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The Explanation of Social Action$
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John Levi Martin

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199773312

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199773312.001.0001

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Why Questions? What Explanations?

Why Questions? What Explanations?

(p.3) Chapter 1 Why Questions? What Explanations?
The Explanation of Social Action

John Levi Martin

Oxford University Press

Chapter 1 introduces the problem by beginning with the difference between “first person” and “third person” explanations. The former refer to the world that we inhabit as individual actors; the latter are an explanatory construct that we generally only employ when discussing others. In the social sciences, we not only privilege the latter, but we tend to think that explanations that rest with the former are somehow inadequate or second rate, if not somehow threatening the discipline itself. The great theory, on the other hand, not only does not rely on first person accounts, it transcends them, it ignores them, it may even obliterate them. That is because the great theory is one that is general, and the general theory is one that involves the linking of concepts that are relatively abstract. When two substantively disparate phenomena are explained jointly as instances of one and the same abstraction, we are satisfied that we have done a masterful job of explanation. This is especially true when we can link two or more abstractions with a relationship of causality between them.

Keywords:   explanation, why, third person, abstraction, social Science

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