Theorists and Empiricists

February 26, 2006

Academia is composed of two complementary types of talents, the yin and yang of intellectual activity: theorists and empiricists. In the latter set are also experimentalists. There are some theorists that will from time to time, undertake empirical work – these are the pragmatic ones, especially in social science. Many theorists remain pure and avoid dabbling with data completely. On the other side of the fence, there are empiricists who do some theory and those that do none at all. Whereas there are many who crossed over from being pure theorists to being empirical, I know of no one that moved from being empirical to doing pure theory.

To argue that this must follow from the fact that doing theory is hard, and empirical work is easy, is to be too naive. I for one, do not buy it. I feel that empirical work is much harder, and to be a good theorist, laziness is a positive attribute. So many a theorist is made out of necessity and inertia. It takes work to be empirical. The pseudo prestige of being a theorist just tips the balance enough to attract those smart enough to realize this and clever enough to survive without getting their hands dirty with data.

Just who is a theorist is unclear. In business schools, people who write papers with lots of equations and no data are ascribed to be theorists. Many times, these are people who do formal game theory, econometrics, mathematical modeling, etc. But this is a terrible definition. To me, even the “gurus” who do management models, the guys who coin buzz words like “core competence” are also theorists. They come up with testable ideas, and that seems to be the definitive mark of a theorist. Hence, being mathematically intense is not necessary nor sufficient to be a theorist. Indeed, almost every empiricist has some idea that is being taken to the data. So, to focus better, lets call someone a theorist if he/she is primarily involved in coming up with models (descriptive or mathematical) that may be tested, and is not primarily concerned with the testing itself. In a roundabout way, we have arrived at a pretty good definition of a theorist – someone who does not want to work with data!

This of course is facetious. The theorist must perforce imbue a distaste for data to be any good at what he/she does. The meaning of being a good theorist lies in seeing beyond the data, looking for deeper meaning than what is present in current fact. However, all good theorists must be grounded in empirical reality. Therein lies the symbiotic nature of the theorist-empiricist relationship. The theorist needs the life source of empirical soil, facts that underpin any reasoning of “why”. In turn, the empiricist needs theories in order to understand what he/she finds when they overturn any rock with data underneath. Else, we will keep turning up rocks or opening shells, not being able to recognize what we find, even when we do. It is this complementarity between theory and empirical work that is ultimately satisfying.

At some level, both theorists and empiricists do what they do because the disbelieve the other. An empiricist produces data telling some story, and the theorist builds a model, either unconvinced with the story, or looking for further deeper meaning. Empiricists test theorist models, pushing to find their limitations, sending theorists back to the drawing board. Each plays the game as if to show they can perform the other’s role better. The jousting carries on continuously, leading to discovery and progress.

Being a scientist, theorist or empiricist is wonderful. What of the remaining people in the world? Well, each and everyone, is all aspects of life, takes on the role of empiricist or theorist. Think about this and ask yourself, what type are you? When you are introspective, maybe you are being a theorist. Some self-realization dawns and you decide to make changes in your life, experiment with something new, to see if the introspective conclusion has worth – now you are an empiricist. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, thats being a theorist. And so on. Are life-theorists more likely to be introverts and life-empiricists more extroverted? Thats just conjecture, my being a theorist. So, again, what type are you, your spouse, your children? Life is strange, but maybe being scientific about our daily routines might replace some tedium with stimulation! Enjoy!