The death of theory?

The field is moving away from developing or carefully employing theories and instead emphasizing the testing of empirical hypotheses through some combination of quantitative or qualitative analysis. Such work is not purely inductive or atheoretical, but theory plays a relatively minor role and most of the effort goes into collecting data and trying to draw reliable causal inferences from it.

Hence the paradox: theory is the most esteemed activity in the field, yet hardly anybody wants to do it anymore. John Mearsheimer and I explore this paradox in a new paper, and argue that this shift away from theory is a mistake.

That is Stephen Walt, on the field of International Relations. He points to a similar trend in economics.

Just back from vacation, I haven’t been able to read the paper closely. I see very good points, but these questions come to mind:

  • Is theory in absolute or just relative decline? More is being published now that 20 or 30 years ago.
  • Is this just the consequence of falling technological barriers? Until 20 years ago, the statistical programs and computing power weren’t available to do large-scale empirical work. So we would expect some rebalancing, even overcompensation.
  • By this logic, the marginal gains to new empirical work should be greater than the marginal gains to new theoretical work, no?
  • Can we separate novel theory from empirics? Yes, empirical papers have a much shorter half life, but how do you reject old and generate new theory without new empirical facts?
  • I’d argue that most of the interesting new theories in economics and politics–on growth, war, economic and technical change, democratization, etc–come out of new and unexpected stylized facts. But that would be a longer post.