In having some drinks with Josh Whitford last night (and a group of Pakistanis and Indians), Josh brought up a nice point about “one of the fundamental insights of sociology:” sometimes things just don’t add up.
The context of the discussion was the current political situation in Pakistan. One member of the group vehemently argued, “I’m sick of hearing about how the West, or Colonialism, or whatever is responsible for Pakistan’s problems; Pakistan is responsible”. To which Josh and I replied, “It could be the case that the West is 100% responsible for Pakistan’s problems. Similarly, colonialism is 100% responsible. Radical Islam is also 100% responsible. So too are the Pakistanis 100% responsible. Sometimes, the percentages of blame or responsibility just don’t add up”.
Now of course, we were being glib. But we were also being serious. The insight was that “blame” (or explanation) can’t always be parceled out in ways that add up to 100%. Thought of more concretely, if we find that neighborhood effects “explain” a considerable amount of the variance for crime in a region (say, 25%), the logical consequence of this isn’t that somehow people who commit crimes in those areas are less culpable – say, only 75% to blame – and less and less still as things beyond neighborhood effects do some explanation.
Now, I recognize how the sloppy use or interpretation of statistics can give this impression within sociology. But I am more interested in how the insight of things “not adding up” can and should be brought more generally outside of the discipline. Sometimes the reasons for things are many, and in developing explanations, we can’t assume that when added up, the reasons give us 100% of the story. They sometimes give us far more and/or far less.