A sociologist offers an anatomy of explanations.
by MALCOLM GLADWELL
In “Why?” (Princeton; $24.95), the Columbia University scholar Charles Tilly sets out to make sense of our reasons for giving reasons. 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 reëxamine everything from the way they talk to their children to the way they argue about politics.
Effective reason-giving ... involves matching the kind of reason we give to the particular role that we happen to be playing at the time a reason is necessary.
Two years ago, a young man named Anthony mugged a woman named Anne on a London street. Anthony was caught and convicted, and a few days before he was sentenced he sat down with Anne for a face-to-face meeting, as an exercise in what is known as “restorative justice.” The meeting was videotaped by a criminal-justice research group, and to watch the video is to get an even deeper sense of the usefulness of Tilly’s thinking.
Anthony starts. He has a shaved head, a tattoo on his neck, and multiple piercings in his eyebrows and ears. Beside him is his partner, Christy, holding their baby boy. “What happened is I had a bad week. Been out of work for a couple of weeks. Had my kneecap broken. . . .
Anne has been listening closely, her husband, Terry, next to her. Now she tells her side of the story. She heard a sound like male laughter. She turned, and felt her purse being pulled away. She saw a man pulling up his hood. She ran after him, feeling like a “complete idiot.” . . .
It was Christy’s turn. She got the call at home. She didn’t know exactly what had happened. She took the baby and walked to the police station, angry and frightened.... I’m in a situation where I can’t do anything to make this better. . . . I just want you to know. The first thing he said to me when he walked in was ‘I apologized.’ And I said, ‘That makes what difference?’ . . .
“If there is anything I can do, please say it,” Anthony says.
“I think most of what you can do is between the two of you, actually,” Anne says to Anthony and Christy. “I think if you can put your lives back together again, then that’s what needs to be done.”
The moderator tells them all to take a break and help themselves to “Metropolitan Police tea and coffee and chocolate biscuits.”
Anne asks Christy how old the baby is, and where they are living. It turns out that their apartment has been condemned. Terry stands up and offers the baby a chocolate biscuit, and the adults experience the kind of moment that adults have in the company of babies, where nothing matters except the child in front of them.
“He’s a good baby,” Christy says. A convention. One kind of reason is never really enough.
If you view the tape of the Anthony-Anne exchange, it’s not hard to see why. Sherman said that when the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales watched it at home one night he wept.
Addendum: Lately I've been to imagine how it was for the 17th century scientists who questioned the authority of church, of the schoolmen, of the ancient philosophers; who tried to distinguish between superstition and fact, between logical inferences from observation that are wrong and ones that are right. They had to take into account what Tilly writes about. In the inheritance of received knowledge of their time, they tried to identify conventionally accepted explanations, explanations that had strong emotional appeal and limited factual basis, and code-based explanations - ones that seemed to conform to pre-established formulas and sets of rules. They tried to establish a new basis for establishing cause and effect, one based on observation and experimentation unbiased by wishful thinking, giving what we would call technical accounts expressed in plain unornamented language, and establishing authority by exposing hypotheses to examination by groups of peers for review and judgement. It was all new and not easy work. Tilly says, in effect, that the authority they established (the process for establishing scientific facts) is not specially privileged. All the ways people have for determining what matters have value. I'm not sure what to think of this.