Why Did You Do That? A Methodological Exploration of Motive Attribution

25 Pages Posted: 16 Jul 2012 Last revised: 14 May 2013

Date Written: 2012


The idea of a motive behind an action is an important part of the debate around the idea of social causation or of causation in political science. In practice most explanations of behavior in political science rely, whether implicitly or explicitly, on some attribution of motive to actors. However, motive and the attribution of motive to individuals and especially corporate actors, like the state, is rarely theorized in empirical studies, either in terms of what it means conceptually, or in terms of how attribution of motive is dealt with methodologically. This paper explores some of these issues and apply them to the practice of political science, with particular reference to examples in International Relations. In particular, this paper articulates the fundamental problem of motive attribution, that we cannot introspect the motives of other actors, and lays out its implications. There are three possible methodological responses to this fundamental problem; 1) assume or deduce a possible motive and explain behavior in terms of that motive; 2) use empirical evidence to adjudicate between possible motives; and 3) avoid the direct attribution of motive to individuals and locate explanatory leverage at an analytical level beyond the individual actor. I argue that how scholars react to the fundamental problem has constraining effects on the sort of knowledge claims that they can consistently make. That is, particular types of knowledge claims can only be supported by particular types of evidence. This has implications for some prominent disciplinary practices. For example, if a rational-choice analysis generates a plausible, novel reason for an action or set of actions, this is in and of itself a useful piece of research. If we are to empirically assess whether a motive is the actual motive for an action, then we must deal with the issues involved in appealing to explicit justifications and other actions as evidence of motive. In particular, cross-actor correlative evidence cannot be used to support a knowledge claim about a particular actor's motive for an action. That is, standard quantitative analysis has at best a small part to play in motive attribution. Finally, non-intentional explanation, while intuitively unsatisfying, is not subject to some of the major problems involved in direct motive attribution.

Suggested Citation

O'Mahoney, Joseph, Why Did You Do That? A Methodological Exploration of Motive Attribution (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2108912 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2108912

Joseph O'Mahoney (Contact Author)

Brown University ( email )

Box 1844
Providence, RI 02912
United States

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