1. The empirical basis of sociology 2. The debunking tendency
2 'Sociology and Empirical Social Research' in (London/Boston 1973), p. 124 (amended translation).
SOCIOLOGY AND EMPIRICAL RESEARCH - Ralph Dumain
Moreover, such differences in the character and strength of variousclaims of underdetermination turn out to be crucial for resolving thesignificance of the issue. For example, in some recently influentialdiscussions of science it has become commonplace for scholars in awide variety of academic disciplines to make casual appeal to claimsof underdetermination (especially of the holist variety) to supportthe idea that something besides evidence must step in to dothe further work of determining beliefs and/or changes of belief inscientific contexts: perhaps most prominent among these are adherentsof the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) movement and somefeminist science critics who have argued that it is typically thesociopolitical interests and/or pursuit of power and influence byscientists themselves which play a crucial and even decisive role indetermining which beliefs are actually abandoned or retained inresponse to conflicting evidence. As we will see in Section 2.2,however, Larry Laudan has argued that such claims depend upon simpleequivocation between the comparatively weak or trivial forms ofunderdetermination that their partisans have managed to establish andthe far stronger forms from which they draw radical conclusions aboutthe limited reach of evidence and rationality in science. In thesections that follow we will seek to clearly characterize anddistinguish the various forms of both holist and contrastiveunderdetermination that have been suggested to arise in scientificcontexts (noting some important connections between them along theway), assess the strength and significance of the heterogeneousargumentative considerations offered in support of and against them,and consider just which forms of underdetermination pose genuinelyconsequential challenges for scientific inquiry.
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SOCIOLOGY AND EMPIRICAL RESEARCH
One way to see why not is to consider an analogy that champions ofcontrastive underdetermination have sometimes used to support theircase. If we consider any finite group of data points, an elementaryproof reveals that there are an infinite number of distinctmathematical functions describing different curves that will passthrough all of them. As we add further data to our initial set we willdefinitively eliminate functions describing curves which no longercapture all of the data points in the new, larger set, but no matterhow much data we accumulate, the proof guarantees that there willalways be an infinite number of functions remaining thatdefine curves including all the data points in the new set and whichwould therefore seem to be equally well supported by the empiricalevidence. No finite amount of data will ever be ableto narrow the possibilities down to just a single function or indeed,any finite number of candidate functions, from which the distributionof data points we have might have been generated. Each new data pointwe gather eliminates an infinite number of curves thatpreviously fit all the data (so the problem here is not theholist’s challenge that we do not know which beliefs to give upin response to failed predictions or disconfirming evidence), but alsoleaves an infinite number still in contention.
Of course, generating and testing fundamental scientific hypotheses israrely if ever a matter of finding curves that fit collections of datapoints, so nothing follows directly from this mathematical analogy forthe significance of contrastive underdetermination in most scientificcontexts. But Bas van Fraassen has offered an extremely influentialline of argument intended to show that such contrastiveunderdetermination is a serious concern for scientific theorizing moregenerally. In The Scientific Image (1980), van Fraassen usesa now-classic example to illustrate the possibility that even our bestscientific theories might have empirical equivalents: thatis, alternative theories making the very same empirical predictions,and which therefore cannot be better or worse supported by anypossible body of evidence. Consider Newton’s cosmology,with its laws of motion and gravitational attraction. As Newtonhimself realized, van Fraassen points out, exactly the samepredictions are made by the theory whether we assume that the entireuniverse is at rest or assume instead that it is moving with someconstant velocity in any given direction: from our position within it,we have no way to detect constant, absolute motion by the universe asa whole. Thus, van Fraassen argues, we are here faced with empiricallyequivalent scientific theories: Newtonian mechanics and gravitationconjoined either with the fundamental assumption that the universe isat absolute rest (as Newton himself believed), or with any one of aninfinite variety of alternative assumptions about the constantvelocity with which the universe is moving in some particulardirection. All of these theories make all and only the same empiricalpredictions, so no evidence will ever permit us to decide between themon empirical grounds.
