Princeton University Press
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Why? is a book about the explanations we give and how we give them--a fascinating look at the way the reasons we offer every day are dictated by, and help constitute, social relationships. Written in an easy-to-read style by distinguished social historian Charles Tilly, the book explores the manner in which people claim, establish, negotiate, repair, rework, or terminate relations with others through the reasons they give.

Tilly examines a number of different types of reason giving. For example, he shows how an air traffic controller would explain the near miss of two aircraft in several different ways, depending upon the intended audience: for an acquaintance at a cocktail party, he might shrug it off by saying "This happens all the time," or offer a chatty, colloquial rendition of what transpired; for a colleague at work, he would venture a longer, more technical explanation, and for a formal report for his division head he would provide an exhaustive, detailed account.

Tilly demonstrates that reasons fall into four different categories:

  • Convention: "I'm sorry I spilled my coffee; I'm such a klutz."
  • Narratives: "My friend betrayed me because she was jealous of my sister."
  • Technical cause-effect accounts: "A short circuit in the ignition system caused the engine rotors to fail."
  • Codes or workplace jargon: "We can't turn over the records. We're bound by statute 369."

Tilly illustrates his topic by showing how a variety of people gave reasons for the 9/11 attacks. He also demonstrates how those who work with one sort of reason frequently convert it into another sort. For example, a doctor might understand an illness using the technical language of biochemistry, but explain it to his patient, who knows nothing of biochemistry, by using conventions and stories.

Replete with sparkling anecdotes about everyday social experiences (including the author's own), Why? makes the case for stories as one of the great human inventions.

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About the author

Charles Tilly (1929-2008) was the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University. His work focused on large-scale social change and its relationship to contentious politics, especially in Europe, since 1500. His many books include The Politics of Collective Violence; Contention and Democracy in Europe, 1650-2000; Social Movements, 1768-2004; Economic and Political Contention in Comparative Perspective , coedited with Maria Kousis; Identities, Boundaries, and Social Ties; Trust and Rule; Regimes and Repertoires; Democracy; and Credit and Blame (Princeton).
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Additional Information

Princeton University Press
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Published on
Aug 23, 2012
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Social Science / Sociology / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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"A riveting book."—The Wall Street Journal

"Essential reading."—David Brooks, New York Times

From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

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