I read about sociologist Charles Tilly’s book Why?: What happens when people give reasons … and why (2006) at about the same time I watched a “House, MD” episode (It’s A Wonderful Lie) in which House says, “The only reason to give multiple reasons is that you’re searching for what the person wants to hear.” That struck me as exceedingly true, and I thought that Tilly might have more to say about what’s behind reason-giving.

Tilly says that reason-giving happens only in relationships (and only in human ones) and he makes a direct connection between reason-giving and status within the relationship, or, the perceived equality of the relationship. The main determiner of the kind of reason we give is not the behaviour we’re explaining or the situation, but rather the relationship we have with the person to whom we’re giving the reason:

Reason giving resembles what hapens when people deal with unequal social relations in general. Participants in unequal social relations may detect, confirm, reinforce or challenge them, but as they do so they employ modes of communications that signal which of these things they are doing. In fact, the ability to give reasons without challenge usually accompanies a position of power.”

Reason-giving can be verbal, and it can also be through pantomime, or “body gloss.” He offers the example of a girl entering a congregating area in a ski lodge, who wants to “see and be seen by boys,” giving for all the world the “appearance of looking for someone in particular.” She’s proferring an unspoken reason for being there, for looking around, one that contradicts or hides her true reason.

As Tilly notes early on,

“people do not give themselves and others reasons because of some universal craving for truth and coherence. They often settle for reasons that are superficial, contradictory, dishonest, or — at least from an observer’s viewpoint — farfetched. Whatever else they are doing when they give reasons, people are clearly negotiating their social lives. They are saying something about relations between themselves and those who hear [or observe] their reasons.”

Reasons, Tilly says, are always given to define, or redefine, the relationship between the parties. They are given to create, confirm, negotiate, or repair relationships.  “Appropriate reasons vary dramatically with the equality, inequality and intimacy or distance of the relationship.” Superiors can give perfunctory reasons to inferiors, as can those in distant relationships. In fact, it would likely be “intrusive or embarrassing” to give elaborate reasons to someone you don’t know well. Inferiors, otoh, usually have to offer defensible and sometimes apologetic reasons to superiors, as do intimates. Though there is much social pressure to give appropriate reasons to each other, most of us are skilled at this and so usually don’t notice reasons unless the reason given doesn’t match our view of the relationship.

I’ll post soon about the four types of reasons Tilly identifies and explores. (And yes, many reasons are combinations of the four, not pure examples.)


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