Martin, John Levi. The Explanation of Social Action.

Author:Quest, Linda
Position:Book review

Martin, John Levi. The Explanation of Social Action. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xiii + 396 pages. Cloth, $35.00.

Martin takes sociology as his keystone discipline for the social sciences and the question why? as his keystone interrogative. Although Martin speaks as a sociologist, the perspectives and models of explanation that he selects for close analysis have applications in other areas of the social sciences, too. In fact, some theorists Martin chooses are famed as seminal contributors to political science, psychology, and other disciplines in the social sciences. Martin's question why? is problematic. As any teacher or parent knows, why? leads to dizzying why-why-why? regressions and extensions pushed to extremes of vertigo or apathy. The Explanation of Social Action is a clinic in organization, internal connectivity, and coherence, footnoting, referencing, and indexing. The comments in the footnotes are informative and explanatory, and cannot be skipped without missing humorous highlights. Classroom academics might not have time to write this book, but it justifies finding the time to read it and keeping it on the reference shelf for future use. It is ideally suited as an illuminating and enjoyable text for a senior seminar in the respective social sciences or for an interdisciplinary capstone course.

Martin writes, "Social sciences explain what people do and explain what it means to carry out such explanation" (p. ix), and he proposes to "use theory as a provisional abstraction that by the end of the book has disappeared into science" (p. 5). To do so, he argues, we should shun causal explanations and formulations, and avoid the pretense of conclusive proof. Social action is more complex than that. Provisional tendencies and covariations must suffice--until further research refines or replaces them. Root out circularity and tautology. Those are not for social sciences. Neither is counterfactualism worthy of the social sciences. Such practices, Martin explains, "bring not clarity but ambiguity" (p. 42) and "mislead us regarding where the action is" (p. 47). Avoid seizing models or grids to be imposed upon data or subjects. Instead, use primary sources, including first-person explanations. First-person accounts might have their flaws, but they deserve attention, especially when they are available in large numbers. Third-person explanations, based on theory, are even more flawed. The first person is a participant- observer...

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