Reasons Why: Stories True and False

Reasons Why: Stories True and False (Thomas J. Scheff )

I have the sense that Charles Tilly’s “Why?”(2006) is a breakthrough for social science: how vocabularies of motive unite small parts and great wholes. Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant New Yorker review (2006), through its use of and extended example, will be used to illustrate this point.

Tilly proposes an original classification of everyday reasons (explanations):

1. Conventions. 2. Stories. 3. Codes. 4. Technical explanations. Both author and reviewer give more prominence to stories than to the other classes. The longest example Gladwell uses concerns the resolution of a London mugging incident through restorative justice. The authorities had arranged a meeting involving the mugger and his wife, the victim and her husband, and a facilitator.

The perpetrator and his wife indirectly explain the reason for mugging by telling stories. The two stories go into some detail about the bad week the mugger, his wife, and their baby had. The victim and her husband then explain the pain they suffered because of the crime. But the two stories about the bad week have changed the mood: they have softened the victim and her husband’s attitudes. When the victim is asked what action she wants taken, she says that she just wants the mugger and his family to get their lives together.  Gladwell implies that stories established a bond between the participants to the extent that they identify with each other.

The focus on concrete examples is provocative. It suggests that stories are somehow different than the other three classes. The distinction between formal and substantive rationality (Weber 1967) suggests why. The first type of rationality depends upon abstract generalizations, the second on the particulars of each case

Three of Tilly’s categories involve only generalized abstractions, but his stories category includes concrete details. Both formal and substantive rationality are incomplete when used alone. The first is too general to fit all of the details of a concrete instance, the second, too specific to allow comparison. Formal rationality alone is bureaucratic, substantive rationality alone is parochial.

That is to say, studies of concrete events are only descriptive. But studies of social structure employing only conventions, codes, and technical explanations are reifications. Weber (1967) warned against abstract explanations: social structure is made up of the actions of living human beings. But few have paid attention. Social science becomes an empty husk if based only on abstractions.

Tilly’s scheme could allow one to touch both bases.  Tilly proposes that superior stories must involve logic and evidence. It seems to me, however, that they almost have enough concrete particulars to instantiate (Giddens1984) application of general categories. 

One powerful component of stories is the way they can lead to identification with others. The example that Gladwell provides shows how stories can easily override an abstraction (“criminal”). Another application would be person-to-person programs that are used to counter inter-group hatred: abstract identities (enemy, nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) can be overcome through person-to-person telling of stories.

One feature of superior stories that Tilly does not mention is their ability to evoke EMOTION in the audience. We identify with others, primarily, to the extent that we sense that they have emotions similar to ours. Superior stories would need to elicit true emotions rather than false one. This is too complex and issue to be developed here, except to provide an example.

Superior stories evoke emotions that are true, yet hidden, as with the crying that an Iraq War Memorial evokes in visitors (Scheff unpublished). Runaway nationalism (my nation, right or wrong) usually generates false emotions, sometimes referred to as sentimentality. Our present government has continually evoked false pride and self-righteous anger in a great majority of the population by telling false, rather than true stories.

Because of their emotional power, true stories can be moving at a distance. Gladwell reported that when the Lord Chief Justice of England watched the videotape of the restorative justice conference discussed above, he wept. Powerful explanation, both in everyday life and in social science, may require using the stories class and at least one of the other three classes. In this conjoint usage, one can at least hint at the complex path from the particular to the general.

Gladwell wisely notes that Tilly’s book is the Goffman tradition. Gladwell’s review itself is also that tradition, since it focuses on telling examples. My book on Goffman (2006) proposes that his attempt to link parts and wholes of social interaction through countless examples, from the bottom up, is the key to his work. Readers who don’t understand Goffman’s underlying theses can still connect with his examples.  Tilly’s path, emphasizing social structure, might be used to complement and extend Goffman’s beyond social interaction.


Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2006. “Here’s Why.” New Yorker. April 10.

Scheff, T. J. 2006.  Goffman Unbound: A New Paradigm in Social Science. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

_________ True Emotions: Responses of Visitors to an Iraq War Memorial.

Tilly, Charles. 2006. Why? Princeton: Princeton University Press

Weber, Max. 1947. Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.                        

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