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The Iranian “Anti-Explanation”

In a previous article I prominently featured sociologist Charles Kurzman’s idea of the Anti-Explanation:

“Charles Kurzman’s book The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran rigorously examines each mono-causal explanation offered for the revolt that launched the revolution, finding that none of them accurately explains the nature of the uprising. In times of tumult, human actions decisively deviate from otherwise constant social, political, and cultural models. Structures that often provide excellent indicators of behavior break down, and new realities are created. Instead of looking at social science to provide linear, comprehensive explanations, we may be better off searching for what Kurzman calls ‘anti-explanations.’ These explanations eschew retroactive rationalization in favor of ‘recognizing and reconstructing the lived experience of the moment.’ Kurzman’s idea of anti-explanation moves anomalies to the foreground, recognizing the power of confusion, the instability of the moment, and the disruption of routine in disruptive events.”

      In contrast to other analysts of the Iranian revolution, Kurzman argued that social structures do not persist through inertia, as even stasis takes work to maintain. During moments of great change, people rapidly assess and reassess their behavior based on the fragmentary information available to them and the actions of others. This emergent process of assessing the often ephemeral viability of change produces a kind of viral action that can change the course of history.
      Kurzman has a timely intervention in Foreign Policy called “Ignore All The Iran Experts” in which he further explains the nature of revolutionary change:

“All of [the Iran] analyses are wrong, even if events unfold the way they predict. After all, if you make enough predictions, some are bound to look accurate. They are wrong because the outcome of this week’s events is simply unpredictable. Unpredictable means that no matter how well-informed you may be, it is impossible to know what will happen next. Moments of turmoil make a mockery of accumulated knowledge. Routine behavior, on the other hand, can be predicted. It is likely to occur tomorrow the way it occurred yesterday, with adjustments for shifts over time. But breaks from routine are a different beast altogether. The more that people feel that normal rules of behavior no longer hold, the more they search around for new rules, surveying their neighbors, collecting rumors, checking their text messages in a frantic attempt to figure out what everyone else is planning to do. Very few people are willing to be the only ones out in the street when the security forces start to advance. If people expect millions of their compatriots to demonstrate, many will want to help make history…. Such moments of mass confusion are unsettling and rare. They usually fade back into routine. Occasionally, however, they create their own new routines, even new regimes, as they did in 1978-1979. In later retelling of these episodes, especially by experts, confusion is often downplayed, as though the outcomes might have been known in advance. But that is not how Iranians are experiencing current events. Their experience, and their response to their experience, will determine the outcome.”