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Differences between common sense and sociological explanations, and why explanations of social events must focus on organizations and not on individual traits or motivations


Ronald G Corwin, Professor Emeritus

Department of Sociology, Ohio State University

There is a fundamental tension between so-called intuitive, or common sense, explanations of social events and basic sociological approaches to explanation. The former starts with individuals and their motives, while sociologists start with organizations and higher levels of abstraction. Common sense seems to tell us that people are the most fundamental unit of society, and so understanding an event requires understanding the motives of the particular people involved. That is wrong on three counts.

            First, in modern, developed societies, not only have organizations have become numerous and complex, they are also the locus of power and they control income and social status. Government agencies, hospitals, corporations, unions, schools, universities, and countless other organizations dominate society and influence all social events. They are the most fundamental components of any society. It therefore seems self evident that explanations of social events must focus on organizations, not their individual members.

            Second, we can never fully grasp all traits of unique people. We can only grasp a few attributes of any person at time. In fact, any subject matter can be represented only as a set of attributes. Analysis literally means to break something into its components, such as the person’s age, gender, moodiness, or aggressiveness. This approach is no different than distilling a political organization into its components, i.e., size membership composition, location, and the like. Since there is no difference between analyzing individuals and analyzing organizations, one is no more important or fundamental than the other.

            Third, if human beings are no more fundamental than, nor different from, any other set of attributes, they require no special theories or methods. There is no merit to the idea that an explanation is incomplete unless it accounts for human motives. So-called motivations add little to an explanation. We do not need to understand a fly’s motives to predict that it will attempt to avoid the fly swatter. Any attempt to reduce social events to individual motivations only opens the door to an endless reduction cycle that can stop only at biochemical explanations. So-called motivations can be explained by a serious of causal hypotheses based on speculative assumptions. For example: a neighbor is observed gathering wood and taking into his house. One can only guess that the motive is to start a fire in the fireplace to keep warm. But many other guesses are possible, e.g., he is planning to burn down the house. The best explanation is determined by information about probabilities of each course of action and does not require any special methods. Even the person’s assertions about his motives may turn out to be misleading. We know that social causation occurs independently of individual motivations. For example: overcrowding in cities does not intentionally cause disease. And, with the best of motives, a government program to hire the unemployed in Detroit attracted more job seekers and raised the unemployment rate. Also, many years ago a government program that increased benefits for the elderly raised their income to a level that disqualified many of them for free health insurance. Suppose we want to know why people panic in emergencies. The search for motives would focus on each individual’s perceptions and predispositions. A simpler explanation would measure the ratio between the population’s size and the number of available exits.

            Therefore, the most fruitful an efficient to explanation of social events concentrates on (a) relationships between organizations and their membership and (b) relationships among organizations. This does not mean it is useless to examine mental constructs and other intervening processes. However, the fact remains that it is justifiable to ignore them. Otherwise, we would be committed to the impossible task of trying to account for endless chains of intervening variables. Incompleteness is inherent in the analytic process. It is not necessary to predict the feeling, motives, or behavior of particular individuals. What matters is the outcome(s) of their actions and how the outcomes are distributed. For example, suppose that in a large school district, some high schools have recently hired more teachers with special math training. This changes the distribution of schools, with more of the specialized schools at the top to the distribution, and fewer at the bottom. One question is whether the distribution students in the district who able to demonstrate math skills being taught has also changed—whether there are more students in the top part of the test distribution. 

  

  

  

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