Qual Quant (2013) 47:257–270
Is there life after P< 0.05? Statistical significance
and quantitative sociology
Published online: 1 June 2011
© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011
Abstract The overwhelming majority of quantitative work in sociology reports levels of
statistical significance. Often, significance is reported with little or no discussion of what it
actually entails philosophically, and this can be problematic when analyses are interpreted.
Often, significance is understood to represent the probability of the null hypothesis (usually
understood as a lack of relationship between two or more variables). This understanding is
simply erroneous. The ﬁrst section of this paper deals with this common misunderstanding.
The second section gives a history of significance testing in the social sciences, with refer-
ence to the historical foundations of many common misinterpretations of significance testing.
The third section is devoted to a discussion of the consequences of misinterpreting statistical
significance for sociology. It is argued that reporting statistical significance provides sociol-
ogy with very little value, and that the consequences of misinterpreting significance values
outweighs the beneﬁts of their use.
Keywords Statistical significance · History of statistics · Probability · Epistemology
1 Prior probabilities and the inverse probability error: why P( D| H ) = P(H| D)
Although quantitative sociology has been challenged on ontological and epistemological
grounds, it is still the dominant form of research in many of the largest and most presti-
gious sociological journals currently in print. However, the statistical tradition that sociology
has inherited form psychology and the biological sciences is not an aspect of sociological
history readily available for students or researchers. Indeed, many statistical procedures are
ill-understood by the quantitative sociologists who use them. In particular, procedures that
measure levels of so-called “statistical significance” are rarely used with the inherent philo-
sophical limitations of those procedures in mind. This is due, in part, to the hybridization of
two theories of statistical significance that have disparate theoretical conceptions by statistical
A. Engman (
Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, 725 Spadina Ave., Toronto, ON M5S 2J4, Canada