Day: August 17, 2011

$h•! PTJ Says #1: justifying your theory and methodology

I am going to try writing down pieces of advice that I give to students all the time, in the hopes that they might be useful for people who can’t make it to my office hours.

“The fact that no one else has approached topic X with your particular perspective is not a sufficient warrant for approaching topic X with your particular combination of theory and methodology. In order to get the reader on board, you have to basically issue a promissory note with a grammar that runs something like:

‘Here’s something odd/striking/weird/counterintuitive about X. Other scholars who have talked about X either haven’t noticed this odd/striking/etc. thing at all, or they haven’t found it odd/striking/etc. Furthermore, they haven’t done so because of something really important about their theory/methodology that — even though it generates some insights — simply prevents them from appreciating how odd/striking/etc. this thing is, let alone trying to explain it. Fortunately, there’s my alternative, which I am now going to outline in a certain amount of abstract detail; but bear with me, because there’s a mess of empirical material about topic X coming after that, and I promise you that my theoretical/methodological apparatus will prove its worth in that empirical material by a) showing you just how odd/striking/etc. that thing is, and b) explaining it in a way that other scholars haven’t been able to and won’t be able to.’

Almost no one is convinced by theory and methodology, and absolutely no one is or should be convinced by a claim that existing approaches aren’t cool enough because they aren’t like yours. The burden is on you to give the reader reasons to keep reading, and at the end of the day the only reason for theory and methodology is to explain stuff that we didn’t have good explanations for before. So you have to convince the reader that other approaches *can’t* explain that odd thing about topic X. (And if you can do this without gratuitous and out-of-context references to Thomas Kuhn and being ‘puzzle-driven,’ that’s even better, because I won’t have to make you write an essay on why basically nobody in the social sciences actually uses Kuhn correctly.)”

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Taking David Cameron to School……(Literally. This guy is stupid.)

I get most of my European news from the Financial Times, which I admit does make for a somewhat skewed perspective on British politics. You all do still wear top hats and monocles, right? But apparently Britain’s Prime Minister is promoting, earlier than expected in the wake of the London riots, a tax credit for married or co-habiting couples with the belief that a two-parent family makes for a more stable home and fewer young thugs (or righteous freedom fighters railing against the system, either way) looting cell phone stores in the future. Politicians are so stupid.

Let’s take it for granted that the cause of looting lies in the failures of parents rather than of the social environment in which the poor grow up in. I actually do believe that a loving, two parent family is the best way to raise kids, even as it is by no means the only factor. But David Cameron needs a basic lesson in positivistic research design and causality. (Don’t do it, Patrick T. Jackson! Do not pull your hair out every time I use that word inappropriately in a way inconsistent with how science actually operates! It is not worth it! You have lovely hair!)

The causal logic behind this scheme is that two parents simply sleeping under the same roof leads to better-raised kids. If we simply create incentives for the father to stay in the house, surely good parenting will result. Obviously this is silly. It is the quality of parenting that matters. Having two good parents is better than one good parent. But having one good parent is better than two bad parents who hate each other, or two parents who don’t like one another or one good parent and one bad parent.

Generally when single mothers are raising children it is because the guy is kind of a d!&k to begin with. That’s why he left. Or if not, the mom and dad are ill-suited to one another — they fight like cats and dogs. In other words the fact of the single family is endogenous to the crappy relationship, rather than the exogenous cause of the f*&cked-up kid. The Tories are getting the causal relationship wrong. We see this all the time.

So how is providing a financial incentive to keep them in a loveless relationship or keep a deadbeat around going to make for better adjusted kids? Well, it isn’t, David. The key to better kids is better parents, which means some kind of social engineering at a young age to help them learn, ideally before puberty, to resolve conflicts peacefully, not act like they are the center of the universe, etc. Not to change sleeping arrangements.

Also, are the type of people who shack up purely to get a tax write-off the kind of people we want having babies? This is a strange marriage of Reaganite/Thatcherite incentive economics and social conservatism. Those should be separated. Good parents need good values, not more money. Good luck!

How do we do that? I have no idea, but my guess would be education. Yes, that very education budget that is being slashed in the UK right now by the Tories. (That is true, right? Again, I just read the Financial Times, so I only know the market for yachts is stronger than ever. I’m serious– that was an actual article).

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