Friday, April 11, 2014

Good theory

In academic circles you frequently encounter the opinion that a good theory is mainly able to demonstrate model cause-effect-relations (causalities) and quantifiable results. This view is based on the so-called exact sciences where it may well have its validity. But what is the situation in the humanities and social sciences?

When reviewing the leading economic journals for example, one gets the impression that this view applies here without any restrictions as well. Contributions predominate which draw quantitative conclusions and demonstrate model periodic causalities in any form.When addressing a problem, only the quantifiable aspects are shown and taken into account, while everything else is eliminated by abstractions or marginalized as externalities.
So you might still find contributions that reduce man to homo economicus and exclude the social impact. The reviewers of such journal articles are often established scholars not very interested in young researchers fundamentally challenging their held views by bringing forward unconventional assumptions and arguments. Established scholars determine what a “good” theory is. However, hasn’t the financial crisis demonstrated that the theories and models considered as good even by leading economists have failed miserably?

Therefore the claim must be to only approve of theories that take into account the complexities of real life and also consider social and ecological impacts in addition to economic aspects. In this regard verbal clarifications and arguments are generally better than purely quantitative models. They might be less formally elegant, but they provide incomparably better insight. This is why journals should consider qualitative research more extensively than just the usual abstract simplifications. The advice for practitioners in companies and in administrations would therefore be to always insist on asking about the fundamental assumptions of models and about the abstractions of the underlying theories when the model makers appear before accepting their proposals and solutions. Only then you can see whether the applied theories are good not only because they are elegant, but because they adequately capture the often-annoying complexities of real life.

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