Friday, March 13, 2015

Practical, Theoretical, Empirical, Normative

Last week, Randall Westgren reminded me of old idea of mine with his comment on my post about "empirical questions". While it's going to come off a bit "philosophical" (I don't know why I keep apologising for this quirk about my ideas) it begins with a very common-sense observation: though it may be true, as Heidegger suggested, that "science is the theory of the real", social science is also a "theory of practice". That is, "the real" of social science is our entirely practical, workaday reality, i.e., the place where social life goes on. Social science "theorises" this practical reality, which is to say, it turns it into an "object", indeed, an empirical object.

What Randy reminded me of is that this is really two different ways of "othering" the notion of theory. We can distinguish "theoretical" concerns either from "practical" ones or from "empirical" ones. Being a science depends on enforcing both distinctions. And we can then ask how we establish them in our writing. My standard outline of a social science paper offers a neat way of doing this.

The background section (and the first paragraph of the introduction) should present the practical context that the object of your research figures in. (Yes, I'm using the word "figure" advisedly here; the back-ground is the foil for your object.) It is an entirely "factual", but not quite "empirical", description of the world (or the age) in which we live. It is not empirical precisely in the sense in which your results section is empirical. It, too, makes claims about "the facts of the matter", but instead of basing them on publicly available authoritative sources (that can be cited), it bases them on your data, i.e., information that is, in an important sense, only directly available ("given") to you, the author of the paper.

Between the background and the analysis, we have the theory section and the methods section, which in an important sense construct your sense of the "empirical". The theory shapes our expectations of the object; the method makes it visible (so that it can disappoint our expectations, i.e., so that we can learn). But there's another "other" to your empiricism, namely, your normativity. And that's what the implications section is for. This is where you tell us what we should do in the light of the truth of what you are saying. In many cases, you are telling us how society should change. That is, you are proposing new norms for the practices you have theorised and then studied empirically.

Keeping your practical, theoretical, empirical and normative concerns distinct can be very helpful to your writing. Use your outline to define a space for writing and remember: space is what keeps everything from piling up in the same place.

No comments: