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Problems and Methods in Political Science: Rational Explanation and its Limits Alan Ryan Summary: This paper

contains no novelties, no technicalities, no surprises, and almost no footnotes.1 It gives an airing to thoughts I have developed only in lectures on the philosophy of social science to undergraduate audiences, and in conversations with the late Martin Hollis, which never quite reached consensus. (Hollis, 1994) I begin with some truisms about explanation generally, and the connections between problems and methods. I then argue that it is impossible to start explaining human behaviour except on a rationalising basis, and explain why this accords no priority to so-called rational choice theory. That rationalising explanation is only the beginning of explanation I explain by showing that there is i) room for argument about the difference between an actors professed reasons and his real reasons, and ii) further room for argument about the conditions under which reasons will be causally efficacious or the reverse. Very often the rational explanation of action is not wrong but simply uninteresting in comparison with questions about how actors came to adopt the goals they did and how they came to perceive the situation in which they are one way rather than another. I then take up very briefly the suggestion that rational actor explanation is improperly individualistic, and discuss its relationship to holistic, and functionalist explanation, as well as its relationship to historical narrative.


The platitude that we should adopt the methods best suited to our problems is just that a platitude; but irresistible; so is the platitude that new methods may show up new problems or illuminate old ones in unexpected ways; and so is the platitude that we should distinguish between methods in the sense of explanatory paradigms such as rational choice theory (hereafter RCT), and methods in the sense of techniques of uncovering data, such as opinion polling, or laboratory simulations. It is obvious that new techniques, for instance the Galileo telescope, have 1

brought to light new facts (in this case about the existence of satellites orbiting other planets), which required new astronomical theories for their explanation, much as the techniques of market research revealed in 1944 that most Americans knew nothing much about the functioning of the American political system and those who ran it, data that provoked all sorts of interesting ideas about the desirability of apathy and ignorance in a democratic electorate. (Lazarsfeld, 1948; de Luca, 1996) Another situation is where the success of a method in one area provokes interesting questions about why it works there and not elsewhere. Sociology exists to explain why economics is not the only social science. The only general rule is not to behave like the drunk searching for his keys under a street light. Asked if he had dropped the keys there, he replied that he had not, but that there was no light where he had dropped them. We ought not to be unduly biased in our selection of topics for research by the fact that we have ways of finding answers to those but not to more interesting or more important questions. This paper, however, is devoted not to providing a list of questions for my colleagues to answer, but to laying out some constraints on the demands of explanation in social science generally, and a fortiori in political science.


Explanation is prima facie rational actor explanation: complete explanations of political

behaviour are rooted in the desires and beliefs of individual actors Explanation in the social sciences is prima facie rational actor explanation. This means nothing extravagant, and merely endorses Donald Davidsons long-ago insistence that the explanation of human conduct invokes the agents beliefs and desires - what is often described as folk psychology - and that this is explanation by rationalisation. (Davidson, 1980) Rationalisation means that the action taken by the agent must be displayed as the thing to do under the circumstances, that is, the right thing to do under the circumstances. Right gives rise to misunderstandings worth clearing up. The rightness involved is not only instrumental, but there is no priority to its being more than that. A deft assassin picks the right knife for a wrongful act. Its rightness includes both its lethal qualities and its ease of disposal. Failing to pick the right 2

knife marks one out as an incompetent assassin. Although we all make innumerable mistakes almost all the time, the right action has a priority in explanation that wrong actions cannot have. If I lose my job by failing to keep proper financial records, it is the proper records that illuminate the mess I have made; there are innumerable messes one might make, but they do not (generally) illuminate what the proper conduct is like. They may provide different sorts of illumination, however, as when the frequency of some kinds of error leads us to institute ways of reducing their number. This claim is different from, and perhaps at odds with, Jon Elsters emphasis on the difference between explanations grounded in instrumental rationality and those grounded in normative attachments. (Elster, 1989; Elster, 1989 (2)) For my purposes, the latter involve rational explanation as much as the first; they have features that are not shared with instrumentally rational explanation, but even those differences can be exaggerated. The idea that instrumental action is intrinsically flexible that action will respond rapidly to changes of ends or of available means while normative action is not, is one exaggeration; we commonly adjust the pursuit of one value in the light of what it costs in terms of another, and the person who pursued justice without ever thinking how to achieve it would be a strange creature indeed.

