Book: Why? by Charles Tilly

Tedious book on a smart idea

Charles Tilly
Princeton University Press, 2006
ISBN-13: 978-0-691-12521-3
ISBN-10: 0-691-12521-X
180 pages (main text)

I feel a little bad about writing about Charles Tilly's book Why?. Let me explain, um, why. The book is about a really smart and fascinating idea that he has. It's one of those ideas that, once you hear it, you're immediately persuaded that it's true and you wonder that you and everyone else missed it for so long. I can't write about the book without telling you about the idea. But I can't actually recommend that you read the book because the author's writing style is, well, not very engaging. So I'm going to have to give away the heart of the book and then tell you that you probably don't want to buy it. I feel a little bad about that.

Professor Tilly is a professor of social science at Columbia University. When some academics write for a general audience, they write as well as any author does. Steven Pinker and John Nathan are in that category. Others do reasonably well or rather better. And some just don't write in a way that makes their prose a pleasure to read. Alas, it seems from Why? that Professor Tilly falls in that last category.

But the idea that the book is about is another matter. It can be summed up pretty briefly: When people answer the question "Why?", that is, when they give reasons for things being the way they are, they may give an answer in any of four different categories or modes. Professor Tilly's taxonomy of modes of giving reasons consists of conventions, stories, codes, and technical accounts.

Professor Tilly's conventions are socially acceptable reasons such as, "I was distracted". Stories are cause-and-effect narratives based on common sense with relatively few actors in them. Codes are formal sets of rules, such as laws or the rules of a sport. And technical accounts are cause-and-effect accounts intended to be thorough and reliable within a particular expert's area of expertise.

All or some of those modes can be used to explain most events. Which of them is appropriate in a given context depends on the relationship between the person explaining and the person being explained to. When two people's relationships isn't already clearly defined, they may negotiate their relationship by offering and/or requesting different modes of explanation.

To my mind, that's an idea with enormous explanatory power. When I'm annoyed with what my cell phone company's customer service agent will do, it's probably because my story won't fit their code. On the other hand, if I'm talking about a bug in one of my programs, a programmer buddy might want to hear in detail about a thread synchronization error, but a non-technical buddy would probably be happier with "I screwed up".

Professor Tilly goes into a fair amount more detail in the book and discusses various implications that his idea has. If you're interested in those, by all means do read the book. But if you're like me you may find this short book rather slow going. Take, for example, this passage:

    Here, however, we zero in on a narrower question:
    how specialized codes -- of whatever contents,
    however they develop, and whatever other
    purposes they serve -- provide the basis for the
    giving of reasons. Asked to justify a decision,
    adjudicate a dispute, or give advice, skillful users
    of codes find matches between concrete cases and
    the categories, procedures, and rules already built
    into the codes. Like conventions, reasons based on
    codes therefore gain credibility from criteria of
    appropriateness rather than from cause-effect
    validity that prevails in stories and technical
    accounts. (p. 104)

Which I think might be more clearly and vividly rendered as something like: "Because codes are formal rules that are generally written down, they can't anticipate every possibility. Therefore in applying codes, appropriateness counts and not cause-and-effect relationships. When a sportsman commits a foul on a playing field, the officials don't stop to debate what penalty would be most equitable in the particular situation."

There are a couple of minor editing errors in the book. The phrase "par excellence" (p. 148) should be italicized. Items in a list of bullet points should begin with a capital even if they're not complete sentences. And the sentence "As a classroom teacher, I make a strong distinction." (p. 172) needs something like "between how I teach undergraduates and how I teach graduate students" at the end. And the typeface used for chapter and section headings is hard to read in the smaller size used for section headings.

Posted: Sun - July 30, 2006 at 04:00 PM   Main   Category: