Book Review – Why?

Why Charles Tilly’s Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons… And Why is an interesting departure from his usual writings. Readers of Tilly’s previous books are used to deep historical and comparative analyses of dynamics of contention or of democracy and state capacity. Why? is very different. It is a very Goffmanian book focusing on interactive dynamics and processes of reason-giving ("Human beings are reason-giving animals" writes Tilly, 8), rich in examples, and easy to read.

Tilly defines the thesis of his book as such:

"[This book] asks how, why, and in what different ways people supply reasons for the things they do, that others do, that happen to them, or that happen to other people – not so much grand general reasons for life, evil, or human frailty as the concrete reasons that different sorts of people supply or accept as they go about their daily business, deal with hardship, pass judgment on each other, or face emergencies such as the 9/11 disaster. (…) The book […] focuses on the social side of reason giving: how people share, communicate, contest, and collectively modify accepted reasons rather than how individual  nervous system process new information as it comes in." (9)

The focus of the book is then on the social process of giving reasons as part of common interactions. Indeed, one of Tilly’s central points is that giving reasons is a way of establishing, maintaining, reinforcing or contesting social relationships. The reasons we give, how we give or receive them, depends on the kinds of social relations between people.

Out of the diversity of reasons and social relations, Tilly identifies and distinguishes between four types reason-giving, used depending on the social relations between giver and receiver, as reason-giving is a process through which they confirm, negotiate or repair the connections between them.

  • Conventions : conventionally accepted reasons, "it was my turn", "traffic was bad", or "it was just luck.
  • Stories : explanatory narratives that include accounts of causality.
  • Codes : explanations based on legal judgments or religious dogma, for instance.
  • Technical Accounts : causal explanations based on specific expertise.

How each of these are used depends on the social interaction and social status and relationships between individuals involved. At the same time, which type of explanation is used has an effect on the social relationship between giver and receiver (confirmation, negotiation or repair).

Conventions do not provide cause-effect accounts. They are quick ways of explaining (away) social deviation. We, teachers, have heard our lot of conventional explanations as to why assignments are turned in late. Conventions are used in cases of conventional breach of folkways, little acts of deviance such as why we’re a few minutes late for a meeting.

Stories are used for exceptional events and unfamiliar phenomena and they do provide cause-effect accounts. Moreover, stories often include attribution of responsibility for the state of affair to be explained and therefore include a moral component (who was to blame, who behaved heroically, who behaved badly). However, stories are culturally-embedded. The same narratives tend to come up over and over again as stories trim down and simplify actors, motives and responsibilities whose weight is overestimated while errors and circumstances or luck are downplayed.

Codes refer to rules rather than accounts of cause and effect. References to the law or religious dogma or military regulations are of this kind. What is accounted for then is how much events and actions conformed to, or departed from, established rules.

Technical accounts identify cause and effect mechanisms through expert knowledge. The nature of the explanations will depend on whose expertise is invoked.

These different forms of reason-giving can be summarized as such:

Popular Specialized
Formulas Conventions Codes
Cause-Effect Accounts Stories Technical Accounts

"Popular" means widely accessible while "specialized" means that education or training is necessary to understand these accounts. Formulas refers to explanations where appropriateness (or closeness to a code or convention) is more important than establishing cause and effect.

All these forms of reason-giving do relational work. They can confirm the relationship between giver and receiver, as when the reason is accepted as such. They can establish a relationship when reason is given between unrelated individuals. They can negotiate relationship as when codes or technical accounts are used as a way of establishing one’s expertise in a the relationship. Or they can repair relationships especially when reason-giving aims at explaining harm inflicted on the receiver.

And as always, in social relationships, power and inequalities matter:

"Reason giving resembles what happens when people deal with unequal social relations in general. Participants in unequal social relations may detect, confirm, reinforce, or challenge them, but as they do so they deploy modes of communication that signal which of these things they are doing. In fact, the ability to give reasons without challenge usually accompanies a position of power. (…) Whatever else happens in the giving of reasons, givers and receivers are negotiating definitions of their equality or inequality." (24-5)

For instance, using formulas rather than cause and effect account may be a mark of power where there is no need for further explanation. And receivers may challenge such accounts by demanding cause and effect reasons but how forcefully such a challenge is made is also a function of the (in)equality of the relationship between giver and receiver.

