Gary Becker. This early piece of work pushed me better to study in the following years the variety of forms under which the theory of rational action has been elaborated in sociology and economics.

The realism of the micro-level assumptions behind the theory rapidly became the point of view from which I investigated this literature. Even the variants of the theory that seemed to me the most realistic at first progressively appeared to me rather descriptively incomplete. Thus I started to explore action theories in psychology and get interested in models of heuristic-driven decision-making.

At present the main results of this line of thinking are an article published in the European Journal of Social Sciences (2012) critically studying Boudon’s theory of cognitive rationality, and an article published in Social Science Information (2013) analyzing more generally the status of rational choice theory in sociology.

Learn more on my publications on "Theory of Action".

// Models and Mechanisms

When I moved to Paris in 2001, my training was that of a standard empirically-oriented, quantitatively-minded sociologist. Explaining meant to me to discover robust connections among variables and speculate theoretically on the origin of these connections. Raymond Boudon, who was going to direct my Master of Philosophy at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, drew my attention on the concept of mechanism.

This was the starting point of my analysis of variable-centered explanations and the limitations of statistical modeling. Progressively I came to think that specific methods are needed when one is interested explicitly to model actors’ heterogeneity and local interactions. Agent-based computational modeling appeared to me as a promising tool to support this explanatory mode and started to study the epistemology and the technique behind this simulation method.

The main results of this line of thinking are two articles published in the Revue Française de Sociology (2005) and L’Année Sociologique (2007) arguing for the necessity of a combination of multivariate statistics, mechanism-based formal models, and agent-based computational simulations.

Learn more on my publications and talks on "Models and Mechanisms".

// Agent-based computational modeling

The diversification of the substantive problems for which I mobilize agent-based modeling progressively led me to intensify my thinking on what the exact nature of this method is. From my intuition that agent-based modeling can be helpfully employed to implement a specific explanatory mode, namely mechanism-based explanation, I moved on to a more explicit and focused reflection on the distinguishing features of agent-based computational models compared to other formal modeling techniques.

Thus, in a sense, the analysis of agent-based modeling as a tool becomes an entire chapter of my research activities. In this respect, I started to explore more carefully the deep sources of agent-based modeling flexibility, the variety of ways an agent-based model can be built and studied, as well as the possible relation between agent-based modeling and causal analysis.

The main results of this strand of my research are partly published in the introductory and concluding chapters that I wrote for the edited volume Analytical Sociology: Action and Networks (2014) (see here), and, more extensively, to an article entirely devoted to agent-based modeling published in the Revue Française de Sociologie (2014).

Learn more on my publications specifically focused on agent-based modeling and simulation.