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04 June 2018

Explanation vs. Justification

I wanted to get some thoughts down on this, mostly for future reference. People often confuse explanation for justification. I remember wrestling with this myself as an undergraduate sociology major. In particular, I struggled in my Crime and Deviance course to reconcile the sociological explanation for the family annihilator phenomenon, in which typically men murder their wives and children and then (usually) kill themselves. Scientific understanding felt like a defense or apology from my moralistic worldview. A more recent example can be seen in the academic and journalistic attempts to explain Trump-voters, especially white, rural, working-class folks. See works by Vance, Hochschild, and Wuthnow. I've had an oddly similar reaction as in my undergrad days, that these explanations seem dangerously close to moral justifications. Importantly, this need not be the case. It is entirely consistent simultaneously to have objective scientific explanation and to retain the ability to find the outcomes subjectively morally repugnant. I can understand why some men do violence while still condemning it. I can understand why rural, working-class whites feel aggrieved while still labeling them wrong. Too often, I think sociology, the social sciences more broadly, and the academe overall are derided by those who cannot make this distinction between explanation and justification, understanding and apology. Being able to articulate this to the public--and to ourselves--can only help our cause.

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