Thursday, February 09, 2012

Standard Issue Implications

These posts about the standard-issue social science paper (or standard issues in social science papers) are intended to get you thinking about the separate components of your knowledge base that put you in a position to write such a paper. You need not just "empirical results" but also an everyday "factual background", for example. It is not enough that you have seen something in your data; the result has to stand out in the everyday world of practice. I'll write about the theory section tomorrow to complete this series; this morning I want to talk about how important it is that your results have a specifiable set of "implications". Before you can expect to publish your paper, after all, you must be aware of how your reader's mind should be changed by reading. What does your work imply?

I have already said that the results section should artfully disappoint your reader's expectations. And the reader's expectations, in an academic paper, are shaped by the theory that the reader and writer share. But disappointments come in many shapes and sizes. Roughly speaking, a paper may highlight two kinds of implication, theoretical and practical. The results may evoke a disappointment in the theory, implying that the theory should be modified to accommodate the new facts brought to light by the study. Theories are always "underdetermined" by observation, i.e., our knowledge of particular facts, so we are getting used to having to modify our theories as new work brings new facts to light. You want to make sure that the implications of your study are precisely a modification of your theory, not its outright rejection. There are rare moments in the history of a discipline when a paper that argues for the replacement of one theory with another can be published (these moments are what Kuhn called "crises", which precede his "scientific revolutions"). But normally you want to imply only that a theory, which should remain in place (and dominant) after you have published your work, needs to rethink certain assumptions.

The other kind of implication is practical. Here we suggest that we are really disappointed in the world, the behavior of practitioners. If only they understood the theory (which is right about these matters), and lived up to our expectations of them, their practices would be much more successful. That is, we are making recommendations to practitioners in light of empirical study of their practices, framed by a particular theory. Bob Sutton's "no asshole rule" is such a recommendation. He is telling practitioners that "research shows" that hiring assholes (or keeping them around if you have accidentally already hired one) is a bad idea. He uses a variety of theories to show that assholes undermine your ability to bring about what he calls a "civilized" workplace. He is adjusting our view of who contributes to the value of an organization.

The implications section is best imagined as consisting of five paragraphs or one-eighth of the 40-paragraph paper. That will mean you are drawing between 3 and 5 specific implications (depending on how you write the section). And you are perfectly entitled to draw both kinds of implication: recommendations for practice and contributions to theory. Just keep it simple. The main critical standard here is a logical one: your recommendations have to "follow" from your background (description of practice), your theory, and your results in a logical way.

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