Interpretation and Explanation in Cultural Sociology

Continuing debates over the role of interpretation in history and social science have recently been linked to a program to develop a cultural sociology, as distinct from a sociology of culture. Apart from a defense of the importance of culture and meaning, this effort aims to develop a form of “interpretive explanation,” though not simply by following Max Weber's similar project from nearly one hundred years ago. The book under review looks at different “epistemic modes” that aim to produce social knowledge, in order to show how interpretive explanation can combine the best of all the modes. Unfortunately, the book is beset by numerous theoretical problems, including a problematical understanding of the relations of fact and theory, hasty criticisms of examples of the different modes, and a reliance on metaphors that makes it impossible to do justice to the issues. The project of what I would call a “thick explanation” is worthwhile, but will have to be pursued in a more nuanced and careful way.