Monday, May 14, 2007

Charles Tilly's "Why?"

Charles Tilly is Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University.

His 2006 book Why? (Princeton University Press, 2006) is about the explanations we give and how we give them -- a fascinating look at the way the reasons we offer every day are dictated by, and help constitute, social relationships.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to the book and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book Why? talks about codes. The book as a whole asks two questions: 1) How do people give each other reasons for the things they do, things other people do, and things they see happening? 2) When they give reasons, how and why do the reasons vary for the same things vary from one pair of interlocutors to another? "Codes" is one answer to the first question. People generally choose among four different ways of giving reasons: conventions such as that's the way things go, eh?, stories such as Jenny hit Billy and he got a bruise, technical accounts such as here's the best medical knowledge we have on how contusions form, and codes such as here are the rules for judging whether Jenny had the right to hit Billy. Whenever people give each other reasons, they are simultaneously confirming, denying, asserting, or negotiating their relationships to each other, which is why you explain the exact same mistake differently to your spouse and your neighbor on the train. The choice among conventions, stories, technical accounts, and codes does the same thing in a bigger way. Lawyers and rabbis claim authority over their listeners by citing codes, geologists and anthropologists claim a different kind of authority by constructing cause-effect technical accounts, but most of the time we handle reasons with the equivalents of shoulder shrugs I call conventions or (when the situation calls for more coherent explanation) nicely crafted stories. Stories are one of the great human inventions, radically simplifying causes and effects but neatly fixing responsibility as they provide reasons.
Learn more about Why? at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue