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explanationAny account in which an occurrence or general phenomenon is made intelligible by identification of its CAUSE, nature, interrelations, etc. In more formal terms, the occurrence or phenomenon explained is the explanandum, the explanatory account, the explanans, which, in physical science, will usually involve SCIENTIFIC LAWS, EXPLANATORY THEORIES, etc, but in the social sciences may also involve actors’ meanings, REASONS, and so on. Thus in sociology, explanation may take any one of a number of forms (which are not necessarily always mutually exclusive):
- causal explanation, which may embrace various types of explanation, but in its most basic form involves the identification of an immediate precipitating cause or causes of a particular occurrence, e.g. the cause of a fire identified as the dropping of a cigarette. In their more limited forms, causal explanations usually involve numerous unstated background assumptions about physical laws, etc. (see also CAUSALITY AND CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP);
- deductive explanation, in which an explanandum is deduced, i.e. follows logically from established generalizations of general laws (see HYPOTHETIC-DEDUCTIVE EXPLANATION, VERSTEHEN, INTERPRETATIVE SOCIOLOGY, COVERING-LAW MODEL AND DEDUCTIVE NOMOLOGICAL EXPLANATION, FORMAL THEORY;
- probablistic explanation, in which a specifiable probability (a chance of less than 100% and more than 0%, i.e. in probability theory a chance less than 1 and greater than 0) is taken as explaining the occurrence of an event, e.g. the appearance of breast cancer in a woman whose mother and sisters have already had the disease. Strictly speaking, rather than explaining a single event, probability explanations relate to the likelihood of a particular distribution of occurrences in an infinite series of events. On their own they are usually seen as unsatisfactory as explanations, at least until further background factors explaining the probabilities are also identified, e.g. in the case of breast cancer, the discovery of genetic predispositions, etc.)
- ‘meaningful’ and ‘purposive’ explanations, in which actors’ meanings and/or desires, reasons, intentions, purposes, etc, explain an event or a social situation (see MEANINGFUL UNDERSTANDING AND MEANINGFUL EXPLANATION, PURPOSIVE EXPLANATION);
- functional(ist) explanations, in which the ‘functional requirements’ of systems explain outcomes (see FUNCTIONAL(IST) EXPLANATION);
- evolutionary or ecological explanations, which explain the persistence of natural species, types of social system, etc, in terms of their selection by and adaptation to an external environment (see EVOLUTIONARY THEORY);
- teleological explanations (see also TELEOLOGY), in which purposes, goals, or system end-states, rather than antecedent causes, are seen as decisive. Such explanations may be made with reference to human or animal purposes, to the needs and goals of human societies, or to the more arcane operation of processes such as ‘world spirit’ (as for HEGEL) or human destiny. Functional explanation in many of its sociological forms also involves teleological explanation, although, in this case, recourse to such explanation is not always regarded as incompatible in principle with a reduction to antecedent causes.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000