Practitioner testimonies

Oct 28, 2005

Through the magic of podcasting, I’ve been able to listen to a number of pre- and post-game interviews with baseball players and managers as I go for my morning run — subscribe to the daily MLB podcasts through iTunes, plug in my iPod, and when I get up in the morning there they are, ready to go. (Of course, now that the baseball season is officially over — congratulations, White Sox, even though I wanted the Astros to force a game 5 so that we could see Roger Clemens try to pitch despite his hamstring injury — I’ll need to find some new podcasts to listen to on those runs. I wonder if MLB will start podcasting winter ball reports. Hmm.)

In any event, one of the things I have been noticing a lot lately is the fact that sports reporters invariably ask players and managers to produce causal speculations. How much did the condition of the field affect your performance? Does having the stadium’s retractable roof open affect your play? How much difference does it make that you have a well-rested bullpen on which to draw? The sheer frequency of the questions leads to the unavoidable conclusion that reporters ask managers and players about these issues because of a presumption that players and managers have some kind of privileged authority to pronounce about these matters.

The general principle here seems to be: practitioners know about causal relationships specific to their particular field of activity. And this principle extends well beyond sports: players and managers know about baseball, diplomats know about diplomacy, activists know about activism, government officials know about government. In fact, the notion that participants have special access to knowledge about their domains is often elevated to a methodological principle in the social sciences: “we may not care at all about the views of revolutionaries, but if their answers to our questions are consistent with our theory of revolutions, then the theory itself will be more likely to be correct,” as a recent methodological manual has it.

Pardon my bluntness, but I think that this kind of reasoning is downright absurd. In fact, the idea that practical experience gives one some kind of unmitigated access to causal knowledge strikes me as downright misleading in at least two respects: it mis-states the relationship between knowledge and practice, and it forecloses the possibility of generating new knowledge(s) by taking a step away from personal experience.

Allow me to elaborate.

1) there’s a long-standing error (well, I think it’s an error, but lots of people disagree and have done so over the years) in conflating practitioner-knowledge with detached-social-scientific-observer knowledge. Practitioner-knowledge is all about how to accomplish something, and consists of rules of thumb, operational practices, and in general a “feel” for situations. Bent Flyvbjerg draws on Aristotle in characterizing this as phronesis: practical wisdom, a kind of context-specific local understanding that produces results (in the form of successful, even virtuoso, performances of some task or tasks). Phronetic knowledge is neither rule-based nor reducible to rules, since much of it’s tacit and experiential.

Social-scientific knowledge, on the other hand, is by definition not primarily about how to accomplish something; it’s about how things are/were accomplished. Social science is all about systematizing practice, even for those of us who are quite enamored of messy contingent styles of explanation; by contrast to those outside of the social science fraternity, we’re all inveterate systematizers. Systematizing practice means stepping away from it, and not practicing the activity in question, so that one can get a different kind of grip on it — a theoretical grip, a conceptual grip, a necessarily more abstract grip than a practitioner has. The drawback is that the social scientist loses the immediacy of practice; the advantage is that they gain a broader and more general point of view.

Think about it like this: I know a fair bit about baseball because I’ve studied it, and I know that in most situations it makes no sense to attempt a stolen base — a runner on first is worth more than the expected value of stealing second (unless you have Rickey Henderson, the all-time major league leader in stolen bases, on first base). But I couldn’t for the life of me actually steal a base, which some people can. Ditto for plate appearances: I know that getting on base is the most valuable thing that a batter can do. But put me in uniform and give me a bat and I can virtually guarantee you that I won’t get on base against any professional baseball pitcher.

So there’s knowledge and there’s knowledge. They’re not the same. And just because I know when to take a pitch does not mean that I know that on-base percentage is the biggest component of run production. Nor does it follow that a good hitter is the best source to talk to when trying to see whether on-base percentage matters so much, because he may not know. And that’s okay. Batters are paid to bat, not to analyze at-bats in a systematic way. Asking them to speculate on causal relationships is really asking them to pontificate on something that they have no special expertise in.

We get this in IR scholarship all the time, usually in a form like this: “my theory is that X matters, practitioner Y said in his memoir/speech/letter/interview that X matters, hence X matters and my theory is a good one.” Non sequitur, in the precise and technical sense: the parts of the claim have nothing, logically speaking, to do with one another. A very good negotiator may not be able to articulate what it is about her negotiating style that is so effective, and if you ask her she may say something — and even earnestly believe something — that has no bearing whatsoever on the positive outcomes that she continues to produce.

Oddly enough, although social scientists and sports beat reporters don’t seem to get this, Claire Danes does:

“More people see movies with men in them than they do with women in them.”
Right. So — why is that ?
“I’m not in a position to say,” she snaps. “I mean, I’m just not.”
Danes spent two years at Yale. Where’s the conversational brio? Where’s the analytical discourse that even half of an Ivy League education would seem to confer? Do we really have 35 minutes left of this? This is, after all, her career we’re talking about. Her milieu. Her life. She can’t “say” anything about the gender breakdown of filmgoers? If she can’t say, who can?
“Someone who really studies that,” she says. “Or thinks about that.”

Wisdom can be found in the most interesting places. Maybe that Ivy league education did precisely what it was supposed to do, and prevented Ms. Danes from speculating on things that she doesn’t really have any expertise in.

2) so what’s the point of social-scientific knowledge, if it’s not practitioner-knowledge and doesn’t directly tell you how to do something? I am skeptical about the version of the “social science project” that would try to discipline practice by forcing it to conform to the systematic knowledge that detached observers produce; in fact, I think it’s the opposite relationship, and systematic knowledge should be (with apologies to David Hume) the slave of practice. All of us producing our systematic analyses are dependent on practitioners to, you know, do stuff, so that we can observe what they do at a (relative) distance, systematize it, and perhaps reveal aspects of practice that are obscure to the practitioners themselves. Perhaps. Even if not, there’s a value to systematicity for its own sake, since the world’s messy and obscure and doesn’t always simply tell us how it works. Being systematic allows us to generate detailed accounts of situations based on particular value-commitments, and thus to ground our critiques in something other than mere partisan opinion. And that strikes me as a good idea.

But it still won’t help me raise my batting average. That takes a whole different kind of knowledge.

[cross-posted at ProfPTJ’s Course Diaries]
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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.