So much for rationalising; when I say that complete explanations must be rooted in the desires and beliefs of individual actors, I mean the following. The proposition that members of British SES groups IV and V vote Labour rather than Conservative by a margin of two to one, (which was once true with a smallish margin of error), is not self-explanatory; indeed, it is not even a candidate explanation. It is a summative account of what members of these socio-economic groups do at an election in Britain. Suppose we find a member of those groups who votes Labour, and we say Jones voted Labour because he was a member of SES group V, what are we saying? It was antecedently half as likely that he would have voted Conservative, and yet we would not say Jones voted Conservative because he was a member of SES group V. On the assumption that something about being a member of SES groups IV and V is causally connected to voting behaviour, we must think that whatever it is bears on the reasoning implicit in the 3

voting behaviour. Here are three possibilities of how it is causally effective - the point of offering just these three will emerge in due course. The first is a simple pay-off argument; Jones reckons that a Labour government will do better for people in SES groups IV and V, and votes on simple self-interest. (I omit questions about whether self-interest would get us to the polling booth in the first place; we may imagine that Britain has acquired the Australian rule of compulsory voting, and Jones would be fined for non-appearance.) Choosing between Labour and Conservative, and abstracting from his own circumstances, he reckons he will do better under Labour and votes accordingly. I stress two points that will come up again. The first is that these reasons are objective; they are his reasons, but they are also reasons that anyone in his position has; and even if a person in that position has other reasons for acting that outweigh these reasons, they outweigh but do not cancel reasons that he still has. The reasons do not go away when they are outweighed. The second is that appealing to these reasons is appealing to the causes of his behaviour. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of several decades ago, there is no contrast between causal explanation and rational explanation; if reasons explain, they explain by being causes, and if they are not causes they do not explain. (Contrast Lesnoff, 1974 and Davidson, 1980) Consider the Conservative-voting member of SES groups IV or V; he has the reasons to vote Labour that his Labour voting peer has, but he does not act on them. To cite them cannot explain his behaviour, since they do not make him vote Labour; if they are cited, it must be in the context of showing how they pushed him one way but not powerfully enough to offset the countervailing reasons.

Within the whats in it for me? paradigm, it is not difficult to construct a chain of reasoning that might counter the fact that Labour does better for members of SES groups IV and V. Although Labour might be better for members of SES groups IV and V on average, our hypothetical voter may not think of himself as an average member of the group. Perhaps he is in an occupation, low-paid at present, that will be given a great leg-up by the Conservatives. So the party to vote for is the Conservatives. This is why we might well say, he voted Tory although he 4

was a member of SES group V. In the case of the Labour voter, we assume that the reasons that he shares with his Conservative peer meet with no countervailing reasons, and so he votes Labour, while in the other case to say although simply draws attention to the fact that the countervailing reasons override the reasons on the other side. But, I want to offer two more thoughts that will stretch the argument a bit.

First, let us re-introduce normative reasoning into the argument. Norms provide reasons for action, just as self-interest does. Sometimes, it is true that norms do not influence action in a more or less sense, but in a yes or no sense. That is, it makes sense for me to buy cheaper apples if I can, but not if the walk to the shop is so far that it outweighs the advantage of their cheapness; the distance increases their cost as a function of the distance, so there is a flexible trade-off between money saved and distance walked. The shopkeeper who knew my aversion to walking with sufficient exactness would know how much more he could afford to charge than his rival, and his rival could know by how much he had to undercut his competitor. If, on the other hand, I thought that one greengrocer was simply wicked and that my custom was helping to fund his wicked behaviour, I ought not to buy from him, full stop. This is a formulation that I have already said was too extreme, but it will get us started. It is familiar in political science that voters who have (objective, class-based, self-interested) reasons for voting one way will do so in smaller numbers if they are surrounded by large numbers of voters of the opposite persuasion. One explanation is that they see normality as embracing voting for the other party, and they are led towards thinking that its what people do, in a normative as well as a statistical sense. If a large local majority votes for the wrong party, people will have friends who vote for it, and will feel they should stick with their mates; or parents will vote that way and their children will defer to their parents views. And so on.

I said it was too extreme to say that normative considerations were all or nothing and that is right. Although the housemaid who said that she was only a little bit pregnant was making a 5

crucial mistake, the person who thinks that his offence against morality is a small one is not always doing so. The point here, however, is simply that a person may vote the way he does out of a conviction that he ought to vote that way. This provides a perfectly good reason, and in the sense that it rationalises the action and picks out the thing to do it provides the characteristic bottom line explanation of human action that we employ in everyday life. Neither our Labour voters appeal to the obvious economic benefits to himself if his party wins, nor the Conservative voters appeal to the norm of voting with his friends and relations is more rational than the other; both rationalise the agents behaviour in the sense explained. There are those, Jon Elster most notably, who insist that the two sorts of explanation operate in different universes and cannot be reduced to one another. And there are others, Robert Frank most notably, who insist that a rational person in the utility-maximizing sense of that term would choose to have a temperament that made himself susceptible to the pull of norms such as justice and honesty - on the grounds that the benefits will on average outweigh the costs incurred on particular occasions by not performing the action that maximizes utility at that instant. (Frank, 1988; Frank, 2003) The latter seems to me highly plausible, but neither view needs exploring here. There is, however, a third sort of rationalisation to which I want to draw attention; one of my great regrets is that nobody (myself included) has ever managed to provide a philosophically convincing elaboration of the thought that animates much of the work of Erving Goffman. That is the thought that we spend a great deal of our time literally enacting ourselves; this is a process of a slightly peculiar kind inasmuch as we devote our efforts both to reassuring other people that we can cooperate and do exactly as we ought, but also to showing them how much more of us there is than that part of ourselves that we devote to social cooperation. (Goffman, 1963; Goffman, 1971) Acting out a drama in which we indicate our reliability and knowability, while at the same time suggesting that we may be quite other than we appear is a very distinctive but wholly commonplace human skill.

The surgeon who asks his nurse for a niblick when she and he know full well that he needs a favourite scalpel is showing that he is a wholly competent surgeon, reassuring his surgical team that he is fully in command in a tricky situation, and showing them that he has plenty of sangfroid - if that is the right word in the context - in reserve. The surgeon shows without insisting that he is wholly in command; put otherwise, he affirms his identity as a wholly competent surgeon. Goffman was very good at the topic of preserving our real identity an issue that might arise when a father plays with his child too unself-consciously, and casts doubt upon his commitment to grown-up existence. He invented the concept of role-distance to pick out this phenomenon. Goffman saw that fathers taking their children on fairground rides and in similar situations acted as though they knew that they might be watched by grown-up observers and adjusted their conduct in ways that indicated yes, I am playing here, but I am also the grown-up whom you see in the office. Voting behaviour may be illuminated by the same observation. A person who votes, whether in the direction of self-interest, or as some norm dictates, may also seek to enact his commitment. Modern voting is not the most obvious arena for this, since the fashion for the secret ballot means that people dont have a public place in which to act out their allegiances. Nonetheless, one can see how a person might think that voting was a form of avowing commitments. I could not vote for a Conservative, no matter how excellent, not because Conservatives are wicked, nor because a Conservative government would be less in my interests than a Labour government, but because it would declare to an invisible audience that I was the person I grew up determined not to be - whether the red-faced hearty in the local golf club or the weasel-faced racist who runs the dodgy car dealership round the corner.

Expressive rationality is genuinely explanatory, but parasitic on other explanatory considerations. That is, we have to express something, and the something that we express must in logic be prior to the expression of it. I give my love a bunch of red roses to express my affection, but the affection gets the whole thing going. My desire not to be a gin-swiller or a dealer in dodgy automobiles must antedate my sense that voting for someone other than the Tory 7

candidate will express that desire. An operatic aria allows us to express rage and jealousy with more verve than everyday life permits, but the rage and jealousy have to be there to be expressed, even if in due course there will be feedback such that the way we feel rage and jealousy will reflect the available modes of expression of the emotions. Once there is opera, I can behave operatically when I flounce out of department meetings. It is at least possible that there is some constraint on our feelings imposed by the need that they be expressible in ways we have some natural aptitude for or inclination towards.

Interestingly, we get three distinct sorts of mistake or misfires in action corresponding to the three sorts of rationalisation I have described. The simplest mistake is that made by someone aiming to maximise his pay-off in the standard rational choice situation; he will fail to do what actually maximises his pay-off and will do what does not achieve it. If A aims at Y by doing X and X wont bring about Y, A has made a mistake. Either his factual beliefs are wrong or he has made some error of calculation. The normative case is more complicated, inasmuch as there are several different slants on it. One is simply that we think the agents normative attachments are wrong; he behaves as a conscientious head-hunter should in slaughtering the family of his victim, and we think he is wicked. His mistake is to be wicked. But, less starkly, he might have made a mistake about the implications of attachments with which we would not quarrel, or, as with the ordinary rational choice instance he might have made a mistake about the likelihood of the action bringing about the normatively required situation. (His friends may in fact regard voting as a matter of individual conscience and not think his solidarity an appropriate virtue.) Lastly, the gesture may be theatrically wrong in all sorts of ways: it might be inappropriate, overblown, or self-indulgent. The interesting thing about the last case, however, is that it shares with the second but not the first a mode of mistake that is interesting in its own right, that of inaptness. It is an important fact, for what seems the enactment of sincerity to one audience can readily seem the demonstration of blind stupidity to another - whence my view that we must attend both to the role of the expressive and to the question of what it expresses. Of course, there 8

are depths here worth exploring in their own right; Sens famous essay on Rational Fools is but one example of the insights to be had by considering what happens if we cannot change our ends as well as the means to previously adopted ends. (Sen, 1979 and Sen, 2002)


That explanation is only prima facie rational actor explanation needs elucidation; I want

to insist that we can always, but not always usefully or interestingly, ask why one sort of reason rather than another motivated an agent in a given context; sometimes this will take the form of asking why she or he believed or valued what she or he did, but sometimes it can take the form of asking why the agent thought in self-interested terms rather than normative ones or vive-versa, or why they chose the particular mode of dramatization that they did. On other occasions, the question will undercut their avowed reasons in search of their real reasons - readily in the case of simple lying, but more complicatedly in the case of self-deception.

We should begin by observing that the priority of rational explanation so construed gives no priority to rational choice theory. RCT is committed to the view that explanations should be couched in terms of the interactions of rational utility maximizers. Here we duck the familiar findings of Daniel Kahneman and his collaborators that show how impossible it is for us to rank alternatives consistently or in such a way as to provide the completeness that theorists assume for model-building purposes. By the same token framing problems will be tackled only in passing and casually when we discuss the ways in which stimuli other than those internal to rational choice affect the way we rank alternatives and assess how much we prefer one to another. The first issue to examine is the rationality of maximization. In the ordinary sense of the word, we rarely try to maximize our acquisition of what we are seeking. We do not eat the largest possible meal, or drink the largest possible drink. It might be retorted that the largest possible meal is not the same thing as the best meal under the circumstances. That only gets us so far. We do not seek out the very best car, or the very best television set, or even the very best meal under the circumstances. What we mostly do is satisfice. But this is an area where ordinary habits of 9

speech are at odds with the technicalities of the economist; the plain mans understanding of maximization is not that of the economist. What we do not do in the economists sense is optimize; we do not usually seek, let alone usually find, the absolutely best alternative. The economist insists that we must nonetheless maximize, which is to say that we must choose what is given what we want to achieve an alternative that is no worse than any of the others available. On this view, Buridans Ass, who starved to death between two equidistant bundles of hay, suffered from an inability to distinguish between optimizing as a search for the absolutely best which did not exist and maximizing, as a search for an alternative as good as the others in the neighbourhood such as starving to death. (Sen, 2002 , pp 42-47)

The greater difficulty lurks in the word utility, which has always covered a multitude of sins. The common complaint is that it means only whatever it is that a rational actor is maximizing, and thus renders RCT vacuous. The better thought is that we must be careful to employ RCT in only one of the two distinct ways in which it can be employed. That is, if we set it as an axiom that some person or group of persons are maximising something, and it is an axiom that they are fully informed, suffer no weakness of will or defects in processing information and the like, then we can analyze their behaviour to discover what it is they are maximizing. In the alternative, if we know in fact what they are trying to maxmize, and they are fully informed, suffer no weakness of will, and so on and so forth, we can predict what they will do. In general, we can, and do, hold some parts of the framework constant to illuminate the state of the other parts such as defects in information, weakness of will etc. The gratuitious (and false) assumption is that what they are trying to maximize can only be their own, narrowly selfish interests. If rationality requires them to maxmize in the economists sense, it does not require them to adopt as their ends only their own well-being.

