Posted in Academic writing, Rhetoric, Writing Class

Tilly: Why? Different Ways that People Give Reasons — and Lessons for Scholars

In this post, I explore the issue of the different ways in which people give reasons to each other.  It draws on a lovely little book by sociologist Charles Tilly: Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons…and Why.  One of the things that makes his account valuable is how it gives scholars a way of understanding the yawning chasm between how they explain things to other experts and how ordinary people explain things to each other. 

Bridging this gap is difficult for scholars but it’s absolutely necessary, if our insights are going to gain acceptance in a broader audience.  I’ll get to that part later on, but for now let’s explore the basic typology or reasons that Tilly lays out.

Tilly -- Why

Here’s a table of the different ways in which people give reasons for events, categorized according to whether they take a popular or expert form and whether they are formulaic or a really explanatory.

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

Formulas:  giving reasons without providing a causal account.

Cause-effect accounts:  the focus is on explaining why something happened.

Popular:  generally accessible explanations that are used by the general public.

Specialized:  reasons that are used by and accessible only to experts.

Conventions:  Conventionally accepted reasons for whatever happened:  traffic is terrible, it’s your turn, I’m clumsy, he’s smart, bad luck.  They don’t pretend to be real explanations, but they’re sufficient for the social purposes at hand, which really don’t require such an explanation.  Especially prominent with everyday events that are unremarkable.

Codes:  Understanding events through an arcane code like law, church canons, bureaucratic regulations, scientific methodology, medical science.  Not a real explanation; it just locates the issue as connected to a specialized domain and for the civilian that is sufficient:  it’s the law, it’s God’s will, it’s regulation, it’s policy.

Stories:  Narratives about cause and effect, with reasons, actors, morals, heroes, and villains.  They are called upon to explain events that are more unusual, troubling, often carrying a normative element of praise or blame.  This is the way regular people explain things.  It’s the most accessible and effective way to explain things to the broadest audience.

Technical accounts:  Expert efforts to establish some kind of valid and reliable explanation of cause and effect using specialized expertise.  A medical explanation of disease, a social scientist’s explanation for why A (not C-Z) caused B.

All of these efforts to give reasons – popular and technical, formulas and explanations – exist in part to establish, maintain, reinforce, define, or deny relationships with other people.  Formulas are a formalistic bow to the need to give reasons to others and preserve civil relations: sorry I’m late, couldn’t find parking.  Nobody takes the reason too seriously but they appreciate the message of mild apology.  Formulas frequently announce relations of inequality:  I give you a formulaic response because I don’t consider it necessary to give you a real explanation given your lower status; it’s often just a brush off.  Demanding explanations is a social move asking to be taken seriously and treated like an equal.  Here’s how Tilly explains the relational element (recall: he’s a sociologist).

All four kinds of reasons commonly do relational work. The most invisible work simply confirms the relation between giver and receiver, for example as a penitent accepts a priest’s interpretation of her sins and the priest’s prescription for proper recompense to man and God in a code that has little or nothing to do with causes and effects. More visibly, reason giving often establishes relations, as in the case of an interviewer who explains the purpose of a survey when calling to ask about preferences in food, television, or politics. It sometimes negotiates relations, as when the author of a technical account displays professional credentials to make a claim on a listener’s respect and compliance. Finally, much reason giving repairs relations, as someone who has inflicted damage on someone else tells a story to show that the damage was inadvertent or unavoidable and therefore, despite appearances, does not reflect badly on the relationship between giver and receiver. The phrase “I’m sorry, but . . . ” often starts a story that does relational repairs. Both formulas and cause-effect accounts do relational work.

Formulas identify an appropriate correspondence between Y (the event, action, or outcome at hand) and X (its antecedent), but enter little or not at all into the causal chain connecting Y to X. Cause-effect accounts trace causal lines from X to Y—even if we observers find those causal lines absurd or incomprehensible. “Popular” reasons obviously vary from one public to another, for example as a function of religiosity and religious creed. Specialized reasons likewise vary strikingly from discipline to discipline; theologians elaborate both codes and technical accounts that differ deeply from those proposed by medical practitioners.

There’s a warning here for scholars and other experts.  As Tilly puts it,

Sophisticated readers should guard against an easy and erroneous pair of assumptions: that popular reasons peddle inferior, ignorant, and excessively simplified versions of codes and technical accounts, and that truly sophisticated people therefore never resort to conventions or stories. We sophisticates easily make the mistake because we frequently have to translate our own codes or technical accounts into terms that people who work in other idioms will understand.

