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Tales of the (sometimes) unexpected: the ups and downs of theory and data

29 May 2012

Inaugural lecture: Mr. prof. R. Spears, 16.15 uur, Aula Academiegebouw, Broerstraat 5, Groningen

Title: Tales of the (sometimes) unexpected: the ups and downs of theory and data

Chair: Social psychology, in particular social identity

Faculty: Behavioural and Social Sciences

Social psychologists pride themselves on being theory-driven, and often look down on “naïve empiricism” or descriptive research in their own ranks or other disciplines. This is reflected in the hypothetico-deductive approach associated with positivism. Good scientists have theories, which they test with experiments and succeed when hypotheses are confirmed.

However, as we have seen, this approach has its limits and even dangers. Just starting “top down” with theory is also potentially conservative (encouraging a conformity bias) and falsification (no pun intended) might not be the best way to innovate. But where does theory come from anyway? Some realist philosophers of science have suggested a “retroductive” approach that transcends the limits of pure deductivism and inductivism, in which theory does not just start our quest, top-down, but develops to explain sometimes unexpected results. In this model the failed experiment might even be a sign of success, and help to generate explanations we never even thought of.

Looking back at his career, many of the most interesting and fruitful findings were ones Spears did not expect (at first). Such results should exercise the imagination and theoretical creativity. What might be the case for this to happen? These new ideas have to be tested in turn of course.

Spears focus on a line of research that generated a result apparently contradictory to the main theoretical tradition within which he has worked: Social Identity theory. Social Identity Theory is one of very few theories that tries to explain social change. It proposes that disadvantage groups are most likely to contest the status quo when their disadvantage is illegitimate and unstable. However an unexpected finding in research of former PhD student Daan Scheepers seemed to contradict the theory and led us to a new explanation for radical and extreme behavior (and a program of research to test it). A lesson is that we should not just tolerate our theoretical and experimental failures but embrace them in order to develop new theory.

Last modified:13 March 2020 01.01 a.m.
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