This is sometimes thought to be a sentimental or moralising view; it is not. Whats in it for me? is a question we can always ask, but frequently do not. In some contexts even asking the question 10

would display a low character. The converse is more interesting. In many contexts we behave in a rationally self-interested fashion not because this consorts with human nature, but because we are morally obliged to or legally required to. A trustee of a charity, for instance, is legally required to maximize the charitys resources. The notion that the self-interest oriented explanation is the most basic explanation is not plausible. If the interest of anything is basic, it is the survival interest of our genes, and they neither have selves, nor the capacity to be moved by self-interest, pace my colleague Richard Dawkins. It is not easy to provide a general account of the contexts in which RCT complete with the priority of selfish motives is most illuminating, but it is tempting to say that it is those contexts where most things that human beings enjoy have been excluded. Holding a stock for moral reasons is likely to be expensive, and Id be welladvised to exclude such thoughts from my motivation. Again, treating my role as CEO as the field for operatic displays of courage without thinking quite hard about the underlying profitability of the company may work for a little but probably not for long. (Operatic displays intended to reinforce the point that I really am the boss, that I really take hard decisions, and that I really have a good eye for the main chance may all be quite important, as suggested above.)

The Weberian view that RCT becomes useful at the point where we create institutions that provide many pay-offs for so organizing our conduct and very little emotional, aesthetic, or normative satisfaction is right. There are constraints on the creation of such institutions, too, such as the obvious constraint that the institutions that buy and sell in order to make a profit - and not to glorify God, serve the poor, or enhance the glory of the local prince - must not be doing something obviously immoral. The prostitute who said that she went on the streets rather than sit on her assets was making an improper joke, but she neatly called attention to the contestablility of the line between those areas in which we may decently consult the promptings of cost-benefit analysis and those where we may not. The fact that there are not merely large numbers of jokes along the same general lines, but a whole film starring Julia Roberts, suggests that this is well understood by the majority of the human race. 11

Equally importantly, there will be many occasions when we need to distinguish between a persons reasons and their real reasons for action. The latter are those that are causally efficacious in the context in question, whereas the former merely rationalise the action without being causally efficaciour; they are reasons which would be good enough to explain the action, but in fact do not, because they were not the reasons that got the agent to act. Absent this distinction, both self-deception and ideological blandishment are unintelligible. We constantly employ the distinction when we think that someone is lying about what they are up to; if we think that nobody could believe what, say, Paul Wolfowitz said that he believed about the dangers to the United States posed by Iraq, we look for something that he might believe that could provide reasons - reasons that are logically and causally efficacious whatever their moral qualities - for invading Iraq. But we need not think that he was lying. The interesting cases are those where people believe the account they give but are not properly informed about their own motives or beliefs or both. We might think that a politician who always adopted the more aggressive or risky of the policies available, when the more and less risky were equally likely to succeed, was trying to show his father that he wasnt a wimp. Or we might think that such a person had swallowed the ethos of the social class that had hitherto run the country, and was demonstrating that he shared their outlook he might be a parvenu impressing a military aristocracy, for instance. The sociologically more complex distinction between reasons and real reasons would include some familiar Marxist themes, such as the suggestion that the working class voter who votes Tory is mystified into thinking that by engaging in middle-class activity, he demonstrates that he is a middle-class person.