We take justified pride in our expert knowledge, and we rely on rigorous research methodologies to give our conclusions scientific credibility.  So most of our reason-giving is directed at other experts, who can understand our theories and methods and appreciate their validity.  

But when we have to communicate our findings to nonexperts, we run into a problem.  We feel like we can’t explain results to civilians without dumbing down the discourse in a way that invalidates the rigorous methods involved in producing the results in the first place.  As a result, we commonly find ourselves making a stand on the general credibility of our expertise.  Trust me, I’m an expert; I know what I’m doing.  One way of doing this is to blow away the civilian reader with a flurry of stats and tables and Greek letters and institutional affiliations and scholarly citations.  Look at all this expert evidence, we say.  This is why you need to listen to us.  

Misuse of the “I’m the expert” approach is part of what has undermined public faith in science over the years.  After all, experts gave us the bomb, the Vietnam War, and the plastic garbage patch in the Pacific.   We need to be able to communicate more clearly and still credibly to nonexpert audiences, but that’s not easy.

The civilian approach is to tell stories.  These stories are organized around actors and actions, motives and outcomes, and they usually come with a moral defined by a struggle between good guys and bad guys.  The problem for serious academic research is that the story is more complex than that, and good and bad are difficult to discern.  We do a disservice to the richness and complexity of our findings by oversimplifying them in this way.

But we scholars often slide into simplifying mode anyway, especially around issues we care about a lot and which are fraught with emotion and concerned with  fairness.  Think race, inequality, policing practices, immigration, climate change, war and peace.  Evidence, methods, and reason don’t seem to be sufficient for these subjects, so we shift from scholarly explanation to political advocacy. 

Being a political actor is good and necessary for any citizen, including a scholar, but the danger is in suggesting that your political position is a simple extension of your scientific research — e.g., saying “Research shows we should do this.”  But research never tells us what we should do.  At best it gives us solid information upon which to make choices about issues whose core concerns are normative, political.  Recall Weber’s point in Science as a Vocation — that science can’t answer Tolstoy’s question, “What shall we do, and how shall we arrange our lives?”

It’s still possible, however, for scholars to connect with people who don’t understand the methods we use to develop our conclusions.  We can find ways to tell compelling stories that will make an effective case for a particular understanding of events without recourse to either arcane methodologies or emotional appeals.  

In my writing class, I found that one way to dig out the core story in your research is to try something called a fast-write.  Sit down in front of the computer and spend no more than 10 minutes writing a paragraph about the central issues in your study.  Be sure you do so without using any academic jargon, scholarly citations, theoretical references, or methodological procedures.  Pretend you’re talking to an educated person, not a specialist in your field, who just asked you about your work over a glass of wine.  Think about what got you interested in the subject in the first place, what you found most compelling among your findings, what you feel is the coolest thing you uncovered. 

What you’ll find you’re writing is a story.  It probably won’t have heroes and villains and a simple moral, but it will have a narrative that civilians can connect with.  When you’ve done this you may well find that you have written the ideal opening paragraph for the written version of your study — where you lay out the big issues in the work before delving into the technical details that shore it up.  You’ll be doing your technical readers a favor by framing the analysis this way up front, allowing them to see the significance in what follows.

Here’s an example of what I mean, the opening paragraphs of one of the classic texts in organizational theory, Karl Weick’s paper, “Educational Organizations as Loosely-Coupled Systems.”

Imagine that you’re either the referee, coach, player or spectator at an unconventional soccer match: the field for the game is round; there are several goals scattered haphazardly around the circular field; people can enter and leave the game whenever they want to; they can throw balls in whenever they want; they can say “that’s my goal” whenever they want to, as many times as they want to, and for as many goals as they want to; the entire game takes place on a sloped field; and the game is played as if it makes sense (March, personal communication).

If you now substitute in that example principals for referees, teachers for coaches, students for players, parents for spectators and schooling for soccer, you have an equally unconventional depiction of school organizations. The beauty of this depiction is that it captures a different set of realities within educational organizations than are caught when these same organizations are viewed through the tenets of bureaucratic theory.

Here, in a few simple words, Weick gives a quick window into the heart of his richly complex theory of schools as loosely-coupled systems.  It’s accessible to anyone, and it evokes the larger implications of his story while at the same time luring the reader to plunge ahead into the analysis that follows.  It simplifies without dumbing down.  It compels without pulling out the emotional stops.  It shows how good academic storytelling is both possible and necessary.