Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Our Theoretical Others

We are as likely to distinguish the theoretical moment of research from its empirical moment as we are to distinguish theory from practice. But note that these two ways of setting up an "other" for theory are very different. In the one case, we are considering theory according to its empirical adequacy; in the other, we are considering it according to its practical relevance. This distinction can help us to think about the contribution that we would like to make with our research, or its "force", if you will. And this, in turn, can help us to organize the paper we are writing.

Consider the outline of what I call a "standard social science article". It has the following parts:

1. Introduction
2. Background
3. Theory
4. Method
5. Analysis I
6. Analysis II
7. Analysis III
8. Implications
9. Conclusion

Let's consider the structure of the introduction. The first paragraph will describe "the world"; the second will describe "the science"; the third will describe "the paper". These paragraphs can also be understood as summaries of the practical, theoretical and empirical content of the paper respectively. The first describes the practice that your research studies. The second describes the theory that frames your research. The third states your empirical conclusion, summarizing also your method (which generates the data on which your empirical claims are based) and the implications you have drawn from your work.

The background section merely develops the description of practice you have provided in your introduction. The theory section of course develops the content of the second paragraph, and the methods, analysis and implications sections unpack the content of paragraph three.

Finally, the conclusion consists of two paragraphs. The first states your empirical conclusion in the simplest possible way (given at least six sentences and at most 200 words). The second tells us how things stand from point of view of one who has come to understand your conclusion and, in particular, your implications.

Now, your implications may be of a theoretical or a practical nature. Your research, we might also say, may carry mainly empirical or normative force. You are either going to let the practice, construed as an empirical object, "push back" against your theory, i.e., let the theory absorb the implications of your empirical conclusions as a number of modifications (which will, of course, be specified in your implications section), or you will let the theory "push forward" into the practice, using your empirical conclusions to suggest normative implications (which are again stated in the "implications" section).

What I find personally interesting in this way of thinking about your paper is the subtle "othering" that is going on—the way the various parts of the argument define themselves by distinguishing themselves from the other parts. First theory is introduced as an other to practice, then the empirical material as an other to the theoretical frame. Later, however, the empirical content itself may be distinguished from its normative force. And norms (ideals, if you will) are of course to practice what facts (realities) are to theory.

Where is all this brought together? In the imagination, of course—yours and that of your reader.


Presskorn said...

While it is true that norms are what practice strives for just as facts are what descriptions strive for, your last homology about practice and theory strikes me as imprecise. Or in any case, inconsistent with the view of theory as a “program of perception” (otherwise held by RSL and of course Bourdieu).

More correct, I think, would be: Norms are to practice what facts are to science.
Or: Norms are to practice what concepts are to theory (since norms govern practice like concepts govern theory).

Thomas said...

As you know, I love this game. (I think I can safely say I invented it?) It's not quite what I was trying to do in this post but...

First, I agree that there's something wrong there.

Properly speaking, acts are to practice what facts are to theory. Acts, again, "properly speaking", are "normative" as facts are "empirical". As far as I can tell, there's no good substantive, like "norm", for a unit of empirical matter, except what we've already got, namely, "fact". An act is a "unit of normative society"? Doesn't sound quite right, but it may work if we take a linguistic turn.

Perception is to theory (and science) as action is to practice (and politics).

A "fact" is the "meaning" of a perception. Likewise, an "act" is the meaning of an action. Norms determine the meaning of the mere action as a social act.

_______ determine the meaning of a mere perception as a material fact.

That's the riddle.

(Note: it can't be "concepts"; they've already got a their supplement in "emotions".)

Presskorn said...

I am enjoying it too - and I think it's quite safe to say that you invented the game... I can't solve the riddle though, can you?

PS: It is so tempting to say concepts. And part of the charm of the pangrammatical "game" is that captures very ordinary intuitions succiently... So why it is really disallowed that the elements in pangrammatical homologies may more than one supplement? (And does also mean that it would be disallowed to say stuff like: "Natural science is to facts what social science is to acts. Natural science is the notation of facts. Social science is the notation of acts."?)

Thomas said...

I have solved the riddle. But I'll wait till tomorrow morning to post it. (It's quite a nice solution.)

I've never considered the possibility of two supplements for a term. It just seems messy. But I should have some principled reason to rule it out. I'll think on it.

Because facts are to acts what knowledge is to power, and "social science" is presumably a form knowledge, your suggestion is impossible (unpangrammatical, if you will).

Knowledge is always knowledge of facts.
If you want to act, you need power. Therefore:

Cultural politics is to acts what natural science is to facts. There can be no other supplement.