Week 4: Why Theorize?

The fourth week of my Scientific Inquiry–Theory & Inference course addresses the question “Why should we theorize,” or “What is the purpose of theory.”  It is the first of a four week section on “Theory.”  The Gordian Knot problem rears its head as I put off discussion of causal relations/causation until the fourth week of the “Theory” section.  But weeks two and three of the seminar establish a post-modern, constructivist foundation for the production of human knowledge, a small portion of which concerns regular patterns we collectively discern in the world: stylized facts.[1]


The seminar is focused on joining the community of researchers who want to explain those stylized facts: contribute to the production of that small portion of human knowledge that has blown up over the past several centuries.   This week’s readings build on the reading from week 3 on the failure of induction as a process for constructing explanations for those stylized facts, and the problems with verificationist and falsificationist accounts for explaining the success of scientific knowledge communities.


Fudging a Definition of Theory

I am interested to learn how Nate addresses this,[2] but I began the seminar telling them that I am not going to define theory–that’s their job, not only over the course of the semester, but over the course of their PhD studies, and beyond.  Indeed, I tell them, for the seminar I will treat “theory,” “model,” “framework,” and similar terms as synonyms for “explanations of stylized facts.”

I subtitled the readings “Creating Models to Explain Stylized Facts.”  They first read four chapters from Clarke & Primo’s  A Model Discipline “What is a Model?” “Theoretical Models,” “Empirical Models,” and “Explanation” (pp. 52-167).  I assume the reader is familiar with the content of these chapters, and trust it is fairly self evident that the arguments they make mesh with the post-modern, constructivist foundation provided in this course.[3]

I don’t know what Nate plans, but as noted above, I leave it to the students to decide whether they want to embrace (for the moment) Clarke & Primo’s distinction between models and theories.  During seminar I pressed the value of the models (theories, frameworks, etc.) “as maps” metaphor.  For what purpose has the researcher developed their theory?  To assess the value of the theory one should not consult a checklist of steps or any other set of criteria.  One should ask whether she finds the theory useful for its intended purpose.  Full. Stop.

This reading sets us up to debunk a lot of the garbage one routinely hears social scientists make about the standards we use to judge research reports (especially for the “top” journals and presses).  “Only work that checks the following N criteria should be in the top outlets,” is a general expression of this liturgy.[4]  to select an arbitrary moment in time for illustration, during the 1950s the liturgy for the top outlets had a particular composition.   Over the decades it has changed, marginally during most “one to five year” aggregations of time, and during some of those chunks of time rather markedly.  Though liturgy is obviously functional—science has progressed—I am arguing that it is suboptimal.  We will operate more efficiently as a community (make more regular progress developing theories we find useful) if we abandon liturgy that draws on modern, verificationist, and falsificationist understandings of scientific method as practiced by individual research teams in favor of the broader understanding of theory as maps articulated in Clarke & Primo.

Sutton & Staw (1995) [PDF here] offer a negative, connotative definition of theory drawing upon their experience as authors, peer review referees, and journal editors.  Healy (2016) exposes our inclination as audience members, discussants, and referees to demand nuance from others’ work.  Unlike the Clarke & Primo presentation, both of these works shift the reader’s point of view from knowledge producer to that of the gatekeeper.

In week one of the course I described the PhD process as a transformation from knowledge consumer to knowledge producer.  And this course makes the case for rethinking science as a practice of individuals (“method”) to the (re)production of norms and institutions that solve the collective action problems produced by the clash between our individual incentives as community members and our collective goals as a knowledge community.  The Healy article in particular offers the students an opportunity to “try on” the role of gate keeper; to consider the clash between our individual incentive as critic to “demand nuance” (independent of any finite set of stylized facts) and the author’s goal of producing an explanation constrained by the specific set of stylized facts she has designated; to discuss how they might begin to play that role over the coming years. That is, I encouraged them to appreciate that the “what’s the purpose” standard Clarke & Primo advance exposes the asinine hubris that Healy so nicely describes.

I then told them that they would be the nuance demanding ass-hat.  I argued that the nuance problem exists because we are all nuance demanding ass-hats.  The question is not whether, but instead your relative frequency: what percentage of your comments, quips, questions and retorts over the next [arbitrary unit of time] will be “nuance demands”?  If you think it is close to zero, you are deceiving yourself (which, we know from week 2 reading, we do many times per waking hour).  I encouraged them to pay attention during upcoming talks in SPGS and count the number of nuance demands.  I encouraged them to start noticing them in their seminars.  I suggested that they might find it useful to produce a typology of “nuance demands,” the better to begin purging the habit from their own repertoire.

Unsurprisingly, my students were drawn toward reading Sutton & Staw from the lens of the author: what can I learn from this article that will help me get published?  That is the obvious, self-interested view any student will first explore.  So I pushed them beyond that view toward one where they could try on the issues that Healy’s essay more naturally leads them to consider.


I sit out while they have a student-directed discussion.[5]


In week one I asked them how many had seen “The Karate Kid.”  Each one had seen it.  I asked them what was the key line from the movie.  Most of them smiled as several of them answered “Wax on.  Wax off,” a few even making a circular motion in the air with their palm. “I know you want to learn how to do research; how to ask good questions; theorize; design a study; write a paper, and get it published,” I told them.  I continued with something like the following.

If I could teach you that this semester, I would.  But I can’t.  This seminar offers no answers, and especially does not offer a recipe.  It provides you an opportunity to practice.  It has a structured set of readings that are not important on their own, but instead prompts to get you to practice.  There is no static method to learn; no recipes to master.  Switching analogies, the readings and seminar discussion are like the equipment in a gym: you have the opportunity to workout.  Whether you do is up to you.


[1] Those interested in thinking about stylized facts might check out Dan Hirschman’s post yesterday at Scatterplot.  He discusses Charles Crabtree & Chris Fariss’s comment on his recent paper on the topic.

[2] Nate Monroe and I co-developed the syllabus.  Be sure to check out his posts about teaching the course.

[3] I am not suggesting that Clarke or Primo would endorse this syllabus.  I am merely asserting that their rejection of the dominant view of (social) science taught in our discipline is consistent with our course (or vice versa).  If that doesn’t make much sense to you, no worries.  Stay tuned.  There is more to come as the semester unfolds.  🙂

[4] I am indebted to Mike Ward for this use of liturgy, though I believe he means something a bit different from my usage.

[5] If one of your reactions to this photo is “What’s up with the 2016 dudefest at ASU?” we also had that reaction to the outcome of this year’s recruitment.  Single draws and small N’s aside, we are counting on you to help us reduce the odds of repetition by encouraging your students to apply to our program, which, for the record, includes a specialization in women and politics.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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2 Responses to Week 4: Why Theorize?

  1. Pingback: Want Ye Some Building Blocks for Theorizing? | Will Opines

  2. Pingback: What is knowing, what is science, what is theory? | Will Opines

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