Empirical and conceptual science: a vital partnership

It’s great fun to be an interdisciplinary thinker. It’s exciting to make connections that shed new light on old problems. I love the world “outside the box.” Or rather, here’s the graphic on my ironic Halloween t-shirt:


Even though it’s amazing to work in this world, it’s also frustrating, because you can do careful, precise work and still run into the square-peg-round-hole problem. What I’m referring to here is the distinction between empirical and conceptual science.

Empirical science works like this. You make observations. You notice patterns in your observations. You come up with an idea that would account for those patterns. But before you can have confidence in your idea, you need to test it – to compare it with other ideas that could also account for those patterns. You follow the standards of rigorous testing, you get your results, and you compare it with your original idea. Maybe it supports your idea, or maybe you need to tweak your idea a bit, or start over. If it supports your idea, great – now you test it again under different conditions to see whether your findings “generalize” more broadly. And so on. This is a world of methods, findings, rigor, and validity.

Empirical science is very important. Without empirical science, we don’t get medicine or advanced technology. (Like effective vaccines for a worldwide pandemic!)

But empirical research isn’t all there is to science. There’s also the conceptual part, the framework that helps us make sense of the world. This is the part of science I most enjoy – coming up with a new way to look at a situation, then exploring its implications. Or, to be more precise, bringing together existing ideas into a model that gives us new tools for thinking about important problems.

That’s what I’ve been doing in my research on meta-narratives. The idea that there are underlying stories for our beliefs about our groups is certainly not new – you can see that in my blog posts, where I give recent examples from George Packer and Ezra Klein. Politicians use these meta-narratives succinctly and powerfully, from making America “great again” to “restoring the soul” of our nation. Meta-narratives aren’t new to social science or philosophy either. But I am doing something new and scientific with them: I’m thinking about them systematically.

In my book project, I introduce three important ways of thinking about meta-narratives.

1. Each meta-narrative has an emotional genre. That is, our group is going in a particular direction, and we have feelings about that. The ideas of progress, stagnation, decline, transformation, etc., certainly aren’t new, but there’s a value to laying them all out, putting them side by side, and seeing how they work psychologically. (You can read about that in my “super-stories” post.)

2. When politicians and others present their meta-narrative ideas to the world, they can use emotionally amplifying techniques to make them more dramatic and compelling. Some genres are inherently that way (like the Bernie Sanders “revolution,” which is an example of transformation). Other meta-narratives can be spiced up by bringing in special features, like sharp contrasts, intensity, ideals, the sacred, secrets, surprise, and so forth. We use these techniques all the time, but in my book, I’ll be introducing a way to think about them more methodically. (I’m also writing a paper about this topic right now.)

3. We have relationships with our meta-narratives. We can believe them unquestioningly, we can reflect on them critically, or we can reject them outright. It’s easy to illustrate this with religious meta-narratives. Fundamentalists (Christian or otherwise) know what they’re supposed to believe, and they generally do. Some people think about religions as different frameworks that we can use to make sense of our place in the cosmos, and they find one that feels compatible with their cultural heritage and personality. And of course, atheists dismiss it all as nonsense. Because this can happen with political beliefs, too, it’s important to understand what circumstances can lead people to be unquestioning, reflective, or cynical. (I cover this a bit in my “three relationships” post.)

Conceptual frameworks are an important part of science, and of critical thinking more generally. When we take them for granted, we can get steered in misleading directions. For example, if we understand the theory of evolution as telling us that “competition is everything,” we entirely miss out on the vital role of cooperation.

And once you have a solid conceptual framework, you can start exploring the implications that follow from it. Some of these implications will inspire empirical research. Sometimes the results of that research will tell us that a different conceptual framework might fit better, or be more fruitful – like our collective realization that evolution needs to take into account cooperation as well as competition.

Future researchers may use my emotional genre framework to structure their research on which genres are most convincing for certain people, in certain situations. They may use my intensifying techniques framework to codify what advertisers and propagandists do intuitively – and, I hope, to help us better understand how to resist these methods. They may use my relationship stance framework when they study the differences between authoritarian and democratic societies. Or, inspired by my frameworks, they may come up with new frameworks of their own. I hope I’m around to see them.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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