Imposing order on chaos

Why? What happens when people give reasons… and why, by Charles Tilly (Princeton University Press 2006)

To ask why something happens it to seek order amid chaos. Charles Tilly, veteran sociologist and now Joseph L Buttenweiser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University, makes it clear that giving reasons is never simply a case of revealing the true cause underlying that chaos. More often it is about imposing order by emphasising some factors and ignoring others.

In essence there is nothing wrong with this. If you ask me why my book is on the floor, I’ll explain that I needed both hands to make a phone call and there was no table nearby; I won’t explain the laws of gravity. If a solicitor asks a policeman why he’s arrested her client, he’ll explain that the man was behaving suspiciously, not speculate about what drove the suspect to crime, or go into his own reasons for joining the police. Some things are taken for granted, and often ‘why?’ means something very specific that is understood by both parties.

This tendency to impose order can be problematic when the issue is less clear, however. If you ask why a relative died in hospital, and what you mean is ‘who was responsible?’, you may well be burdening a doctor unfairly with a tragedy well beyond his or her responsibility, even if there was a mistake. Because as Tilly shows, we generally prefer reasons that involve a limited number of rational actors as opposed to accidents or complicated sequences of unintended consequences. This is perhaps increasingly true at a time when individuals feel powerless in the face of distant political elites, multinational corporations and a bewildering war on terror. The popularity of conspiracy theories, from The Da Vinci Code to the idea that the authorities deliberately allowed New Orleans to flood, suggests that ‘why?’ is too often an invitation to indulge in fantasy. Thus, Tilly’s book is not merely of whimsical interest.

Tilly divides reasons into four basic types: conventions, stories, codes and technical accounts. Conventions are essentially cliches: ‘that’s the way it goes’. Stories in contrast have to make sense, if only in a casual or superficial sense: ‘it’s like that because because it suits big business’, or some more satisfying elaboration thereon. Codes are more authoritative cliches, referring to rules or procedures: ‘that’s how things are done here’. Technical accounts explain things according to particular disciplines that are usually not understood by non-specialists: the wotsit got snafued by the thingumajig.

Conventions and codes are formulas rather than explanations, while stories and technical accounts involve more satisfying, cause and effect narratives. Consequently, the former are more likely to be offered as reasons by people in a position of authority relative to the person they are speaking to, while the latter are required when that relationship is reversed. Indeed, answering someone’s question with a code or convention can be a way of saying, ‘I don’t have to answer to you’, while a story or technical account implies more respect, a responsibility to explain properly. Tilly explains that reason-giving often involves negotiations over the nature of relationships, with ‘the wrong sort of answer’ indicating that the person answering has a different perception of the relationship than the person asking the question.

On the other axis, conventions and stories have in common that they are popular and can be used in casual contexts, whereas codes and technical accounts are more common in professional or specialist contexts. Tilly explores the use of the various types of reasons in medicine, for example, showing how doctors may have to switch between technical accounts when talking to colleagues, codes with subordinates (or where procedure is more important than explanation, as when a particular treatment follows a particular diagnosis), and conventions or stories with patients. The distinctions are not rigid, and Tilly is especially interested in how technical accounts can blur into stories, or what he calls ‘superior stories’, where the basic cause-effect narrative is accurately derived from professional expertise, but greatly simplified.

To illustrate his categories, Tilly takes the example of the search for answers following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Three types of reason emerged very quickly:

STORY: Terrorists did it, but lax officials let them do it.
CONVENTION: Modern life is dangerous.
CODE: Because we have freedom to defend, we must combat terror. (p160)

Tilly’s particular examples are not that revealing: the code in particular is oddly convoluted. This perhaps shows that Tilly’s terminology is less useful than the general approach he bases it on, thinking about whether reason-giving is formulaic or explanatory, specialised or popular. The response to 9/11 certainly is an important case-study, though. What Tilly calls technical accounts came later than the others and on various levels, from engineers’ explanations of why the towers collapsed, to political analysts’ discussions of the geopolitical context. Then there could emerge ‘superior stories’, the most interesting kind of reason Tilly discusses. (The term ‘story’ at least has the considerable advantage of not being ‘narrative’, so let’s stick with it.)

The two dominant stories that emerged after 9/11 were the ‘War on Terror’, the idea that the West was and is under attack from Islamist radicals who must be defeated, and alternatively the idea of ‘blowback’, that the West was finally facing the consequences of its foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond, and that it must change those policies. In both cases, there are crass versions that are closer to Tilly’s conventions, and superior versions that draw on technical accounts, but ultimately those technical accounts are themselves open to question. Indeed, it seems likely that such expert explanations owe as much to stories as vice versa. Being to some degree both popular and rational, stories are the most political kind of reason, and the political ideas expressed in stories inevitably colour other kinds of reason-giving, even those otherwise based on expertise. Much of the time, people conduct research to reinforce or find evidence to support what they already believe. This does not render their work valueless, but it should be recognised that story-telling, or narrative, is always part of the process.

While arguments over facts eventually end in more or less definitive consensus or barren stalemate, stories are open to genuine discussion. Experts have the advantage of being able to draw on demonstrable realities, but there is usually room for differences of interpretation, and opinion more generally. Arguments about the war on terror, to stick with that example, rarely take the form of disagreements about the facts anyway. The story told by those arguing for the invasion of Iraq at first drew heavily on expert evidence about weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be false. Nonetheless, it is generally recognised that there was a bigger story – whether it has to do with the war on terror variously understood or more specifically a hidden neocon agenda. And one’s take on that bigger story is likely to have borne heavily on whether one was convinced by the weapons of mass destruction story.

Tilly’s book is valuable as much for encouraging us to think about reason-giving in this way as for the particular insights he offers. He shows that it is a mistake to counterpose ‘the real reason’ for anything to a false ‘story’. The best explanation is not one that is plucked from the ether of objectivity, unsullied by human hands, but one that resonates with specific human concerns. In other words, it is one that answers the question as it is meant, identifying which factors are at issue and disregarding others unless they are relevant. This is a political process, and is inevitably influenced by conflicting ideas and assumptions about how things work. That doesn’t mean all stories are lies, though: at a time when there is little in the way of a shared framework for understanding politics and social change, it is not surprising that people are attracted to simplistic conspiracy theories that seem to cut through the confusion of conflicting stories, but we all know that these don’t really explain anything.

To use Tilly’s terms, in much of life, conventions and codes are adequate types of reason to satisfy people who don’t really need to know why you’re late for a meeting, why a mutual friend’s marriage ended, or why they have to fill out so many forms. Politics is different: it is essential to a healthy democracy that we have a shared understanding of things that accurately reflects the important factors affecting our lives, and especially the ones over which we have control. We need stories that are supported by the best technical accounts, but that do not depend on mysterious authority. 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.

First published on Culture Wars.