Criminological Knowledge and the Paradox of Observational Theories

Bruce DiCristina, University of North Dakota

The theory-laden nature of observation is a multidimensional problem that has significant implications for the construction and evaluation of criminological knowledge. A sound understanding of its dimensions can help curb the production of careless knowledge claims. In this paper, I examine one general dimension of this multidimensional problem: The paradox of "observational theories." The process of theory evaluation can be viewed as entailing at least two theories, the theory one wishes to test and a more-or-less distinct theory that is used to identify or construct "facts." However, the existence of two theories creates a dilemma. If the knowledge claims of the theory being tested conflict with the "facts" of the observational theory, which theory is wrong? Moreover, can the theory being tested be reinterpreted as a set of "facts" that can be used to evaluate the observational theory? In criminology, observational theories frequently lack plausibility, and thus this paradox warrants attention.

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Updated 05/20/2006