An author who has had a significant influence on my work (before he won the Nobel prize!) by confirming that the observation of everyday events is a good (though not necessarily “academic”) way to start.
An excerpt from a paper published recently (in pdf format) on his approach:
Schelling is the master of ricochet scholarship. He studies a real-world problem and develops a conceptual model. He then takes that conceptual model back to a dozen real-world problems to see how it applies, and then ricochets back to refine the model. He keeps the process going until he is happy with his model, and satisfied with his insights into the problems that most interest him.
(…) None of us could approach his skill level, but all of us could learn from his example. If you are analyzing a policy, you should consider what your problem would look like in stripped down form. Look for an everyday analogue, and determine in what ways it is the same and how it is different. Go out in the real world to examine the information that participants have, the incentives that operate on them.
I have always been inspired by how he starts with real-world problems and, after all the back-and-forth, lets reality determine the validity of the model. Models are an attempt at understanding reality, an attempt -in some ways- at explaining reality. This is the premise for the idea that there is nothing more practical than a good theory.