Monday, June 18, 2007

How Reason's Work

We give reasons and receive them from others each day of our lives. But have we, for a moment, paused to inquire into the how of these reasons. Charles Tilly did!
Charle's Tilly is a social scientist, a Professor at Columbia University, who spends the major part of his professional life analysing large-scale political processes like revolutions and democratization. During this he discovered two patterns that forced him to think in different terms. One, that fellow-social scientists, mass media amd students explained complex social phenomena as the decision-making of a few influential actors, neglecting the unanticipated consequences, incremental effects and the subtle negotiation of social interaction. It is obvious that people rarely accomplish what they set out to achieve and events unroll differently than planned for. Yet in explaining social and political processes, conscious deliberation is emphasised to the exclusion of all else.
Second, that social processes resemble an intense conversation rather than soliloquies or a grandmaster's planning of chess moves. But few stood convinced of what he said.
Addressing this double challenge led him into the world of reasons, how people give reasons, how people receive reasons and how the relations between givers and receivers are negotiated, established, denied or repaired by the social process of reason giving. And the search resulted in his writing a very excellent book with one of the shortest titles a book could have 'Why?'
The author does not lay bare his theory of reason for he sees no need to have one for his purposes. Nor does he depend on anyone's theory. It is not his lot to worry as to whether the reasons people give are right or wrong or good or bad. Nor is he concerned about how individual nervous systems process new information as it comes in or in intellectual discussions of why things occur as they do. He does not question their significance; only, they are not the subject matter of this book, which concentrates on the social process of reason giving at the person - to - person scale.
Reasons, according to Tilly, fall in four broad but overlapping categories. They are:
1. Conventions
2. Stories
3. Codes
4. Technical Accounts
The four varieties of reasons differ significantly in form and content. Reasons match relationships. Reasons also justify practices that would not be compatible with other reasons and/or definitions of relationships. Reasons, Relationships and Practices are aligned.
The types of reasons are explained in detail by Tilly, devoting a chapter to each. They must be read carefully to get a proper grasp of what the author is aiming at. Stories are reasons which interpret events in terms of cause and effect. They are circumscribed in space and time and have a limited number of actors and actions. They re-work complex social processes and simplify them. They are grounded in commonly accessible every-day knowledge and throw hints of justification or condemnation. Conventions are bound by the logic of appropriateness and can be recognised by their simplicity and by the absence of further discussion. Conventions follow widely recognisable formulas. Codes, like Conventions, gain their credibility from the criteria of appropriateness rather than from cause-effect validity that prevails in stories and technical accounts. Of course, codes serve a variety of purposes in addition to justifying reasons and are made up of specialised sets of categories, procedures for ordering evidence and rules of interpretation. Technical accounts, like stories, combine cause-effect explanations but they are based on a systematic specialised discipline.
The author engages in vivid descriptions to make the reader understand the issues of the book. In the process, he also introduces the reader to new ideas and writers. Tilly refers to frames, first introduced by Erving Goffman. It shows how the very structure of organisations establish frames that focus attention on some kinds of information while screening out a great deal of other information that could, in principle, significantly affect their operation. He quotes Russell Hardin on street-level epistemology, Aristotle on Rhetoric, Anatole Broyard on Illness, Jessica Stern on terrorism and Thane Rosenbaum on legal theory, to name a few.
If it is believed that people give reasons based on their upbringing, fundamental beliefs, group membership or deep down character, then they must give the same reasons across a wide range of social circumstances. Do they? In contrast, some may claim that people give reasons at two levels - deep,authentic reasons for intimate acquaintances and quick, superficial, convenient reasons for the others. Reading this book would distance you from such beliefs, which to the author, are erroneous . The book's arguments and evidence prove that the reasons you give match your relations with those to whom they are given. Or in reverse, the reasons people give you reflect their relation with you.

Why? - Charles Tilly.
Princeton University Press.


Maryam in Marrakesh said...

His theory actually makes perfect sense to me. And it does explain why my brother and I reason so differently!

Madelyn said...

Makes sense to me as well - of course
I will have to read it again to be sure:)

I am so happy you play tennis to air
out your "thinking" head:)

off to read more of your blog:)