Three ways of thinking: thematic, analytic, pragmatic

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Having spent many years among sociologists, historians et al, well away from physics (my undergraduate and PhD subject), it came as something of a shock when it dawned on me that I still saw the world as a physicist. My world is a world of phenomena, not themes, although as an activist in health and social care it is also a world of issues for me.

I suggest – as a working hypothesis – that in many university subjects thinking is primarily thematic (e.g. the humanities, much of the social sciences) or analytic (e.g. the natural and physical sciences). The Table brings out the contrast between them. By contrast, in the world outside academia thinking is primarily pragmatic, issue-oriented. Only rarely do we come across a mix of these ways of thinking.

What do you think?

‘Focus’A themeA phenomenonAn issue
DefinitionsAbstract, all-encompassing Concrete, to enable you to recognise X when you see it To establish a common language, make sure ‘we’re all talking about the same thing’
GoalGeneralizationUnificationDecision, then action
Use of conceptual frameworkTo impose order. Likely that only one conceptual framework is used.To reveal order. Possible that several conceptual frameworks are used in conjunction.Action-oriented, focusing on the
need and scope for action and
criteria for evaluating consequences.
Mode of discourseArgument, debate, commentary, attempt to persuade Report: non-judgmental description of findings, analysis and conclusions;
speculation based on these
Contributory (putting elements from
different sources together), evaluative
(of alternative courses of action), advocating preferences
Material (input)Views and metaphors, made up into a ‘collage’ with pieces of evidence that supportObservations, evidence, ‘facts’, established ‘laws’ and rules Experience and expertise; evidence, judgments, hunches, formulae
Test of validityPlausibility (appeal to intuition)ConsistencyWill it work? Will it sell? Will it be acceptable?
Mode of learningReflective: ‘You read for a degree.’
Writer and teacher are interposed (as the interpreter or authority) between student and raw material
Experimental: students exposed directly to phenomena, learn to observe, marshal evidence, draw reasoned conclusions. But teachers may rely on textbooks.Entrepreneurial: Invention, trial and error, development, making sense of experience, learning from any available source (in-house or not), learning in cross-functional teams