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An explanation offers a reason why something has happened and is often contrasted with a description (an account of what happened) though the distinction is a matter of degree, not kind.

While there are different types of explanation, and a dispute as to whether rational explanation is possible (see post modernism), the distinction between positivist and interpretivist explanation is widely made. A positivist explanation is more likely to be confident in identifying cause and effect, may well use statistical testing of some kind, and see validity and reliability as ‘warrants’ of its quality. It is ‘nomothetic’ in that is seeking to generalise about factors influencing the behaviour of groups and often focuses on external explanation for events. An interpretivist explanation, on the other hand, is more ‘ideographic’ being concerned with uncovering the meaning of a phenomenon for those taking part and the consequences of their behaviour. Causality is treated with caution within interpretive approaches as researchers often seek to make activity comprehensible, rather than to show cause and effect. Both positivist and interpretive types of explanation are valuable in that human beings are both object and subject of research; the factors which explain a phenomenon operate on an individual but are sustained or constructed by the individual him or herself. For example, to take a topic of enduring historical significance in the history of social research, two research articles report on suicide among indigenous populations. Beautrais and Fergusson (2006) find through analysis of quantitative data that rates of suicide are higher among young Maori males and females in New Zealand than among non-Maori peers and that suicide is virtually unknown amongst older Maori. They use factors such economic disadvantage and disruption of cultural identity to offer an explanation of suicide, factors which are largely external to the young people involved.

In contrast Niezen (2009), in reporting on clusters of suicide among young aboriginal in Canada, comes up with more of an internal explanation of suicide drawn from first-hand experience of local communities. In particular it is suggested that when other avenues for cultural identity have been blocked a group identity can be formed around the ‘will to die’. Rather than looking at factors which operate on the individuals or groups the study is looking at what makes suicide comprehensible as an act and the cultural practices built around it.

Both Beautrais and Fergusson (2006) and Niezen (2009) are concerned with marshalling of quantitative data and both are interested in culture and the ways in which culture is interpreted but Beautrais and Fergusson (2006) foreground the factors which explain suicide and Niezen (2009) the meaning of suicide. Neither, it can be added, is right or wrong, each offers a different lens to explain a phenomenon. Hence the types of explanations offered in research arise out of the logic of a research project and the questions asked in that project.


Beautrais, A. and Fergusson, D. (2006) ‘Indigenous suicide in New Zealand’, Archives of Suicide Research, 10, 2: 159-168.

Niezen, R. (2009) ‘Suicide as a way of belonging: Causes and consequences of cluster suicides in Aboriginal communities’, in L.J. Kirmayer and G.G.Valaskakis (eds) Healing Traditions: The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 178-195.