What Is Your Estimand? Defining the Target Quantity Connects Statistical Evidence to Theory

Ian Lundberg, Rebecca Johnson, Brandon M. Stewart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

104 Scopus citations


We make only one point in this article. Every quantitative study must be able to answer the question: what is your estimand? The estimand is the target quantity—the purpose of the statistical analysis. Much attention is already placed on how to do estimation; a similar degree of care should be given to defining the thing we are estimating. We advocate that authors state the central quantity of each analysis—the theoretical estimand—in precise terms that exist outside of any statistical model. In our framework, researchers do three things: (1) set a theoretical estimand, clearly connecting this quantity to theory; (2) link to an empirical estimand, which is informative about the theoretical estimand under some identification assumptions; and (3) learn from data. Adding precise estimands to research practice expands the space of theoretical questions, clarifies how evidence can speak to those questions, and unlocks new tools for estimation. By grounding all three steps in a precise statement of the target quantity, our framework connects statistical evidence to theory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)532-565
Number of pages34
JournalAmerican Sociological Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


  • causal inference
  • descriptive inference
  • estimands
  • research design
  • social statistics


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