When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away?

When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away?

When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away? 1024 683 Federico Brandmayr
The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1869) by Mihály Munkácsy.  In the public domain (Wikimedia Commons).

When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away?

Compassion, Justification and Exculpation in Social Research

27 SEPtember 2019, 09:15 – 17:30

Room SG1, The Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT


Federico Brandmayr (University of Cambridge)


A common charge levelled against researchers who study human culture and social behaviour is that their explanations can provide justifications or excuses for ill-intentioned people. Sociologists often encounter this objection when they explain crime and unemployment, historians when they study dictators and genocide, anthropologists when they interpret religious and traditional practices, and psychologists when they assess mental illness and addiction. Although many of these accusations are far-fetched and betray a profound ignorance of social research, we should not underestimate the practical and performative effects social scientists can have in society, as well as the fact that social research is often laden with a web of normative assumptions. Where, then, should we draw the boundary between explaining and explaining away, between understanding and agreeing, between finding causes and making excuses? Drawing together perspectives from the disciplines of history, sociology, law and philosophy, the workshop will provide an opportunity to critically reflect on the exculpatory potential of social research. 

Speakers and discussants

Gabriel Abend (Universität Luzern)

Anna Alexandrova (University of Cambridge)

Jana Bacevic (University of Cambridge)

Federico Brandmayr (University of Cambridge)

Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche (University of Cambridge)

Livia Holden (University of Oxford)

Stephen John (University of Cambridge)

Hadrien Malier (École des hautes études en sciences sociales)

Nigel Pleasants (University of Exeter)

Marco Santoro (Università di Bologna)

Paulina Sliwa (University of Cambridge)

Stephen Turner (University of South Florida)

Further information

This workshop forms part of the Expertise Under Pressure (EUP) project, funded by the Humanities and Social Change International Foundation. The EUP project’s overarching goal is to establish a broad framework for understanding what makes expertise authoritative, when experts overreach and what realistic demands communities should place on experts.

Queries: Contact Una Yeung