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Why? [Paperback]

Charles Tilly

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Book Description

April 13 2008


Why? is a book 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. Written in an easy-to-read style by distinguished social historian Charles Tilly, the book explores the manner in which people claim, establish, negotiate, repair, rework, or terminate relations with others through the reasons they give.


Tilly examines a number of different types of reason giving. For example, he shows how an air traffic controller would explain the near miss of two aircraft in several different ways, depending upon the intended audience: for an acquaintance at a cocktail party, he might shrug it off by saying "This happens all the time," or offer a chatty, colloquial rendition of what transpired; for a colleague at work, he would venture a longer, more technical explanation, and for a formal report for his division head he would provide an exhaustive, detailed account.


Tilly demonstrates that reasons fall into four different categories:



  • Convention: "I'm sorry I spilled my coffee; I'm such a klutz."

  • Narratives: "My friend betrayed me because she was jealous of my sister."

  • Technical cause-effect accounts: "A short circuit in the ignition system caused the engine rotors to fail."

  • Codes or workplace jargon: "We can't turn over the records. We're bound by statute 369."


Tilly illustrates his topic by showing how a variety of people gave reasons for the 9/11 attacks. He also demonstrates how those who work with one sort of reason frequently convert it into another sort. For example, a doctor might understand an illness using the technical language of biochemistry, but explain it to his patient, who knows nothing of biochemistry, by using conventions and stories.


Replete with sparkling anecdotes about everyday social experiences (including the author's own), Why? makes the case for stories as one of the great human inventions.



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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Frustrated that his explanations of contemporary phenomena—which emphasized incremental effects and complex social interactions—often failed to convince people, Columbia sociologist Tilly decided to write this odd but intermittently charming analysis of the reasons people use to explain events or behavior. He lists four basic types of reasons: conventions (socially accepted clichés like "My train was late," or "We're otherwise engaged that evening"), stories (simplified cause-effect narratives), codes (legal, religious) and technical accounts (complicated narratives, often impenetrable to nonspecialists). He demonstrates that our social relations dictate the kind of reason we invoke in a given circumstance. For instance, we offer more elaborate rationales for our behavior—stories, rather than conventions—to those close to us. We invoke codes with individuals whom we have power over, but not those who have power over us. But these insights, which he acknowledges are hardly original, also seem beside the point. Tilly's true interest lies in how social scientists can make their theories accessible and persuasive. Using Jared Diamond and terrorism expert Jessica Stern as examples of specialists who have successfully popularized their ideas, Tilly reaches the unsurprising conclusion that experts may need to simplify or narrow the scope of their accounts in order to reach the public. The result is an uneven little book—occasionally arresting, sometimes irritatingly random. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"In the tradition of the legendary sociologist Erving Goffman, Tilly seeks to decode the structure of everyday social interaction, and the result is a book that forces readers to reexamine everything from the way they talk to their children to the way they argue about politics."--Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker



"[A] persuasive book. . . . It is obvious that the cancer specialist talks differently to his colleagues from the way he talks to his patients: exactly what he might be doing in talking differently is Tilly's concern."--Adam Phillips, London Review of Books



"We need to impose order on chaos, not by disregarding complicated realities, but by understanding what those complicated realities mean for us. Why? is a stimulating contribution to our thinking about this problem."--Dolan Cummings, Culture Wars



"[Charles Tilly] argues convincingly that reason-giving always takes place in a social setting structured by the social relations of the persons in that setting. This [book is] eminently readable and interesting."--Leon H. Brody, Library Journal



"Tilly gives us . . . a good read, a book that calls our attention to a prevalent human phenomenon and raises the importance of investigating its nature. . . . The book also suggests that we sit down and begin to examine the nature of reason giving in our society--why we spend so much of our time doing it, what effect it has on our social relations, and . . . what effect it has on our own behavior and emotions."--Kurt Salzinger, PsycCritiques



"While Why? may be a frustrating read to the social scientist looking for methodological innovation, it is warmly recommended for anybody who is simply curious about the central role of reason giving."--Kristian Berg Harpviken, Journal of Peace Research



"Tilly's book is insightful, easily accessible to any audience and worth reading."--Richard Findler, European Legacy


Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Because I said so, THAT's why! May 19 2006
By bensmomma - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Did you ever justify your actions to your child by saying "because I SAID so, that's why"? Sure. But what about to your boss? I think not! The difference between these two situations is the subject of Tilly's book: the social nature of explanation and reasoning, and the way in which these processes are dependent on our social relationships.

