Why? What happens when people give reasons... and why

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Citation: Charles Tilly (2006) Why? What happens when people give reasons... and why.
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Why? What happens when people give reasons... and why
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) Reasons (RSS), explanations (RSS), power (RSS), social relations (RSS), sociology (RSS)


How do we explain? What do we explain? Why do we explain?

In this brief and accessible book, Tilly explores reason-giving. He does so largely via stories (one of the types of explanations he identifies, see below); aside from these his sociological points are few and clear. These questions motivated his writing: does social giving of reasons vary systematically? In particular, do relations between reason givers and reason receivers affect the types of reasons offered, and the reactions to these reasons?

Tilly begins with a 2x2 typology for reasons. The first axis distinguishes between Formula-based reasons and Cause and Effect accounts. The second axis distinguishes between Popular and Specialized reasons. He names Popular Formulaic reasons "Conventions", Popular Cause and Effect reasons "Stories", Specialized Formulaic reasons "Codes", and Specialized Cause and Effect reasons "Technical Accounts".

His definitions for these four (overlapping) types of reasons are worth quoting, as they are central to his argument:

"Conventions: conventionally accepted reasons for dereliction, deviation, distinction or good fortune: my train was late, your turn finally came, she has breeding, he's just a lucky guy, and so on.

Stories: explanatory narratives incorporating cause-effect accounts of unfamiliar phenomena or of exceptional events such as the 9/11 catastrophe, but also such as betrayal by a friend, winning a big prize, or meeting a high school classmate at Egypt's Pyramids twenty years after graduation

Codes: governing actions such as legal judgments, religious penance, or awarding of medals

Technical Accounts: of the outcomes in the first three: how a structural engineer, a dermatologist, or an orthopedic surgeon might explain what happened to Elaine Duch on the World Trade center's 88th floor after a hijacked aircraft struck the building on 9/11"

Tilly goes on to articulate how each of these reason types "work". He claims, for example, that when offered as justifications, Conventions are rarely taken to imply cause and effect reasoning, but rather as an attempt to characterize a given relationship. Acceptable (Conventional) reasons are those that offer an acceptable characterization.

According to Tilly, Stories have one thing in common: they almost always exclude simultaneous causation, incremental effects, environmental effects, mistakes, unintended consequences and feedback. We use them to integrate aberrations into everyday life. In particular, Stories foreground human actors' dispositions as prime causal movers, most of them follow one of a few templates (e.g. A let B down and B suffered, but A eventually suffered as well), and they usually have some kind of moral.

In contrast to Conventions and Stories, Code-based reasons cite conformity (or lack thereof) to "specialized sets of categories, procedures for ordering evidence, and rules of interpretation." Thus someone might be declared the legitimate heir to an estate in a court of law not because the deceased wished them to receive their fortune, but because the deceased's will was drawn up and executed in accordance with established probate law.

Technical Accounts, for Tilly, facilitate communication within a group of specialists. In so doing, they can reinforce perceived difference between (and often superiority of) that group of specialists and the rest of the social world. Technical Accounts and Codes are also often interdependent; a sociological explanation for increasing crime rates relies upon a set of categories, procedures for ordering evidence and rules of interpretation (categorization, in this case): what counts as a crime?

Tilly ends by resolving the sociological questions he raised in the beginning of his book (following quoted from p174-5):

  • Within their own jurisdictions, professional givers promote and enforce the priority of codes and technical accounts over conventions and stories.
  • In particular, professional givers generally become skilled at translating conventions and stories into their preferred idioms, and at coaching other people to collaborate in that translation.
  • Hence the greater the professionalization of knowledge in any social setting, the greater the predominance of codes and technical accounts.
  • To the extent that relations between giver and receiver are distant and/or giver occupies a superior rank, giver provides formulas rather than cause-effect accounts.
  • Givers who offer formulas thereby claim superiority and/or distance.
  • Receivers ordinarily challenge such claims, when they do, by demanding cause-effect accounts.
  • Those demands typically take the forms of expressing skepticism about the proposed formula and asking for detail on how and why Y actually occurred.
  • In the case of authoritatively delivered codes, however, a skilled receiver can also challenge the reasons given by deploying the code and demonstrating that the giver has misused it.
  • Even in the presence of distance and/or inequality, to the extent that receiver has visible power to affect giver's subsequent welfare, giver moves from formulas towards cause-effect accounts.