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In defense of unrealistic assumptions

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I argue that a theory's assumptions always are and ought to be unrealistic. Further, we should attempt to make them more unrealistic in order to increase a theory's fruitfulness. Many sociologists believe that a theory's assumptions ought to be empirically realistic. I contend that this criticism probably stems from the confusion of a theory's assumptions with its scope conditions. While Friedman's (1953) similar prescription is associated with the instrumentalist philosophy of science, I maintain that it is also consistent with the realist view if "unrealistic" is taken to mean "incomplete" rather than "untrue." I discuss a recent theory of the value of children by Friedman, Hechter, and Kanazawa (1994) to point out how assumptions differ from scope conditions and how empirically plausible and realistic hypotheses can be logically deduced from highly unrealistic assumptions. I then discuss Kollock's (1993a, 1993b) revision of Axelrod's (1984) Cooperation Theory as an example of when assumptions need to be revised.

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