Gladwell on Tilly on the sociology of explanations

CharlesTillyWhy.jpgMalcolm Gladwell writes an insightful review of “Why?” (ISBN 069112521X) by renowned sociologist Charles Tilly that tackles the social context and motivations for providing explanations.

A recent article in The Guardian also discussed the new book and summarised Tilly’s five ‘types’ of explanation:

There are, Tilly suggests, at least five different ways to explain why things happen. To take Katrina as the example: the first explanation might be “convention” (there’s always a monumental cock-up after a hurricane); the second, “technical explication” (in which the meteorologists precisely chart how weather conditions created the chaos); third, “codes” (in this case, the federal, state and city ordinances that prevented any clear line of responsibility emerging); fourth, “ritualistic” explanations (God’s wrath or nemesis); and “fifth”, stories.

In Gladwell’s New Yorker review, he highlights the fact that these types of explanations have different social purposes and are typically used to achieve certain persuasive ends in a debate.

Proponents of abortion often rely on a convention (choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester). Opponents of abortion turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Is it any surprise that the issue has proved to be so intractable? If you believe that stories are the most appropriate form of reason-giving, then those who use conventions and technical accounts will seem morally indifferent—regardless of whether you agree with them. And, if you believe that a problem is best adjudicated through conventions or technical accounts, it is hard not to look upon storytellers as sensationalistic and intellectually unserious.

Gladwell (who was recently profiled in Psychological Science) makes links between Tilly’s work and the work of the late sociologist Erving Goffman who similarly examined seemingly straighforward social interactions.

In his classic book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Goffman argued that how we present ourselves to others is often like a stage appearance, which we try to manage as much as possible to control the impressions that others draw from our ‘performance’.

UPDATE: The first chapter of “Why?” is freely available from Princeton University Press in html or pdf format.

Link to Gladwell’s review of “Why?” in The New Yorker.
Link to Guardian article on Tilly’s “Why?”.

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