Reason-Giving: Four Kinds of Reasons

At the heart of Tilly’s book Why? (see previous post) are the four kinds of reasons he posits: conventions, codes, stories and technical accounts.

Conventions and codes don’t posit cause-and-effect; they simply appeal to socially appropriate formulas as explanation:

CONVENTIONS — Conventionally accepted reasons. Examples: My train was late, I wasn’t in the mood, she’s just lucky, gotta run, I’m so busy,

CODES — Rules, basically. Particularly relevent in law, medicine, the military, government, religion, diplomacy, sports and so on.

Stories and technical accounts do posit cause-and-effect:

STORIES — Explanatory narratives, usually used for exceptional, unusual, or unfamiliar events.

TECHNICAL ACCOUNTS —  cause-and-effect explanation used by authorities and specialists in their fields (engineers, physicians, programmers, artists, etc.)

To show the difference among these, Tilly starts the book with a discussion of causes put forth early on, by politicians and survivors, for the 9/11 terrorists attacks:

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.

Technical accounts: (Not many given initially. Later, specialists gave accounts of “how airplane crashes brought down supposedly unshakeable buildings, what went wrong with American intelligence,” etc.)

He notes that “intermediate forms of reason giving exist. One form sometimes mutates into another as people interact. In religious communities, ‘God wills it’ stands halfway between a convention and a story, having more or less explanatory power depending on prevailing beliefs about divine intervention in human affairs.”

He also makes clear that all of these ways of relating are also used to accomplish things other than give reasons. For example, stories also “amuse, threaten and educate;” technical accounts also “display their providers’ expertise and signal where the experts stand on divisive issues;” conventions also “mark boundaries between insiders and outsiders, fill lulls in conversations, and convey accumulated ideas from one generation to the next.”

More about each:


Conventions, like etiquette, “mix propriety and self-interest.”  Etiquette “consists of supplying appropriate, effective reasons why — for things you do, and for things you won’t do. Good etiquette incorporates conventional reasons. The reasons need not be true, but they must fit the circumstances” and, even more, the relationship.

Some conventions consist of ‘serviceable excuses’ that try to normalise relationships. An example Tilly gives is of someone who’s illiterate asking a stranger in a store to read something for them, with the explanation that they forgot their glasses. Other examples of ‘serviceable excuses’ we give to conceal “our suddenly revealed incompetence” include Sorry – I thought this was someone else’s office, These gears always grind, The map was wrong, It’s too loud to hear anything, etc. We use these to avoid embarrassment, to “prove that the relation between ourselves and others is not what it might seem.” Sometimes, Tilly notes, we give similar explanations not to express our social competence but to “explain a failure as a result of excusable incompetence” (my watch stopped, I’m sick, I’m new in town, I’ve never done this before, etc.)

Tilly says that justification occurs in all types of reason-giving, but that “justification by means of convention … has a peculiar property: participants rarely take the reason proposed seriously as a cause-effect account, and more often treat it as a characterization of the relationship, the practices, and the connection between them. A good reason offers an acceptable characterization.”


Using codes as reasons is all about matching the case at hand to the code in the book: “Asked to justify a decision, adjudicate a dispute, or give advice, skillful users of codes find matches between concrete cases and categories, procedures, and rules already built into the codes. Like conventions, reasons based on codes therefore gain credibility from criteria of appropriateness rather than from the cause-effect validity that prevails in stories and technical accounts.”

Sermons, classes, Power-Point presentations, manuals and how-to books often present codes: briefly stated principles followed by practical applications. Their very formats separate them from everyday social interchange. … Job applications, survey interviews, resumes, obituaries, and citations for honors typically require either their authors or some specialist to convert accounts initially presented in story form into stylized facts to match well-established codes.”

Tilly gives lots of legal and medical examples, especially malpractice.


Stories “truncate cause-effect connections. They typically call up a limited number of actors whose dispositions and actions cause everything that happens within a delimited time and space. … Stories inevitably minimize or ignore the causal roles of errors, unanticipated consequences, indirect effects, incremental effects, simulataneous effects, feedback effects, and environmental effects.”

