Over 40 years of research in the IMP tradition has resulted in a variety of different kinds of published outputs ; data, information, knowledge, concepts, stories, models, case studies, frameworks and even some things that we might like to call theories. The espoused objective of all this research is better understanding of the phenomenon of interest; industrial networks. However the nature and quality of those understandings varies enormously and depends not only on the character of the research and the objectives it was designed to achieve but also upon their, usually implied, epistemology and ontology.
It is possible, though dangerous, to argue that in the social sciences there exist hierarchies of understandings. At the “base” there are very detailed descriptions of particular events and the entities that are involved. These descriptions are not usually generalisable. At the “summit” there are grand theories which explain, in some sense and according to particular ontological / epistemological schools of thought, the descriptions that are provided by “base” research findings.
In sociology Merton proposed that there could be “Theories of the mid range”. “They are theories intermediate to comprehensive analytical schema and detailed workaday hypotheses”, (Merton, 1957:108). More recently there has emerged a school of sociology that seeks to conceptualise and deploy what they term social mechanisms (Hedstrom and Swedberg, 1998). To date there are over 600 citations of the Hedstrom and Swedberg book across many different social science fields.
In this paper we describe the birth and development of the Causal Social Mechanism movement and proceed to a set of definitions. Next there is a section in which various possible ontologies are judged in terms of their compatibility with the concept. Examples of a wide range of Causal Social Mechanisms are then described and examples of those we judge may be relevant to Industrial Networks are presented. We suggest that the Causal Social Mechanisms approach is useful in helping theoreticians work across multiple ontologies and so offers significant opportunities for theory development.