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THE KALYMNIAN CASE

Here’s an example of explaining findings after the fact. In my experience, it’s pretty typical of how social scientists develop, refine, and change their minds about theories.

In my fieldwork in 1964-1965 on the island of Kalymnos, Greece, I noticed that young sponge divers (in their 20s) were more likely to get the bends than were older divers (those over 30). (The bends is a crippling malady that affects divers who come up too quickly after a long time in deep water.) I also noticed that younger divers were more productive than very old divers (those over 45), but not more productive than those in their middle years (30-40).

As it turned out, younger divers were subject to much greater social stress to demonstrate their daring and to take risks with their lives—risks that men over 30 had already put behind them. The younger divers worked longer under water (gathering more sponges), but they came up faster and were consequently at higher risk of bends. The middle group of divers made up in experience for the shortened time they spent in the water, so they maintained their high productivity at lower risk of bends. The older divers were feeling the effects of infirmity brought on by years of deep diving, hence their productivity was lowered, along with their risk of death or injury from bends.

The real question was: What caused the young Kalymnian divers to engage in acts that placed them at greater risk?

My first attempt at explaining all this was pretty lame. I noticed that the men who took the most chances with their lives had a certain rhetoric and swagger. They were called levedhis (Greek for a brave young man) by other divers and by their captains. I concluded that somehow these men had more levedhia (the quality of being brave and young) and that this made them higher risk takers. In fact, this is what many of my informants told me. Young men, they said, feel the need to show their manhood, and that’s why they take risks by staying down too long and coming up too fast.

The problem with this cultural explanation was that it just didn’t explain anything. Yes, the high risk takers swaggered and exhibited something we could label machismo or levedhia. But what good did it do to say that lots of machismo caused people to dive deep and come up quickly? Where did young men get this feeling, I asked? ‘‘That’s just how young men are,’’ my informants told me. I reckoned that there might be something to this testosterone-poisoning theory, but it didn’t seem adequate.

Eventually, I saw that the swaggering behavior and the values voiced about manliness were cultural ways to ratify, not explain, the high-risk diving behavior. Both the diving behavior and the ratifying behavior were the product of a third factor, an economic distribution system called piatika.

Divers traditionally took their entire season’s expected earnings in advance, before shipping out in April for the 6-month sponge fishing expedition in North Africa. By taking their money (piatika) in advance, they placed themselves in debt to the boat captains. Just before they shipped out, the divers would pay off the debts that their families had accumulated during the preceding year. By the time they went to sea, the divers were nearly broke and their families started going into debt again for food and other necessities.

In the late 1950s, synthetic sponges began to take over the world markets, and young men on Kalymnos left for overseas jobs rather than go into sponge fishing. As divers left the island, the remaining divers demanded higher and higher piatika. They said that it was to compensate them for increases in the cost of living, but their demand for more money was a pure response by the divers to the increasing scarcity of their labor. The price of sponges, however, was dropping over the long term, due to competition with synthetics, so the higher piatika for the divers meant that the boat captains were losing profits. The captains put more and more pressure on the divers to produce more sponges, to stay down longer, and to take greater risks. This resulted in more accidents on the job (Bernard 1967, 1987).

Note that in all the examples of theory I’ve just given, the predictions and the post hoc explanations, I didn’t have to quote a single statistic—not even a percentage score. That’s because theories are qualitative. Ideas about cause and effect are based on insight; they are derived from either qualitative or quantitative observations and are initially expressed in words. Testing causal statements—finding out how much they explain rather than whether they seem to be plausible explanations—requires quantitative observations. But theory construction—explanation itself—is the quintessential qualitative act.

 
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