Idolatry is a pejorative term for the worship of an idol or a physical object such as a cult image as a god, or practices believed to verge on worship, such as giving honour and regard to created forms…. In current context, however, idolatry is not limited to religious concepts. It can also refer to a social phenomenon where false perceptions are created and worshipped….
In the recent past I reviewed a paper for an academic journal. The paper covered an interesting subject, it was well done, and so I recommended some revisions and that the author resubmit once those were done. Other reviewers disagreed, arguing most centrally that the context in which the study was undertaken was highly specific and therefore not “representative,” in which case the empirical results may not be “generalizable”. They recommended reject.
Even more recently on the blog, I pointed to Meyersson’s newly published paper on the effects of the rule of Islamic parties in Turkish municipalities (post). Meyersson’s most remarkable finding was that opportunities for women seemed to expand substantially under the municipal rule of Islamic parties. I received a few responses via Twitter and in person critiquing Meyersson’s findings, suggesting that the constellation of historical, economic, and institutional conditions in Turkey undermine the “generality” of these effects on women’s opportunity.
While I appreciate that academic papers sometimes underplay scope conditions for their results, I find such obsession with whether an empirical result “generalizes” or whether the empirical context is “representative” to be poorly motivated in many cases. First, there are no research designs or analytical methods that can reliably deliver “representative” or “generalizable” findings. For example, using “representative” data does not guarantee that your results will be representative even for units in your dataset. (See here for more: link.) To pursue a “representative” estimate is often to chase a mirage.
Second, working with “non-representative” groups may provide more theoretical traction. If existing theory suggests that effects should go one way with a particular group of units but you find the effects go the other way, well this is the kind of anomaly that allows theoretical elaboration to advance.
Third, it is often unclear as to what would be a “representative” or “general” case. Was the skepticism toward Meyersson’s paper coming from some implicit comparison to, say, Saudi Arabia? If so, why on earth should we take findings for Saudi Arabia to be “general” and dismiss those from Turkey as “idiosyncratic”? The fact that effects vary by context is interesting and worth understanding.
If the objective is to learn about such heterogeneity across contexts or, the other side of the coin, to demonstrate stability across contexts, then one should conduct studies that seek unusual contextual conditions!