Based on this typology, then, Tilly proceeds to detailed accounts of how each mode of explanation operates through a variety of everyday examples. For instance, for conventions,

"Good etiquette incorporates conventional reasons. The reasons need not be true, but they must fit the circumstances. On the whole, furthermore, in most circumstances that require polite behavior conventions work better than stories, codes or technical accounts, which would only complicate the interchange. Conventions confirm or repair social relations." (33)

This leads to another important topic: it is a competence to be able to identify which type of explanation to provide depending on the type of situations. Because reasons justify practices, supplying inappropriate reasons disrupts social life. This is indeed a very Goffmanian analysis of the social actor as competent reason-giver. The ability to provide the appropriate reasons is a sign of social competence. Failure to do so cause embarrassment and will entail some face-repairing work (which itself will require reason-giving to reestablish the competence of the actor) that will interrupt the flow of social interaction.

But Tilly takes this a step further:

"Reason giving always defines, or redefines, the relationship between the parties. More precisely, it distinguishes the relationship between the parties from other relationships with which it would be risky, costly, confusing, or embarrassing to confuse it." (39)

Reason-giving is then also boundary-marking. As such, reason-giving has consequences for action and subsequent interactions.

Regarding stories:

"Stories provide simplified cause-effect accounts of puzzling, unexpected, dramatic, problematic, or exemplary events. Relying on widely available knowledge rather than technical expertise, they help make the world intelligible. (…) They often carry an edge of justification or condemnation." (64)

Again, cultures provides a limited narrative repertoire that actors can tap into in the formatting and customizing of their stories but these accounts often come from the same cultural matrix or template. As above, knowing when to provide a story-as-reason is a social competence that requires crafting a cast of character and sequences of events that lead to a moral conclusion where credit and blame get allocated. In our culture, individual credit and blame are the norm. And here as well, power matters, socially-inferior story-givers have to provide more elaborate narrative that incorporates greater self-justification.

Not only do stories contain moral elements, they also incorporate rhetorical components as well in that they strive to persuade the receiver of whatever excuses, apologies or condemnations they contain.

As for codes,

"Reasons based on conventions draw on widely available formulas to explain or justify actions, but include little or no cause-effect reasoning. Story-based reasons, in contrast, build on simplified cause-effect accounts by means of idioms that many people in the same culture can grasp. Reasons stemming from technical accounts likewise invoke cause and effect, but rely on specialized disciplines and claim to present comprehensive explanations. When it comes to codes, reasons given for actions cite their conformity to specialized sets of categories, procedures for ordering evidence, and rules of interpretation. Together, categories, procedures and rules make up codes." (101-2)

Indeed, take the Oscar Grant deadly shooting, most analysis focuses on whether the BART cop who shot Grant conformed to the code (the rules regarding the use of force and its escalation). What will probably be debated in courts will be how closely he followed such rules or whether he departed from them. Based on such an analysis, blame will be allocated (and potentially, social sanctions).

Codes are an especially important form of reason-giving in formal organizations and bureaucratic environments where rules and regulations are essential to the life of the organizations.

The quote above already nicely defined technical accounts (cause-effect + specialized knowledge + jargon accessible to whoever is qualified and trained). Power is essential here as well as the display of specialized knowledge using the lingua of the specific discipline mark the in-group / out-group boundaries and excludes whoever does not possess such technical knowledge. Using technical accounts is an assertion of authority.

Tilly concludes his book by raising a specific problem for public sociology (or whoever teaches introduction to sociology courses):

"Social scientists face a distinctive problem. (…) They claim to describe and explain the same social processes that nonspecialists habitually treat by means of conventions and stories. Hence a bundle of problems for social scientists: they are commonly proposing explanations of the very same behaviors and outcomes for which people learn early in life to give accounts in the modes of conventions, stories and codes. (…) As researchers, authors, teachers, and participants in public discussion, social scientists therefore find themselves causing offense and cultivating disbelief. In any case, they rarely reach general audiences with their technical accounts." (176)

Food for thought for all socbloggers.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – Why?

  1. It’s funny that you brought up this book.Several years ago I was enrolled in a Graduate seminar in Sweden titled “Why Revolt?”. However in this course the main objective was to find out what actually will start social movements and revolutions.We went through a number of theories and theorists including: Marx, Tilly, Scopcal,Snow& Benford,etc.

    Thanks again for bringing this up…l

    • Certainly, the sociological study of social movements is one of the most currently fruitful sub-field of sociology especially indeed with the contemporary work of Tilly, Tarrow or Della Porta.

      It is especially interesting and important because no other social science can properly account for social movements.

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