Hypotheses and research questions in empirical TS …
Van Fraassen is widely (though mistakenly) regarded as holding thatthe prospect of contrastive underdetermination grounded in suchempirical equivalents demands that we restrict our epistemic ambitionsfor the scientific enterprise itself. His constructive empiricismholds that the aim of science is not to find true theories, but onlytheories that are empirically adequate: that is, theories whose claimsabout observable phenomena are all true. Since the empiricaladequacy of a theory is not threatened by the existence of anotherthat is empirically equivalent to it, fulfilling this aim has nothingto fear from the possibility of such empirical equivalents. In reply,many critics have suggested that van Fraassen gives no reasons forrestricting belief to empirical adequacy that could not also be usedto argue for suspending our belief in the future empiricaladequacy of our best present theories: of course there couldbe empirical equivalents to our best theories, but there could also betheories equally well-supported by all the evidence up to the presentwhich diverge in their predictions about observables in future casesnot yet tested. This challenge seems to miss the point of VanFraassen’s epistemic voluntarism: his claim is that we shouldbelieve no more but also no less than we need to make senseof and take full advantage of our scientific theories, and acommitment to the empirical adequacy of our theories, he suggests, isthe least we can get away with in this regard. Of course it is truethat we are running some epistemic risk in believing in even the fullempirical adequacy of our present theories, but the risk isconsiderably less than what we assume in believing in their truth, itis the minimum we need to take full advantage of the fruits of ourscientific labors, and, he famously suggests, “it is not anepistemic principle that one might as well hang for a sheep as alamb” (1980, 72).
Most philosophers of science, however, have not embraced the idea thatit is only lack of imagination which prevents us from findingempirical equivalents to our scientific theories generally. They notethat the convincing examples of empirical equivalents we do have areall drawn from a single domain of highly mathematized scientifictheorizing in which the background constraints on serious theoreticalalternatives are far from clear, and suggest that it is thereforereasonable to ask whether even a small handful of such examples shouldmake us believe that there are probably empirical equivalents to mostof our scientific theories most of the time. They concede that it isalways possible that there are empirical equivalents to evenour best scientific theories concerning any domain of nature, butinsist that we should not be willing to suspend belief in anyparticular theory until some convincing alternative to it canactually be produced: as Philip Kitcher puts it, “give us arival explanation, and we’ll consider whether it is sufficientlyserious to threaten our confidence” (1993, 154; see also Leplin1997, Achinstein 2002). That is, these thinkers insist that until weare able to actually construct an empirically equivalentalternative to a given theory, the bare possibility that suchequivalents exist is insufficient to justify suspending belief in thebest theories we do have. And for this same reason most philosophersof science are unwilling to follow van Fraassen into what they regardas constructive empiricism’s unwarranted epistemic modesty. Evenif van Fraassen is right about the most minimal beliefs we must holdin order to take full advantage of our scientific theories, mostthinkers do not see why we should believe the least we can get awaywith rather than believing the most we are entitled to by the evidencewe have.
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As this last contrast makes clear, however, recognizing thelimitations of Laudan’s critique of Quine and the fact that wecannot dismiss holist underdetermination with any straightforwardappeal to ampliative principles of good reasoning by itself doesnothing to establish the further positive claims about beliefrevision advanced by interest-driven theorists of science. Even simplyconceding that theory choice or belief revision in science is indeedunderdetermined by the evidence in just the ways that Duhem and/orQuine suggested leaves entirely open whether it is instead the(suitably broad) social or political interests of scientiststhemselves that do the further work of singling out the particularbeliefs or responses to falsifying evidence that any particularscientist or scientific community will actually adopt or findcompelling. Even many of those philosophers of science who are moststrongly convinced of the general significance of various forms ofunderdetermination itself remain deeply skeptical of this latterthesis and thoroughly unconvinced by the empirical evidence that hasbeen offered in support of it (usually in the form of case studies ofparticular historical episodes in science).
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In fact, there is an important connection between this lacuna inLaudan’s famous discussion and the further uses made of thethesis of underdetermination by sociologists of scientific knowledge,feminist epistemologists, and other vocal champions of holistunderdetermination. When faced with the invocation of furtherampliative standards or principles that supposedly rule out someresponses to disconfirmation as irrational or unreasonable, thesethinkers typically respond by insisting that the embrace of suchfurther standards or principles (or perhaps their application toparticular cases) is itself underdetermined, historicallycontingent, and/or subject to ongoing social negotiation. For thisreason, they suggest, such appeals (and their success or failure inconvincing the members of a given community) should be explained byreference to the same broadly social and political interests that theyclaim are at the root of theory choice and belief change in sciencemore generally (see, e.g., Shapin and Schaffer, 1982). On bothaccounts, then, our response to recalcitrant evidence or a failedprediction is constrained in important ways by preexisting features ofthe existing web of beliefs, but for Quine the continuing force ofthese constraints is ultimately imposed by the fundamental principlesof human psychology (such as our preference for minimal mutilation ofthe web, or the pragmatic virtues of simplicity, fecundity, etc.),while for interest-driven theorists of science the continuing force ofany such constraints is limited only by the ongoing negotiatedagreement of the communities of scientists who respect them.
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