Can an Explanatory System be Consistent and Interesting?

I just finished reading a chapter by Andy Abbott on Causal Devolution (link is to the article version), or how ‘causalism’ (the contemporary ANOVA version of causation) mucked up sociology in the second half of the 20th century. The piece is well-written and easy to follow, like most Abbott, and makes several compelling cases (such as the need to re-value descriptive work, a case he makes elsewhere also). Near the end of the piece, though, I think Abbott makes a misstep.

Throughout the piece, Abbott references the fuzzy boundary between causal analysis and explanation, arguing that many early accounts spoke of the first but meant what we would now call the second. Abbott thinks explanation (like description) is great, and indeed sociology ought to be doing a whole lot more of both so that people will pay attention to us and we’ll have useful things to say. Specifically, Abbott thinks our explanations should be consistent and interesting:

The main desiderata of explanation are consistency and interest. First, even though disciplines grow in fits and starts – pushing out here, surrendering there – our knowledge becomes great only when it has internal consistency. Our theories, our explanations, our methods, and our research programs should resonate with and support one another. In addition to this consistency, our knowledge of society should meet a second standard: it should produce… a comprehensive, interesting, and compelling account of social life. [Abbott 2001, p. 121]

Here’s the problem: interesting accounts are ones that are inconsistent with what we already know. Murray Davis, in a fabulous and fun piece from way back when titled “That’s Interesting: Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology” (1971), argues that theories or arguments are interesting to us only when they violate our assumptions about the world. This piece is used as a method’s article here at Michigan, where we are taught that in order to get anyone to care about your research you have to frame it as somehow upsetting what they think they know about the world. The literature review, for example, serves to set up the precise bit of conventional wisdom (conventional to the discipline) that you are going to show to be incomplete or misleading. Good enough as practical advice, I suppose, though I read Davis’s article a bit more critically. Specifically, I think our systematic, institutionalized, rewarded bias towards the interesting (as opposed to, say, the thorough) makes Abbott’s idea of a consistent and interesting disciplinary take on the world impossible. If the system explains things consistently, it will cease to be interesting (at least to us); if it continually generates interesting explanations, how could it be consistent?

So, nice try Andy, but I think we can’t have this cake and eat it too, at least without first having a lot of disciplinary soul-searching about just what we should find “interesting”.

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6 Comments

  1. limitatiosnandshortcomings

     /  October 2, 2009

    At the risk of sounding dismissive: what exactly do you mean by ‘consistent’ here? It seems like you are reading it very strongly as something like ‘identical’…

    For example, I would say that if sociologist 1 says that x is important in generating a certain outcome while sociologists 2 says that y is important in securing that same outcome these seem to be perfectly capable of been consistent claims. Sociologist 2 is not saying that x is not important but is merely adding a further factor into the pot. And it seems perfectly possible, indeed likely, that we are learning something interesting from what sociologist 2 has to say: we did not know that y was important before.

    I’m reminded of Elias, with regard to those critics who argued that he ignored certain things. Apparently he used to say something like: yes, that adds to understanding civilizing processes, so lets add it to our explanation; I did not have time to say everything. This is what it means to me for an explanation to be consistent: the ability to be able to add explanations/descriptions together.

    What I am trying to say is that we don’t have to overturn everything that has ever been said whenever we want to say something interesting or novel. Granted, this is going to be dependent on what we think sociology should be doing: ideology critique, for example, does rest on the basis of overturning common sense and a lot of what sociology has to say.

    But this is not the only model for sociology. If with, say, Howie Becker, we think sociology is about connecting the explanations/knowledge of actors together then I don’t see the extent of the problem. Especially if we are good little materialists and consider the theories and explanations and knowledge of other sociologists as things of the world too. The more connected our explanations are, the more consistent they become, and the more interesting too, because they include so much more explanatory power.

    But maybe this response/rant has presupposed that the soul-searching you suggest is needed has already taken place!

  2. I meant my post as a bit tongue-in-cheek, and mostly a poke at the constant pressure to produce “interesting” research, in the Davis sense of counterintuitive (contradictory of existing theory). I’m not against consistent accounts, I just think that we need to understand that if we actually were good at explaining things using a consistent set of tools, those explanations would no longer count as “interesting” to a lot of people.

  3. joshmccabe

     /  October 3, 2009

    One of the upsides to the “fractured” nature of sociological theory is that almost anything you publish can be interesting to someone else. It’s all a matter of the audience you choose to target.

  4. limitatiosnandshortcomings

     /  October 3, 2009

    I would say that my response was a bit tongue and cheek, too, but it clearly isn’t!

    I’m still not really sure. Interesting to who is, I guess, the important thing.

  5. I sincerely believe that this view of what’s “interesting” is killing sociology.

    I’m actually really glad you brought it out, because it gives me a clear reference point for precisely what I like the least in current sociological thinking.

    A very different way for projects to be interesting is if they relate to a problem or issue that many people are facing. So, for instance, if a sociologist could come up with a plan to sell the U.S. public on healthcare reform, that would be very interesting. It still would be interesting even if it was an amalgamation of principles which did not upset the theoretical apple-cart, but which are nonetheless unusual for their combination or for their application to a thorny problem.

    The constant search for “rain comes from the ground, not the earth” kind of arguments just leads sociologists into meaningless circles and diminishes their relevance to the broader world. If we started thinking about what the rest of the world was interested in learning, we might come up with “interesting” research.

  6. PS – 1) I meant “sky” not “earth”, and 2) I want to clarify that I’m praising your tongue-in-cheek appraisal of the Davis-style sociology (I like that you brought it up), not criticizing (as the tone might suggest)