(All those errors and effects are what interest me — as well as what the ‘actors’ think, feel and do — and may explain an aversion I have to stories that omit those messy things.)

Stories make meaning, make “the world intelligible. … Stories provide simplified cause-effect accounts of puzzling, unexpected, dramatic, problematic or exemplary events. … [T]hey often carry an edge of justification or condemnation. … The story usually gives pride of place to human actors. When the leading characters are not human” … (animals, God, storms, etc.) “they still behave mostly like humans. The story they enact accordingly often conveys credit or blame. … Stories exclude … inconvenient complications [like those errors and effects named above]. … Even when they convey truths, stories enormously simplify the processes involved.”

Elements of stories and when we choose to tell them:

  • Stories explain events in question, when conventions and general principles won’t do
  • Stories often assign blame to the actors involved, omitting other non-actor causes
  • There are master stories that recur frequently[ i.e., myths?]: “A let B down and B suffered,” “C and D fought to a standstill,” etc.
  • Stories usually have some kind of moral, even if subtle through assigning praise or blame

This paragraph was most enlightening for me, articulating something felt but not always consciously understood:

“As with conventions the choice of stories obviously has consequences for later relations among the parties to the stories, and typically involves justification or condemnation of certain practices. If I tell you that a mutual friend has cheated me, I am simultaneously aligning you with me against the friend and warning you not to trust the friend …. That is why hearing stories often upsets us and sometimes incites us to challenge the teller: if we accept the story, we take on the consequences.

“Superior stories” are those that are simplified to the greatest degree and are also closest to truth; that is, they get their cause and effect right. These stories are widely accessible and persuasive.


Technical accounts “combine cause-effect explanation (rather than logics of appropriateness) with grounding in some systematic specialized discipline (rather than everyday knowledge). … They assume shared knowledge of previously accumulated definitions, practices and findings. For that reason, outsiders often consider technical accounts inpenetrable because they are so hermetic or … filled with jargon.”

Their relationship work is that they “signal relationships with possessors of esoteric knowledge, saying you’re one of us to other sympathetic specialists, marking differences within the field from others with whom the author disagrees, providing introductions to the field …, and establishing the author’s respectablity vis-a-vis respectful nonspecialists.”

Technical accounts use codes to match and measure cases against norms and standards, and they go on to posit cause and effect based on this.

Tilly’s examples concerns violence, crime, the National Academy of Sciences, privatizaton of common resources, property rights, Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel, etc.

(I find most of the examples in this book pretty tedious and very skippable.)

My Conclusion

After reading this book, I have the sense that pretty much every reason we give others or ourselves, or hear from same, is either formulaic or a highly simplified mythic account. Is that it?

I’ve been trying out reasons in my head — all stories, so far, because that’s the only place where it seems that complexity and doubt could enter — conventions are not complex per se, codes may be complex but are also pro forma to some extent, and technical accounts aren’t that useful for discussing ordinary relationships) — for various actions I’ve done, and even when they sometimes include mention of coincidence, feedback effects, incremental effects, etc., they still, I can’t help but notice, omit a lot of contributing factors, either because I want to minimise those factors when I present the reasons to myself, or the story gets unwieldy with so many offshoots — perhaps with cause-and-effect accounts, there is a tendency to weight the contributing factors and to present those writ bold because they seem significant and seem to account for most of the outcome. My life experience, though, tells me that my justifications and reasons-giving after the fact are liable to be misinterpretations of reality, the result of my mind imposing actions, feelings and thoughts (and cause and effect hypotheses) into a biased framework.

I understand, reading this book, why I have felt at times so slighted by someone I considered a friend, when he listens to my story (sometimes a reason-giving story, sometimes not) and responds with what feels to me like a pat convention (“You know it’s wrong to do that.” “Well, these things happen.” etc.)  I’ve done the same thing and felt the chilling effect it’s had on the reason-receiver, too. Now I wonder if answering a friend’s drama with a conventional response always necessarily reveals either (1) an intention to push the other away, to make an intimate relationship more distant, or, likewise, (2) an intention to change the relationship’s power balance — the one offering the convention is in effect saying, “I’m superior,” or is at least making a claim to more power than she currently has within the relationship.


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