Let’s have your story

Adam Phillips

  • Why?: What Happens When People Give Reasons . . . and Why by Charles Tilly
    Princeton, 202 pp, £15.95, March 2006, ISBN 0 691 12521 X

This is a book about the reasons we give and the reason we give them; a book about our behaviour rather than the mysteries of human existence or technology or the universe. For Charles Tilly, people give reasons not ‘because of some universal craving for truth or coherence’ but because they want to confirm, negotiate or repair their relationships. The whole business of giving reasons for what we do and for what happens is basically a pretext for another get-together. It’s not that we don’t know what we and the world are really like that troubles us but our sociability. Getting on rather than getting it right is what matters, and getting it right – giving accurate accounts – is one of the best things we have come up with to do together. ‘Whatever else they are doing when they give reasons,’ Tilly writes in this persuasive book, ‘people are clearly negotiating their social lives. They are saying something about relations between themselves and those who hear their reasons.’ Having acknowledged the ‘whatever else they are doing’, a nod to the more philosophically or psychologically-minded reader, Tilly can go his own way through the perplexing forms our reasons tend to take. His way is sociological, which means in this case a good mixture of the anecdotal and the schematic; there are riveting stories by survivors of 9/11, people who have been told by doctors that they have cancer, jilted lovers, and scientists interested in the ecology of common land, and rather less riveting but clearly useful attempts to formulate and formalise what Tilly calls ‘the relational side of reason-giving’.

Tilly’s previous work as a social scientist has been the analysis of what he calls ‘large-scale political processes such as revolutions and democratisation’, but this book was prompted by misgivings about the social sciences and what he took to be their complicity with a more pervasive cultural narrow-mindedness. He was struck by the fact that the mass media, students and ‘my fellow social scientists’, in their explanations of complex social phenomena, tended to focus ‘so regularly on the decision-making of a few influential actors while neglecting unanticipated consequences, incremental effects, and the incessant, subtle negotiation of social interaction’. Given that ‘people rarely accomplish exactly what they consciously plan, and constantly find events unrolling differently from what they anticipated’, it is, as Tilly says, strange that when they come to describe or explain what he calls ‘social processes’ they ‘overwhelmingly emphasise conscious deliberation’. That was the point Tolstoy made in War and Peace – that you can’t have a theory of accidents, that if contingency rules nothing rules that a method could account for – but as Tilly sees it, this isn’t something the social sciences want to recognise. If you don’t, as part of your descriptions of the social world, talk about agents with conscious intentions, or ersatz agents like the structure of language, or unconscious desire or kinship structures, then what are you going to talk about? Whether you privilege structure over agency, or prefer to think of agents informed but not utterly determined by structures, you are still wanting to get some inevitability into the story.

So the other thing that prompted Tilly’s book, though he doesn’t put it quite like this, was a wish to purge the social sciences of the last vestiges of providentialism. His own ‘plaintive claim’ was that ‘most social processes more often resemble intense conversation than, say, soliloquies or a grand master’s planning of chess moves,’ and that for some reason his preferred analogy ‘rarely persuaded anyone’. Monologues and grand masters, of one sort or another, were what was wanted, even, it seems, in nominally democratic societies. And just as more and other things happen than those we intend, and no one person, or power or force or structure, is in charge of us, so Tilly’s book is itself about far more than he – or perhaps even it – wants it to be about. The ‘Why?’ of his title asks and shows with great lucidity ‘what happens when people give reasons . . . and why’; but it also asks, among other things, why the language of sociology is so marginal to the general culture, and by implication to the language of so many other academic disciplines; and why Tilly himself might have become the social scientist he became. There is, that is to say, a fascinating account in this very various book, of how the best popular science writing works, and works on its readers; and there are intriguing autobiographical moments, when Tilly lets us know something about his own life without any of the modern jargon of self-exposure.

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