Apr 10, 2011

Classic article on the role of theory in research

From the article: Atul Kohli, Peter Evans, Peter J. Katzenstein, Adam Przeworski, Suzanne Hoeber Rudolph, James C. Scott, and Theda Skocpol, “The Role of Theory in Comparative Politics: A Symposium,” World Politics, 48 (October 1995), 1: 1-49

The article argues that comparative politics, in spite of the different theoretical approaches, values "a problem orientation and a commitment to causal generalizations."  

Scientist that adopt different theoretical or methodological approaches express their views:

First scientist
  • It is important to define the "big ideas" driving the research.
  • Rational choice and game theory approaches need to be contextualized in history.
  • Cultural theories are partial.
  • Desire to predict is inherent, not because of positivist reasons, but because of the desire to know what is likely to happen.
  • It is important to understand historical sequences.
  • It is important to understand causal mechanisms. 
  • Ask the question of how the case under consideration helps understand other cases.
  • Cases are always to complicated to vindicate a single theory.
Trying to explain institutions by aggregating individual rationalities is like trying to explain chemical reactions by using propositions from subatomic physics.
Obviously, we should use the analysis of discourse, values, and symbols to modify, complement, and contextualize conventional political economy arguments, but we are not likely to get very far by constructing an alternative worldview that completely bypasses old fashioned power and interests.
As long as cultural analysts eschew prediction, they will not satisfy most consumers and patrons and will therefore remain marginalized [cultural analysis should be combined with conventional political economy].
Second scientist
  • Ask important and interesting questions.
  • Problem-focused research and eclectic theorizing are essential.
  • The origin of political preferences -- and therefore history, matters.
My church of scholarship is a cathedral not a chapel; hence I subscribe to an expansive notion of "social science." The church of scholarship accommodates many different sects often bent on fighting holy wars: behavioralists and nonbehavioralists then, rationalists and interpretivists now.
Rethinking the past in light of the present and conversely rethinking the present in light of the past are productive ways of searching for important and intriguing questions.
Third scientist
I am a methodological opportunist who believes in doing or using whatever [approach] works. If game theory works, I use it. If what is called for is a historical account, I do that. If deconstruction is needed, I will even try deconstruction. So I have no principles.
Comparisons inevitably require theories about what we do not observe, because they cannot rely exclusively on observations.
  • Find cases that are comparable to explain the differences.
  • Pay special attention to endogeneity (when the dependent variable affects the independent variable(s)).
Indeed, I am persuaded that all the comparative work we have been doing may suffer potentially from selection bias. We can not do good comparative research unless we worry about selection, that is, until we ask each time how our observations are produced. Is the mechanism by which our observations are produced independent of what we want to explain or not? Unless we pass that test we will be making biased inferences.
Fourth scientist
  • Be open and embrace contradictory findings.
  • Be aware that you analysis and point of view are influenced by your own background and position on the world.
Fifth scientist
I have never been able to understand abstract concepts unless I can run them through something that I understand well. For this reason I find the anthropologists' approach terribly important, certainly as a technique, if not as a theory: they have a field site where they spend a lot of time, observing and copiously recording as if they were a camera, as if they were stupid and naive.
The great thing about anthropology, by contrast, is that you are at work from the moment you open your eyes in the morning until you close them at night; everything is grist for the mill. So it may often be fine to have instruments that will measure carefully, but if you see the world only through your instruments, then it is likely to be a world that is hard to broaden and that may very well be poverty stricken. These instruments define the conclusions you can reach.
If half of your reading is not outside the confines of political science, you are risking extinction along with the rest of the subspecies. Most of the notable innovations in the discipline have come in the form of insights, perspectives, concepts, and paradigms originating elsewhere.
Final remarks
Theory helps frame empirical puzzles, and it generates plausible causal hypotheses that are worth examining. And one may add that inductive search for regularities generates additional new hypotheses.

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