Underdetermination and the promise of statistical sociology

Sociological Theory 5 (2):172-184 (1987)
The lack of "progress" in theory is often contrasted to progress in statistical methodology. The relation between the two bodies of thinking is itself problematic, however, for the particular advances in method that have occurred in quantitative sociology reflect a trade-off in which the results are characterized by the radical underdetermination of models by data and a high level of slack between measures and theoretical concepts. Both of these problems are usually understood as matters of "error," and thus as potentially eliminable, but this claim is highly questionable, on grounds evident from Pearson's philosophy of science. The implications of large ineliminable error for the project of theory construction, particularly the "formal theory" of Blau and the California Positivists, is discussed. The ease of producing statistical results is an achievement, but one that leads away from theory rather than toward it, and, because the fact of underdetermination prevents these results from establishing clear cognitive superiority over the results of other "approaches," theoretical diversity is, in a sense, a consequence of the properties of the dominant statistical tradition in sociology
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