The Explanation of Social Action

The Explanation of Social Action

The Explanation of Social Action

The Explanation of Social Action


The Explanation of Social Actionis a sustained critique of the conventional understanding of what it means to "explain" something in the social sciences. It makes the strong argument that the traditional understanding involves asking questions that have no clear foundation and provoke an unnecessary tension between lay and expert vocabularies. Drawing on the history and philosophy of the social sciences, John Levi Martin exposes the root of the problem as an attempt to counterpose two radically different types of answers to the question of why someone did a certain thing: first person and third person responses. The tendency is epitomized by attempts to explain human action in "causal" terms. This "causality" has little to do with reality and instead involves the creation and validation of abstract statements that almost no social scientist would defend literally.

This substitution of analysts' imaginations over actors' realities results from an intellectual history wherein social scientists began to distrust the self-understanding of actors in favor of fundamentally anti-democratic epistemologies. These were rooted most defensibly in a general understanding of an epistemic hiatus in social knowledge and least defensibly in the importation of practices of truth production from the hierarchical setting of institutions for the insane. Martin, instead of assuming that there is something fundamentally arbitrary about the cognitive schemes of actors, focuses on the nature of judgment. This implies the need for a social aesthetics, an understanding of the process whereby actors intuit intersubjectively valid qualities of complex social objects. In this thought-provoking and ambitious book, John Levi Martin argues that the most promising way forward to such a science of social aesthetics will involve a rigorous field theory.


This is a book about how to think about the social world in a systematic way—that is, how to do social science. Although the relevance extends to portions of psychology and political science, and social thought more generally, for purposes of brevity, and because I begin with some theorists speaking about sociology, I sometimes refer simply to “sociology” to indicate the particular subset of the social sciences to which the arguments made here are relevant.

The main argument of this book may be succinctly put as follows: the social sciences (in part, but in large part) explain what people do, and they explain what it means to carry out such explanation. They often do reasonably well at the first task and usually abysmally at the second. More worrisome, their failure at the second task has pernicious and ill-recognized effects on the first. the best explanations lack all conviction that they are adequate, while the worst are filled with the passionate intensity of those who are systematically and maniacally wrong.

The systematic wrongness of our approach is not quite due to theory, but when we find ourselves puzzling about in the knots in which we have somehow tied ourselves, we generally believe that we are talking about “theory.” This term will be provisionally retained, although to the extent that this refers to formal techniques of theory construction or manipulation, I will argue that such theory has no place in the social sciences.

This book proposes that because we have not trusted the social world to have its own principles of regularity, we have forced our theories to have this regularity “prefabricated,” leading not only to theories that are long on syntax and short on semantics, as C. Wright Mills (1959: 34) said, but also more generally to needless inflexibility and tepid disputes about nothing.

When possible, however, I avoid restricting my attention to sociology, neither from imperialist ambitions nor for the sake of exactitude, but because it is not clear to me how the future constellation of the social sciences will line up with the research traditions of interest to this critique. I also have used the word action; although I do not mean to import any of the assumptions of classic action theory, alternatives seemed to come with even more baggage.

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