Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Basis and Elaboration

It took me a long time as a student to accept the procedural distinction between "empirical" and "theoretical" work. In fact, it wasn't until I became a teacher that I understood how important the distinction is. And it wasn't until I became an editor of academic texts that I understood why it is so important.

The empirical/theoretical distinction, as employed especially in the social sciences, offers an opportunity to distinguish between the basis of your argument and its elaboration. It is only paradigm-shattering, "revolutionary" research that will, as it were, "work out" an idea "fundementally", i.e., elaborate the basis of a field.

Most work will "normally" either provide a theoretical elaboration on an accepted empirical basis or provide an empirical elaboration on an accepted theoretical basis. It is the natural tendency of intelligent and creative people to assume that their work will have profound consequences that resists the challenge to focus (or tilt) your work in one of these two specifiable ways. What you are resisting are some perhaps evil, but quite necessary, constraints on your intellectual creativity (or creative intelligence).

Once we consider the challenge posed by the standard academic journal article (which you must publish or perish) these constraints become both obvious and practical. In order to get 8000 words to have a specific set of effects you will have to decide where you want to stand and what you want to move. If the academy is to remain a "garden" it is simply impossible to give everyone enough room to put everything anywhere they want.

The most effective way to find your footing and maximize your leverage is to work across the empirical/theoretical distinction. It is not impossible, of course, to write an entirely theoretical or entirely empirical paper. The trick here is to decide what part of a theory or set of empirical facts you want to base your argument on, and what part you want to elaborate. But it is much more effective to either sublimate (as theory) one part of your argument or brutalize (as empiricism) another, i.e., to impose the theoretical/empirical distinction "for the sake of argument".

I can see now I'm going to have to continue this line of thought with another post. More later.

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