The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

$h•! PTJ Says #2: on the difference between assumptions and conclusions

September 9, 2011

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.

“Spelling out your theoretical and methodological assumptions — the contours of your conceptual equipment, so to speak — is a vital part of doing good social science, because if I don’t know what your assumptions are then I really can’t fairly evaluate your results. In fact, if I don’t know what your assumptions are, I probably have little choice but to apply my own standards, which may or may not be appropriate to your project. So being as clear as you can about your assumptions (with the caveat that it’s impossible to actually spell out *every* assumption that you’re making, both because that kind of self-awareness is a theoretical ideal rather than a live possibility, and because of the Wittgensteinian logical paradox involved in trying to endogenize every rule of a game) is critical.

However, spelling out your assumptions is not the same thing as establishing their validity or their value. Yes, your take on discourse is more pragmatic/Foucault than CDA/Wodak, but that’s not a conclusion of your research — it’s an assumption. Just like ‘individuals make rational choices under conditions of imperfect information’ or ‘human beings are meaning-making animals.’ The fact that you assume this tells me a lot about you, but basically zippo about whether you are right or, more to the point, about whether your assumption is a useful one for the research problem at hand. You can’t use a set of assumptions about discursive practices to conclude that discourse matters or that discourse works the way you think it does, because you already assumed that at the outset! Ditto assumptions about material factors, ideas, etc. “mattering.” You can and should be as detailed as you can be about your assumptions, but if you want anyone to appreciate them as anything other than an expression of your idiosyncratic aesthetic sensibilities, you need to show us what insight they generate in practice — and you have to refrain from overreaching and tautologically concluding that results generated by applying assumption X are an argument for the validity of assumption X. Those results might indeed contribute to an argument that it is useful to make assumption X when trying to explain what you’re trying to explain, but that’s as far as it goes.

Making ‘assent to assumption X’ a condition of membership in some fraternity helps you found or adhere to a school of thought, but whether it helps you explain anything is an entirely different issue. The fact that members of a school, like adherents of any other type of sect, will parade their results as if they constituted ‘evidence’ for their assumptions should be regarded in about the same spirit as any other testimonial, which is to say, compelling to believers but largely inscrutable to outsiders. Displaying your allegiance doesn’t contribute to knowledge, although it can get you into interesting conversations.”

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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.