27 Sep 2019 9:15am - 5:30pm Room SG1, The Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT


When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away? Compassion, Justification and Exculpation in Social Research

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. 



Gabriel Abend (Universität Luzern)

Federico Brandmayr (University of Cambridge)

Livia Holden (University of Oxford)

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)



Anna Alexandrova (University of Cambridge)

Jana Bacevic (University of Cambridge)

Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche (University of Cambridge)

Stephen John (University of Cambridge)

The workshop is organised by Expertise Under Pressure, a research project which is part of the Centre for the Humanities and Social Change, Cambridge and funded by the Humanities and Social Change International Foundation.


To register for the workshop, email Una Yeung with your contact details and affiliation.

If you have specific questions about the workshop, please email the Convenor, Federico Brandmayr.


9.15 - 9.45


9.45 - 10.00

Federico Brandmayr (University of Cambridge)

Welcome and Introduction

10.00 - 11.30

Session 1

Livia Holden (University of Oxford)

'Cultural Expertise and the Fear of Absolution'

Hadrien Malier (École des hautes études en sciences sociales)

'No (Sociological) Excuses for Not Going Green: Urban Poor Households and Climate Activism in France'

Discussant: Jana Bacevic (University of Cambridge)

11.30 - 11.45


11.45 - 13.15

Session 2

Nigel Pleasants (University of Exeter)

'Social Scientific Explanation and the Fact-Value Distinction'

Marco Santoro (Università di Bologna)

'Whose Sides (of the Field) Could We Be On? Situatedness, Perspectivism, and Credibility in Social Research'

Discussant: Anna Alexandrova (University of Cambridge)

13.15 - 14.15


14.15 - 15.45

Session 3

Federico Brandmayr (University of Cambridge)

'The Political Epistemology of Explanation in Contemporary French Social Thought'

Stephen Turner (University of South Florida)

'Explaining Away Crime: The Race Narrative in American Sociology'

Discussant: Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche (University of Cambridge)

15.45 - 16.00


16.00 - 17.30

Session 4

Gabriel Abend (Universität Luzern)

'Decisions, “Decisions”, and Moral Evaluation'

Paulina Sliwa (University of Cambridge)

'Making Excuses'

Discussant: Stephen John (University of Cambridge)

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Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk