Duncan, Otis Dudley

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Duncan, Otis Dudley 1921-2004


One of sociologys most influential practitioners, Otis Dudley Duncan was instrumental in transforming mainstream American sociology into a quantitatively based empirical social science in the second half of the twentieth century. His key scholarly contributions include the introduction of path analysis to sociology, the measurement of occupational socioeconomic standing with an index (Duncan Socioeconomic Index), the study of intergenerational occupational mobility, the spatial analysis of residential patterns, the application and advancement of loglinear models and Rasch models for categorical social science data, and a landmark treatise on social measurement (Duncan 1984).

Duncans best-known work is a 1967 book coauthored with the late Peter Blau, The American Occupational Structure. Based on quantitative analyses of the first large national survey of social mobility in the United States, the book elegantly depicts the process by which parents transmit their social standing to their children, particularly through affecting the childrens education. The books impact went far beyond its analyses of occupational mobility. Using survey data and statistical techniques, it showed how an important sociological topic could be analyzed effectively and rigorously with appropriate quantitative methods. The work helped inspire a new generation of sociologists to follow suit and pursue quantitative sociology. Today, a worldwide community of sociologists studying the transmission of social standing from one generation to the next still works on elaborating the Blau-Duncan model to include such additional factors as cognitive ability, race, and social context.

Duncan introduced path analysis to social science. A path diagram and a corresponding path model describe a set of equations summarizing complex scientific ideas in terms of statistical relationships. Path analysis was first invented by Sewell Wright, a biologist and evolutionary theorist. Duncan discovered Wrights method of path analysis by chance and then applied it to sociology. Together with Arthur Goldberger, an econometrician, he showed that path analysis models were closely related to the simultaneous equation models of economics and the confirmatory factor analysis of psychology. These three different ways of analyzing certain kinds of data can be viewed within a single general framework called structural equation models. Later in his career, Duncan concentrated his methodological interests on loglinear models and Rasch models for categorical data.

In his last book, Notes on Social Measurement, Historical and Critical (1984), Duncan shifted his attention to social measurement and presented his general philosophy of social science. Tracing the historical development of social measurement from Ancient Greece to the present, Duncan identified the difficulties of quantitative analyses in the social sciences, in which variability is the norm rather than the exception. Partly in response to his own critics, Duncan also presented himself as a fierce critic of aspects of the quantitative approachsomething that he had helped launch as a new standard for social science. This change in Duncans methodological thinking can be traced to his realization that population heterogeneity renders statistical analyses of social science data essentially descriptive rather than causal. Indeed, avoidance of drawing law-like causal statements from statistical analyses became the hallmark of the intellectual tradition in quantitative sociology that is associated with Duncan. He was openly disdainful of the search for supposedly universal laws of society that would mimic those of physical science. The central tenet in Duncans new paradigm for quantitative sociology is the primacy of empirical reality.

Duncan was born on December 2, 1921, in Nocona, Texas, and grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He completed a BA at Louisiana State University in 1941, and an MA at the University of Minnesota in 1942. He then served three years in the U.S. Army during World War II (1939-1945) before completing his PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago in 1949. He was on the faculty in the departments of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of Arizona, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, from which he retired in 1987.

Duncan was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He was also awarded honorary degrees by the University of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Arizona. He was president of the Population Association of America from 1968 to 1969.

SEE ALSO Blau, Peter M.; Demography; Occupational Status; Social Status


Blau, Peter M., and Otis Dudley Duncan. 1967. The American Occupational Structure. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Duncan, Otis Dudley. 1984. Notes on Social Measurement, Historical and Critical. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Xie, Yu. Otis Dudley Duncans Legacy: The Demographic Approach to Quantitative Reasoning in Social Science. http://www.yuxie.com.

Yu Xie

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