There are many interpretations of positivism but the term is often used to describe a belief, first, that the world is capable of objective interpretation and that, second, social science should follow the methodologies and methods established in natural science, at least so far as it is concerned with emprical evidence and experimentation. It is hence contrasted with interpretivism which takes the world as capable of multiple interpretations and seeks to uncover the meaning that human beings invest in social activity.
The word positivist is a misleading one as it tends to conjures up someone who is very sure of themselves or even someone of a ‘sunny disposition’, but its etymology lies in the verb to ‘posit’ – to put forward and by implication throw open to critical scrutiny.
The intellectual roots of positivism lie as far back as Plato and his conviction that there was an objective, even a perfect, order underlying the world even if our understanding of the world was imperfect. Here, there was a special concern with mathematics and both Plato and Pythagoras saw mathematical structures as underpinning aesthetic judgements. A more recent, and common point of reference, for positivism is the Enlightenment, the term given to those eighteenth century European intellectuals concerned to ‘take on’ dogma, tradition and metaphysical belief in the name of progress. Later nineteenth and early twentieth century reference points for positivism are Comte and sometimes Marx and Durkheim, though there are major differences between these thinkers with Comte being the most explicit in his reverence of the natural science and the scientific method.
Coming closer to our times a third reference point is the philosophy of logical positivism, a movement around the early and mid-twentieth century which argued that ‘warrantable human knowledge’ to be meaningful had to be capable of being verified. This could be achieved only through analytical or logical analysis but, more productively for the social sciences, through the scientific methods of observation and experiment. Logical positivism narrowed the scope of philosophy, dismissing questions of belief as unverifiable, and putting the focus on questions of logic and language.
Fast forwarding to the present, there are few, if any, philosophers or sociologists who are explicit followers of positivism and probably no-one who follows the rather idiosyncratic views of Comte. Rather there has developed what Blaikie (2000) called a ‘standard’ view of positivism to signal a broad interest in developing cause and effect generalisations often on the basis of testing for statistical correlation. To achieve this, researchers need to treat concepts as ‘real’ objective categories and accept that human behaviour can be explained, at least at the group level, by factors operating on the people concerned. Thus positivism, or our positivist legacy, leads us to ask questions aimed at uncovering causality: What were the causes of the dot.com boom?; What leads people to take up careers in public services?; Is poverty associated with low social capital? In methodology, positivism often leads to large scale casing, meta analyses, deductive and experimental hypothesis testing. Positivists are more likely to speak confidently of a knowledge base. Positivists generally adopt a quasi-scientific language: they administer tests; they consider threats to validity and eliminate bias; they generallty write in the third person.
Criticisms of positivism are not difficult to find. In practice most would agree that social activity is more complex than the positivist view suggests and the idea that ‘social science’ should follow the procedures of natural science is undermined by on-going disagreement as to scientists actually carry out their work. There are, however, two major reasons why we should be more cautious than this:
The first is that positivism is often presented as a caricature: positivists are people with a naive belief that social science is objective and are fixated on quantitative methods. This does not do justice to the spread of intellectual influences within positivism or the possibility for reflexivity on the part of positivists or 'neo-positivists'. Positivism provides a lens through which to view events, a limited one and provides story as to how external factors influence human behaviour. Positivist research does not lead to law like generalisations but it has been seen as providing ‘fuzzy generalisations’, ones that are useful to inform decisions about both policy and practice.
Second, many anti-positivists borrow much more from the legacy of positivism than they seem to realise. Their research might, albeit, implicitly discuss cause and effect; they arrive at reified meanings for concepts; they see themselves as contributing to bodies of knowledge; they believe they are offering trustworthy accounts of social activity.
Blaikie, N. (2000) Designing social research, Cambridge: Polity Press.
The link below has extra references that I had prepared for education students.