Friday, November 07, 2014

What are the implications of a theory paper?

Two years ago, thinking myself wittily obvious, I said that theory papers "accomplish their theoretical aims by purely theoretical means". Yesterday, talking to a PhD student about her theory paper, I found myself saying, perhaps, the opposite. Theory papers, I said, do not have theoretical implications; only empirical papers can truly have "implications for theory". Just because you've thought about something, I said, your peers don't necessarily have to change their minds. That would require some actual, empirical results—a tested theory.

Now, in one sense, that's not really true, of course. When you write a theory paper, you are actually trying to affect the minds of your readers. You're trying to get them to see the world differently, to expect different things to appear under particular circumstances. Rather than showing them such things under such circumstances, as you would in an empirical paper, you confront them with aspects of the available literature that they are unfamiliar with or, perhaps, have just forgotten about. Once those writings, or your particular reading of them, is presented to them, you presume, they will come to expect familiar objects to behave in hitherto unthought-of ways.

If you write your theory paper very convincingly you can accomplish this goal—of changing someone's expectations about an object of inquiry—without any new empirical evidence. At the very least, you can shake the reader's confidence in currently held assumptions about how the object behaves in practice. So was I simply misleading that PhD student when I said a theory paper doesn't have theoretical implications?

Not quite. I was making a formal point about the rhetoric of theory papers. The section that corresponds to the "implications" section of an empirical paper has a particular rhetorical goal, namely, to make explicit what "follows" (logically, rationally) from the rest of the paper. Since the whole paper is about theory, the "analysis" will already have established how the theory must change. It will not just have provided premises from which draw "theoretical" conclusions; it will have presented a complete theoretical argument, conclusions and all, just as an empirical paper will draw empirical conclusions already in the analysis (or "results" section), from which (again, in the empirical paper) either "practical" or "theoretical" implications will then follow.

Just as the implications of an empirical paper reach beyond the empirical material itself (into theory and/or practice), so too must the implications of a theory paper reach beyond the purely theoretical arguments the paper makes. As I said two years ago, and again two days ago, these implications will often be methodological. That is, if you convince your reader to expect something different of the object of their research, this will, probably, have consequences for how they do that research. If you convince them to see the world differently, they'll probably begin to do things differently. Minimally, it suggests doing a study to find out if you're right.

A theory paper may also have "meta-theoretical" implications, or what can properly be called epistemological implications. That is, a reflection upon theory qua theory may lead us to rethink what knowledge is or at least what kind of knowledge we produce. Thus, the choice between "theoretical" and "practical" implications in an empirical paper is transformed into a choice between "epistemological" and "methodological" implications in a theory paper one. (Imagine the permutations for a methods paper!)

To sum up then: a theory paper does make a theoretical contribution but it does not, formally speaking, have theoretical implications.


Haitham Jafar said...

This post complements well the "Research as a Second Language"

Thanks! said...

This is a valuable piece to share with my graduate students (and others). Theoretical/conceptual pieces should include epistemological and/or methodological implications -- a pathway to the necessary theory testing. This belief is not borne out in organizations/ management literature, where theoretical pieces seek to supplant other, untested theories without testing either set of propositions.

Thomas said...

Yes, there is, in certain corners at least, the belief that supplanting an existing theory is always a kind of progress. It's a sort of "progressivism" in which reigning theories are cast as "conservative", always already behind-the-times, and generally in some sense oppressive. Accordingly, the mere possibility of seeing the world differently is enough to move forward. Indeed, even empirical papers sometimes come off as little more than illustrations of a theoretical insight the author has had.

In a sense, we lack proper respect for reigning theories. (Which makes sense if theories were always just things that popped into the minds of theorists to be published and then believed.) Theories should enjoy a presumption of correctness until proven wrong.

A theory paper can raise suspicions, but the theory itself should have "rights", procedural protections. Before we modify a theory there should be some due process. Otherwise we're not taking theory seriously in the first place.

Thomas said...

P.S. This all started, if you ask me, when "scientific" social theories supplanted "folk" theories of human behaviour. People were too eager to reject their inherited sense of who they were; science promised to demonstrate that their parents were wrong, etc. They were, in a word, tired of morality. And theorising is, in the social sciences at least, often a kind of moralising. (I make this point near the end of this post about Malcolm Gladwell.)