Sociological explanation and mixed methods: The example of the Titanic

The question of how and with what methods the social sciences should explain phenomena is fiercely contested. While some have argued that mixed methods may be a valuable addition to the explanatory sociological toolkit, there is a lack of highly visible examples that show the added value of this methodology. The goal of this paper is to show that the case of the Titanic, and the question of who survived and for what reasons, can be seen as such an example. The Titanic tragedy is the most well-known maritime disaster of modern history, and the Titanic dataset is a widely used and first-rate example for the teaching of mono-method statistical explanation. We demonstrate that a mixed-method explanation is superior to a mono-method explanation in that it clarifies not only the relationships between variables, but also the game-mechanisms that led to the co-variations. Among the most important game-mechanisms, we find that the rule “women and children first” was interpreted differently by different actors, and that this, together with the fact that different classes of passengers had different levels of access to the boat deck, explains much of the gender/class differences in terms of survival that we can observe. We conclude by discussing the lessons that can be drawn from the example for sociological explanatory work more generally.