How I stopped worrying about the truth and love my informants

An unstoppable source of worrying on the field has been about “the truth” and whether or not my informants, people I was talking to or interviewing, were telling it. This is not a new worry for me: I had experienced it on another field before, and yet again while learning interviewing techniques. As time passed, I started realising – with the kind help of readings – that this source of wariness was actually not caused by my informants not trusting me, but by my own misconception on what it is to do sociology. As I am reading a lot on motivated action at the moment, here is a short summary of that reflection.

“You just want to simplify my story into a logical sequence leading to… Carole” Blast, from Manu Larcenet

The problem

Let us take a common situation in research: as a researcher, you are interviewing a certain number of persons about a certain situation, and find out these persons, while talking to you, present contradictory explanations not of their idea of what they are seeing, but of what they are seeing altogether. Let’s say it is about a question of delinquency, an actor telling you a car auto happened and the other telling you no such thing ever happened. This car theft had a certain impact on the community, since it was then listed, among several other acts of delinquency, by a member of a local association, who managed because of his expertise to convince the homeowners association to set up fences around the neighbourhood to stop “these things” from happening again, and contribute locally to the general outrage about the gating of residential communities in Western Europe.

What is to be done with that? If I turn to my actors, both may very well tell me that the other is lying. I could go and ask a third party, or even all the other local inhabitants, what they know about this and that affair, but have no further confirmation of what actually happened. I could finally go to the police archives, if the theft has been recorded and if the file is accessible, and try to see what is the truth. Or I could just decide for myself what I choose to believe (after all, one inhabitant may well spend their days at their windows looking at the neighbourhood, being unemployed or retired, or it may well be that the person who is telling me there was a car theft only heard it as a rumour, and so forth).

In the end I am faced with a terrible question of how to believe what my actors are saying. And this is even worse when it comes to the moral or intellectual definition of things happening. To go back to my gating example: beside the report talking about stolen cars, another one promoted the gating for reasons of securing parking spaces for the inhabitants, a letter from a local retired person asked for it to be done so as to stop cars from passing by the neighbourhood during the night, and an interviewee swears that the cause of the vote was caused by the desire to maintain a good real estate value by privatising gardens and playgrounds, while another one links it to the growing racism in their society. In a nutshell, not only after, but also before and during the action of gating, numerous motives are provided by the actors to make sense of what is going on.

But which one tells the truth? I’m a sociologist, or I’m trying to be. I’m studying a very important topic: knowing what causes the development of enclosure in residential condominiums, one of the forms of urban segregation. I need to know what is the true motive of this even happening, I need to know if the car war really stolen.

The solution?

A part of this miscomprehension or mistake comes from the fact that I, precisely, am attempting to be a sociologist. And as such I have to consider what a “motivation” is sociologically, and not according to the common sense. In the common sense, a motivation is the cause for an action. It is internal and causal: someone has a motive for doing something. Therefore, there are “true” and “false” motives: actors have actual, internal, internalised “springs” of action, which they actualise in action. They are racist and therefore vote for the gating, and it is only when confronted with the fact that they are racist, or in a situation where they could be considered as racist, that they “make up” stories using stolen cars and real estate values to justify themselves. In that perspective the question of knowing who tells the truth is essential, because the role of the sociologist is, in last instance, a arbiter: he or she is to state the true cause. That’s when Charles Wright Mills comes to save me (in an article called “Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive”, published in 1940). Because this is a completely uprooted way to think about motives:

Rather than fixed elements”in” an individual, motives are the terms with which interpretation of conduct by social actors proceeds. This imputation and avowal of motives by actors are social phenomena to be explained. The differing reasons men give for their actions are not themselves without reasons.

What Mills says is actually pretty straightforward and clear: he chooses to ask himself the question, “When do people motivate their actions?”. In other words, when do they justify what they are doing? This is Mills’s answer:

Motives are imputed or avowed as answers to questions interrupting acts or programs. Motives are words. […] They stand for anticipated situational consequences of questioned conduct. Intention or purpose (stated as a “program”) is awareness of anticipated consequence; motives are names for consequential situations, and surrogates for actions leading to them.

A person does not normally give a motive to their action. Nobody motivates, for instance, the reason why they drink apple and not orange juice in the morning, or the reason why they wear trousers and not a skirt, or the reason why they voted for the gating of their condo, except in one situation: when someone asks the question. In which case people do not avow “the real cause”, they avow the most appropriate thing based on the situtation they are in, the resources they have access to, the person they think they are talking to and their anticipated answer: a motivation is always an attempt to convince. As sociologists Alan Blum and Peter McHugh say it even more clearly, “to give a motive is not to locate a cause of the action, but is for some observer to assert how a behavior os socially intelligible by ascribing a socially available actors’ orientation” (in. “The social ascription of motives”, 1971).

This changes the question entirely: the question is not who is telling the truth anymore, or even if there is a truth to be told: doing something is not a causal phenomenon. Actually, it is not even “justified ex post”. The justification is part of the action itself:

[S]ome thing cannot be cited as a cause of an event if this “something” is involved (pressuposed) in the very description of the event; analyses of motive accounts show that whatever is cited as a motive serves to more fully and completely characterize the event for which it is formulated, and cannot be treated as independent from the event. (Blum & McHugh)

In other word, it is not because of racism, of real estate values, or of any other reasons that the gating occurred: it occurred as the racism or real estate values were being though of by the people who voted it. The motive is not a separate cause, but a part of the action.

Few people know that Batman tried, without success, a career as a qualitative sociologist. (copyright


Methodologically, this implies comprehending what happens in an interview or observation of interaction and stopping, as I can see some students do, and have done myself, to consider it as a tool to access “the truth”. It is, instead, a tool to access why people justify their actions the way they do, what “compells” (although the multiplicity of situations and identities they dispose of renders the term “compelling” inadequate) to make sense of the world in the specific way they do. The question of whether an actor lies should be left aside: it is not ours to answer. The question, even when it comes to events “actually” or “not actually” happening, is less whether they “actually” occurred, than the social setting which led the person who told us they happened to consider their happening as a legitimate explanation of the event we are talking about: we need to reconstruct their meanings. What is ours to answer is how they describe things and how to make sense of this how. This means losing the power to give a terminal explanation to phenomena. Incidentally it also means doing our job.


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