what does ‘why’ mean?

A couple of weeks ago I got in a friendly back-and-forth on Twitter with my friend and colleague Daniel Kreiss. Daniel was annoyed by this article, which purports to reveal why Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan to be his running mate by deploying median-voter theory. Daniel’s frustration was this:


Here’s the record of our conversation. More thoughts below the break.

I think the main point of contention here is what we mean by ‘why.’ Charles Tilly’s book on the subject (not among his best, IMHO) suggests that we subsume multiple different senses of causality when we ask why. The upshot of this diversity of meaning is that the problem is not only methodological but theoretical as well.

Theoretically, the LSE article Daniel was commenting on rests on the idea that actors do things as a result of causes they themselves may not know or understand. That’s likely true in many circumstances. If that’s the kind of why we’re interested in, asking actors why they did something will not reveal the cause. The cause can be found in patterns observed in past behaviors and predicting future ones.

The obvious alternative in this case is the sense of why that is: what were the actors thinking when they took the action under consideration? Or, as Daniel puts it, “what went into the decision?”. This is of course an important kind of why to ask, and one that Daniel’s work has admirably documented.

My concern with this approach has three parts:

  1. As the original article implies, actors may not know why they do what they do. People likely rationalize behaviors post-hoc, but even in the moment when they are acting, they almost certainly hold a set of beliefs about their environment that are biased in some way.
  2. Actors have strategic reasons, large and small, to lie about their decision making processes to journalists, scholars, and researchers. These lies may be conscious, but they may also be unconscious rationalizations believed by the actors themselves.
  3. Daniel’s standard (“the method that is closest empirically to the matter at hand is the best”) strikes me as very vulnerable to the “ethnographic fallacy“: that interview/ethnographic methods are somehow more transparent, or less distorting, than representative or systematic methods.


Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

One thought on “what does ‘why’ mean?”

  1. I feel like you two put more effort into this debate than the authors of the original article. For roughly two hundred years parties have attempted to balance their tickets. Observing that it happened this time partially based on political beliefs and then invoking median voter theory is lame, no matter how you define why.

    Liked by 1 person

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