Although in everyday life we operate perfectly satisfactorily with the distinction between avowed reasons and real reasons without begging the question whether real reasons must be deeply suspect, social scientists tend to get into a tangle by assuming that real reasons can only be of one sort and must be unavowed because they are discreditable. But there is no reason to 12

believe either of these things. When Hobbes gave some money to a beggar, a friend asked him whether he would have done it if Our Lord had not commanded us to be charitable. Certainly, said Hobbes, that mans distress distressed me and in easing him I eased myself. Hobbes was right to insist that unselfish behaviour - that is, devoting himself to someone elses welfare could have a self-regarding pay-off - a kindly person like Hobbes is upset by the misfortune of others and helps himself by helping them. Self-regarding is importantly not the same thing as selfish; that is, there must on Hobbess account be a motivating pay-off to the agent, but the route to that motivating pay-off can be something quite other than the agents own welfare. Hobbess account is a precursor of Robert Frankss. What Hobbes gets from the encounter is the reduction of his distress at someone elses distress, and this is in not the abusive sense a purely instrumental act. People frequently give a less self-praising account of their behaviour than their friends would come up with, and explain themselves in more self-deprecating fashion than Hobbes. What goes for motives also goes for compulsion: people behave well as often as badly in a quite compulsive fashion - helping others when they are determined not to or contributing to charity when they had decided not to. Succumbing to temptation can readily mean succumbing to the temptation to behave well.

It is unclear how much clarification of the different sorts of reason-for-action is possible. Webers distinction of Zweck- and Wertrational action is famous: the distinction between meansend rationality and value-implementing rationality. The second embraces both the sort of normative rationalisation that I mentioned above and the expressive dimension I added in homage to Goffman. I incline to the view that dimensions may be added ad libitum for analytical purposes. One thing to emphasize is that the issues that come up when we deepen or undermine proferred rationalisations have nothing to do with this form of explanation, but with any kind of explanation. The temptation to think otherwise stems from the fact that to call an action rational is often to commend it; but rational for our purposes only means rationalisable. Consider an example that Martin Hollis made famous: a man looking for a large piece of 13

buttered toast to sit on doesnt reduce our bewilderment when he explains that he is a poached egg. Hollis wanted to preserve the thought that to call an action rational is to commend it and so to say that even though a piece of buttered toast is the right place for a poached egg to be, the action couldnt be baptised as rational in the commendatory sense. The deeper explanation is that the absurdity of the belief is so salient that it overwhelms ones grip on the explanation. We want to know why on earth the man thinks he is a poached egg, and what on earth it might be like to think anything of the sort.

So, although rational action is basic in social science explanation, we in practice spend very little time elaborating rational actor explanations, unless we are obsessive practitioners of RCT. More often, we want to know the things that allow us to fill in - should we wish to cross our ts and dot our is - the details of their decision-making. So, we spend our time wondering why people have the weird beliefs they do - that the UN is sending black helicopters to spy on them, for instance and how they come by the strange values they seem to hold; and we shall spend almost no time thinking about what follows from those beliefs and values. What we are puzzled by and what we look for to provide an explanation depends on what we antecedently think it plausible that people might believe and value; we dont wonder why people believe that a lack of health care imperils their health, but we do wonder why they think that rubbing a weak magnet over a painful part of their body will do them good.


Finally, the approach sketched here may seem to slight in no particular order

holistic, historical, and functional explanation. That is, it might seem that an insistence on the role of rationalising explanations, even with no priority given to rational choice explanations as conventionally understood may seem to be too individualistic, too given to syllogistic explanation and not enough to narrative, and always seeking Humean causes to the exclusion of an understanding of social function. There is a response to the first two complaints, and none is necessary to the third. 14

Holistic explanations in the Marxian or Durkheimian mode rely in the last resort on the logic of the situation mode of analysis offered above. This is not to say that such explanations look like situational logic explanations on the page, only to say that when the explanations are properly unpicked, their dependence on situational logic becomes evident. The point is this: suppose we think of Marxs claim that the fate of capitalism is dictated with an iron necessity. Part of this claim rests on a philosophical conviction about the rationality of history that is closer to a religious conviction than anything one might prove on the basis of empirical evidence. But the basic machinery of a Marxian explanation does not rely on a belief in the overall rationality of the process. It relies on a familiar pattern: the situation at time T1 gives people overwhelming reason to behave in ways a,b,c...x,y,z, and the consequences of their behaving in those ways will be to create at T2 a new situation that gives them overwhelming reason to behave in ways a2 to z2, and the consequences will be... The way this is set out has to include various items that will have the effect of preventing people radically revising their values, changing their beliefs, or devising new strategies, but in well-organised old-fashioned Marxism this was taken care of. At the end of the day, Tn , what resulted from the consequences of all the prior situations and peoples reactions to those situations was Marxs inevitable catastrophe. Marx was, of course, wrong. But he was wrong about the facts, not about the logic of explanation: what holists believe is that the intervening processes of perception, evaluation and decision can be so taken for granted that a situation-situation explanation will suffice. This claim is false in fact, but not offensive in logic.

