Wednesday, March 04, 2015

An Empirical Question

About fifteen years ago, when I was doing my PhD, we used to say "That's an empirical question!" with a somewhat subversive intent. I think it was Bruno Latour's work that inspired us. Basically, instead of accepting traditional norms of behaviour, whether in science or politics, as the "right" way of doing things, or instead of merely dismissing them as a "wrong", we would propose (often for mostly rhetorical purposes) to study "what actually happens" in the contexts where those norms apply. The implicit point was that they probably had little consequence for actual behaviour or very different consequences than we might expect. The true meaning of the norm would thereby be revealed.

Tim Vogus has suggested doing something similar with the notion of emotional ambivalence. My immediate (and admittedly conservative) view is that emotional ambivalence is sometimes unavoidable but, in almost all cases, undesirable. It certainly seems a strange thing to actively introduce into an otherwise healthy organisational culture. And things get even stranger when we consider the means by which Tim thinks it should be introduced: by designing tasks in "complex and contradictory" ways. Tim's response goes as follows:

The section you excerpt is from our discussion of directions for future research. It is fundamentally an empirical question. We were posing the idea of complex and contradictory jobs as one possible mechanism for eliciting emotional ambivalence and, in turn, sustaining (not creating) mindful organizing. But I think you are wrong to dismiss it out of hand. Specifically, because there are actual highly reliable organizations that design work in precisely this way.

Notice that he here says it's both an empirical question and one that he has at least part of the answer to already. On Friday, I'm going to look at one of the examples he mentions, namely, the wildland firefighters that Weick has explicitly suggested as a model for educational administrators. This is a actually a very interesting example, because the suggestion came about twenty years ago. That means that we can see the present situation as, possibly, a consequence of following Weick's advice. It's a good example of "what actually happens" in the practices that I'm interested in.

[Continues here.]

2 comments: said...

When I was doing my PhD 35 years ago in applied economics, we were "trained" (indoctrinated?) in empirical research methods. Nobody ever said, "Well, that's a theoretical question!" There was (is?) no such thing. Theory existed to guide empirical research to get answers.

You can imagine, Thomas, how distant I and my colleagues were from ontology, epistemology, and a proper philosophy of science.

But now, when I here someone resort to "That's an empirical question", my suspicions are raised that the protesting party has a weak, untested theoretical claim that they (rightly) do not expect to stand up to scrutiny. Wouldn't a social epistemologist always ask the protesting party how they know what they know?

Thomas said...

Yes! You get me thinking about the different "foils" we use in the standard, academic conceptual tool-kit. We can distinguish our "theoretical" pursuits from either our "practical" or our "empirical" ones. And we can distinguish our "empirical" concerns from either our "normative" or our "transcendental" ones.

The problems arise when try to so these things independently of each other. I.e., when we begin to eschew theoretical questions in favour of the empirical ones. Pure theory is, what?, mathematics? Pure empiricism is literature. If it's anything at all.

That said, 15 years ago there were moments when I argued against the very idea of theory. I know better now.