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Common Sense and Sociological Explanations1

Sociologists have long advocated a sociological approach to explanation by contrasting it with common sense. The argument of this article, however, is that sociologists rely on common sense more than they realize. Moreover, this unacknowledged reliance causes serious problems for their explanations of social action, that is, for why people do what they do. Many such explanations, it is argued, conflate understandability with causality in ways that are not valid by the standards of scientific explanation. It follows that if sociologists want their explanations to be scientifically valid, they must evaluate them specifically on those grounds—in particular, by forcing them to make predictions. In becoming more scientific, however, it is predicted that sociologists’ explanations will also become less satisfying from an intuitive, sense-making perspective. Even as novel sources of data and improved methods open exciting new directions for sociological research, therefore, sociologists will increasingly have to choose between unsatisfying scientific explanations and satisfying but unscientific stories.