Explaining Social Action

Philosophy of the Social Sciences 14 (1984): 581-82.

Denis Dutton


Sociological Explanation as Translation
, by Stephen P. Turner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980; x & 110 pp. $5.95 (paper), $19.95 (hardcover).


Perhaps one should not judge a book by its cover, but one ought to be forgiven for harboring at least a few illusions based on its title. So let potential readers be forewarned with regard to at least one miscast expectation: in Stephen Turner’s book you will find no discussion of translation between natural languages, nor any examination of how the problems of translation might shed light on issues in the philosophy of social explanation. Turner does make the claim that “the pattern of explanation” he recommends for sociology “resembles translation more closely than it resembles any other form of explanation or explication” (p.3). What argument is adduced in support of this view? So far as I can see, only one: Turner quotes a European diplomat as saying, “One of the biggest problems we have...is trying to translate the internal politics of one country into the language of another.” According to Turner, the diplomat could just as easily have used the word explain where he used translate; this shows that “the connection between particular problems of translation and particular problems of explanation is often intimate” (pp. 52-53). The nature of this intimacy is left to the reader’s imagination.

In fact, it is not translation at all with which Turner is concerned, but comparison, and the point of his book is to establish that sociological studies are essentially comparative in character. He proceeds by describing at length two examples of comparative work and analyses them to demonstrate that the procedures they embody support his comparativist views. Our attempt to understand the social behavior of others, especially persons in other cultures, involves the application of what he calls “the same practices hypothesis”: we are to go forward “as though we hypothesized that where we would follow such and such a rule, the members of another social group or persons in another social context would do the same” (p.97, Turner’s italics). Puzzles begin when other people do not behave as they ought, i.e., as we would behave in the same situation. The solutions to “these puzzles,” Turner tells us, “are kin to another, familiar, kind of explanation: the explanation of a game ‘by describing one as variations of another — by describing them and emphasizing their differences and analogies’. The different practice in a social group or social context that raises the puzzle is explained in the way that a different rule of a game is explained” (p.97).

This method of analysis is designated by Turner as a “distinctively ‘sociological’ pattern that can be assimilate neither to the model of hermeneutics nor to models of philosophic inquiry...” (p.3). The latter model is that proposed by Peter Winch, and it is in his account of Winch that Turner is able to present his most solid discussion, particularly in defending Winch’s conception of social analysis from criticisms launched by Alasdair MacIntyre. Yet it is not clear, despite his claims to the contrary, that Turner’s position is really that far from Winch’s. It is true that one of the implications of The Idea of a Social Science is that comparisons between cultural practices may be at best misleading, at worst a form of rank philistinism. But it is not certain that Winch would have to insist that any comparisons at all be ruled out; it is bad comparisons he objects to, and he gives examples of what he means. Turner, on the other handy is weak in demonstrating the limits of the comparative approach — in showing us what might count as poorly conceived or misleading comparisons. From Turner’s account it seems all too easy: we come to understand their games by noting the differences and similarities between their games and ours. But what if we don’t have an analogous game? What if some foreign practice is utterly without a significant analogue in our culture? It is not as though Turner must be regarded as lacking an adequate response to these questions: rather, the problem is that he does not choose to approach such difficulties in this book.

One particular criticism of Winch struck this reader as unfounded. Turner claims that Winch focuses on a “within-society” perspective. That much is uncontroversial; but he then goes on to say that according to Winch’s position, “there are no grounds for argument: you have grasped the rule or you have not.” With Turner’s own “comparative perspective there are grounds: for rejecting, revising, and replacing identification of rules” (p.76). With Winch’s notion of “grasping” a set of rules, however, “it is senseless even to talk of ‘grounds’ and ‘evidence’ in connection with interpretations” (p.98). This misconceives the essential issue. It is not that for Winch there are no grounds for interpretations. There are in fact grounds, but the problem for which Winch is so notorious is that he apparently thinks that they must be the insider’s or participant’s grounds. Winch leaves us with the impression that the best interpretation of a cultural practice must inevitable come from a participant using criteria from within the culture in question, but he gives us no idea of how we might decide between competinng interpretations from within a culture. And neither does Turner, who leaves this important issue at the level of unargued assertion.

In the course of his discussion, Turner does have some interesting things to say about competing descriptions from Spiro and Leach on beliefs of the Tully River Blacks about the relationship between copulation and pregnancy. He also makes some familiar but still worthwhile criticisms of forms of functionalism which view disparate social practices as all serving the same social end, such as engendering social cohesion: this involves “an illicit transition, a transition that resembles going from ‘All chains end somewhere’ to ‘There is somewhere that all chains end’”(p.93). Along with this, he casts doubt on the whole project of trying to find a general theory of social behavior. I think this is a much more radically subversive idea, coming from a sociologist such as Turner, than he is willing to let on.

It is too bad that Turner never pursues the claim that his view of sociology is not hermeneutic (p.3). The book gives no hint of why, and I for one would hold that the kind of comparativist perspective Turner endorses is fundamental to a hermeneutic approach to social understanding. But this is yet another issue that Sociological Explanation as Translation raises without even beginning to answer.