There is, for different reasons, no conflict between situational logic and explanatory narrative and therefore no tension between historical and rational explanation. Historical explanations depend on logic of the situation analysis, and a good narrative is one where the causal chain from beginning to end is well put together in a series of rationalising links together with an account of how actions created new situations to which appropriate responses took place and so 15

on down the chain. There is no conflict between the generalising mode that underlies a lot of rationalising explanation and historical explanation. Indeed, it is truer to say that all explanation is historical and that theories provide idealised histories than that situational logic explanation is unhistorical. On this view, economics is a box from which we can extract idealised histories of the behaviour of interacting agents. In practice, of course, we do not bother to do it - we are more interested in the box of tricks from which we can extract the histories or in the mathematical formulation of those histories. Still, as a matter of logic, that is what we do, so there is no general tension between rationalising and historical explanations..

Finally, and dogmatically, because I have argued the point at length elsewhere, functional explanations turn out to be one of three things: not explanations at all, explanations in terms of purpose, and explanations in terms of situational logic. They are not explanations at all when all they do is point to the agreeable, useful, benign or otherwise helpful effects of whatever it is we are functionally explaining. Robert Mertons famous and wonderful essay on Manifest and Latent Functions (Merton, 1957) is a very good example of all of these possibilities. Manifest functions are the what institutions and practices do because people set them up for that purpose. The purposes of the agents who set them up provide the crucial causative factors. They are good causal explanations in terms of purpose - the purposes of human agents, and by extension the purpose of those agents creations. In the case of the latent functions of the boss system - a wonderful piece of observation - where it is observed that the boss system substituted for the missing welfare state, it is perfectly proper to observe that the boss system provided benefits to newly arrived immigrants that were useful to the immigrants and whose usefulness explains the immigrants readiness to support the bosses against middle-class reformers. That does not explain why there was a boss system; effects cannot explain the events or institutions whose effects they are. What explains the existence of the boss system is the entrepreneurial opportunity available to quick and unscrupulous folk, given a broad electorate, feeble policing of


corruption, and a large, under-resourced immigrant population whose votes could be used to get control of the political system and therewith of its revenues.

The good effects of this corrupt system do not explain its genesis, but they are the beginnings of an explanation of something else, namely the difficulty of stamping out the system. For, given that the bosses provided benefits to their clients - at a very high cost to the wider community and indeed at a higher cost to their clients than would have been charged by a cleaner system - their clients had no reason to support middle-class reformers who would leave them without any benefits at all. Since, for all the reasons explored by Macur Olson many years ago, the bosses were likely to be better organised and to have greater stamina than the reformers, their clients were likely to remain loyal to them. The demise of the boss system was signalled by the arrival of the welfare state on the one hand and more effective employment arrangements on the other. Once the city job was unattractive compared to what one might earn elsewhere, one of the major benefits that the boss could offer was of much less value; and once the welfare state could do what sporadic deliveries of coal and food in return for ones vote had done before, the old bargain lost its value. In short, when there is a real explanation of something identifiable as the explanandum, a situational logic explanation is what we want. In this case, moreover, something very like an explanation in terms of rational self-interest does as well as can be imagined. Still, it is not impossible that something else would have been the right explanation - for instance that as the immigrant poor became more assimilated they changed their moral perspective and simply sided with respectable America and against both the bosses and their earlier selves. Happily, American politics has never been a healthy environment for respectability, and that explanation, though impeccable in logic, has no credibility in fact.

This is largely because Chapter One of Sen 2002 says much of what I would wish to say if I had sixty pages in which to say it, and with a wealth of reference beyond anything I might mention.


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