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, intolerance, 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 farfetched 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 on a series of case studies, the project aims to advance our understanding of the exculpatory potential of social research.
Image source: ‘The Last Day of a Condemned Man’ (1869) by Mihály Munkácsy. In the public domain (Wikimedia Commons).