I am a psychologist researching the role of reasoning in decision-making. Often, in my field, "choice based on reasons" is characterized as a deliberate, almost mathematical process: one weights the reasons for and against a choice; if the "reasons for" are more compelling than "reasons against," one forges ahead. Our experiments admit that the weighting process can be distorted by social forces, but nevertheless the way we think about the process is fundamentally mechanical. In fact, we rather like it to be that way, since an internally consistent reasoning process would appear necessary if people are to make rational choices.

Chuck Tilly's notion of reasoning is radically different than that. Tilly sees reasoning as fundamentally social; we give reasons to justify decisions TO OTHER PEOPLE; thus, who those other people are and what our relationship is to them is the driver of the kind of reasoning we provide.

Tilly identifies four types of reasoning: conventions, stories, codes, and technical accounts. "Conventions" are prefab reasons designed to terminate conversation: When your soon-to-be-ex boyfriend says "it's not you, it's me," he means to close off conversation. Conventions are more likely to be offered to someone with lower status (thus, you can say "because I said so" to your kid but not your boss). "Stories" are simple narratives. Stories offer a pared-down set of explanations that result in people being the cause of their own results. (Here's a new story someone offered me today: "The McCartneys are getting divorced because Heather couldn't stand the spotlight of celebrity".)

"Codes" are explanations of a legalistic nature; in effect, a code argues "we do it that way because that's the way we do it." When the gate attendant at the airport says "you can't board now because we are pre-boarding only," she is offering you a code. "Technical accounts" are the sort of highly refined, abstracted reasons that scientists or other trained specialists offer each other ("The t-statistic indicates a probability of getting this result by chance of less than 5%"). Technical accounts sometimes act as a kind of secret handshake, indicating to the recipient "I am one of you; accept my explanation."

Tilly's book is short and sweet and engagingly written, loaded with entertaining examples. The only one that doesn't seem to enhance his point dominates the opening chapter: what explanations people offer for what happened on 9/11. This example is long (relative to the rest of this short book) and does not map neatly onto his later typology; it seems likely to confuse the reader ("is this a 9/11 book then? No?"). Persevere for this book's modest 216 pages, though, and be rewarded and entertained.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not for everybody, but great for those with a social science bent Aug. 27 2012
By PhD - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Written not long before his death (and similar to his book Blame and Credit), Tilly's book is not for people that are not used to reading sociology books. He intended this book for a broader audience, but that was not his forte. Nonetheless, he puts forward some useful ideas about the content of the reasons we gave to people when they ask "Why?" As in, why must I do X? Why did you lose the game? Why did that war start? A short read.
22 of 43 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Infuriatingly poor June 21 2006
By Skisko - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I was fascinated by the topic of Tilly's book. The reasons we give for our actions surely are both important and interesting.

Sadly, I found his work to be utterly disappointing. His basic division into conventions, stories, codes and technical accounts is arbitrary and surely but one of many possible schemes. Yet he does not consider any other way of looking at reasons and provides scant rationale for this particular choice.

His poor framework then sets the trend for a terrible book. When I bought the book I expected it to contain some thoughtful insight into how we use reasons. What are good reasons and bad reasons? Which reasons are deliberate and the result of choice, which sub-consious or driven by social norms? It does not contain anything of the sort. Rather, Tilly provides a dull and haphazard collection of examples to back up his chosen categories. All delivered without a hint of incision

Even though I suffered every minute of it, I read the whole book. The topic is very interesting and until the bitter end I hoped the book would mature like a fine wine and suddenly come good. It did not and remined dull and vacuous throughout. I hope you don't make the same mistake
4 of 19 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Seconding the review by "Skisko" Nov. 25 2006
By guchi y alex - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I agree 100% with this review. The premise behind the book has great promise; but is a very painful read and a great disappointment.
20 of 59 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Malcolm Gladwell's Take On This Book April 12 2006
By C. Young - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Gladwell has written an extensive review of the subject and the book in April 10, 2006 "New Yorker" magazine (pages 80-82) You may not be that interested in the detail that Tilly explains.
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