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Theory of Science – What is Positivism?

What Is an Interpretivist Approach?

❶Grounds for Methodological Convergence. Generalizing thus, Comte found that there were five great groups of phenomena of equal classificatory value but of successively decreasing positivity.

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Knowledge of anything beyond that, a positivist would hold, is impossible. When I think of positivism and the related philosophy of logical positivism I think of the behaviorists in midth Century psychology. These were the mythical 'rat runners' who believed that psychology could only study what could be directly observed and measured.

Since we can't directly observe emotions, thoughts, etc. Skinner argued that psychology needed to concentrate only on the positive and negative reinforcers of behavior in order to predict how people will behave -- everything else in between like what the person is thinking is irrelevant because it can't be measured. In a positivist view of the world, science was seen as the way to get at truth, to understand the world well enough so that we might predict and control it.

The world and the universe were deterministic -- they operated by laws of cause and effect that we could discern if we applied the unique approach of the scientific method. Science was largely a mechanistic or mechanical affair. We use deductive reasoning to postulate theories that we can test. Based on the results of our studies, we may learn that our theory doesn't fit the facts well and so we need to revise our theory to better predict reality.

The positivist believed in empiricism -- the idea that observation and measurement was the core of the scientific endeavor. The key approach of the scientific method is the experiment, the attempt to discern natural laws through direct manipulation and observation. OK, I am exaggerating the positivist position although you may be amazed at how close to this some of them actually came in order to make a point.

Things have changed in our views of science since the middle part of the 20th century. Probably the most important has been our shift away from positivism into what we term post-positivism. By post-positivism, I don't mean a slight adjustment to or revision of the positivist position -- post-positivism is a wholesale rejection of the central tenets of positivism. A post-positivist might begin by recognizing that the way scientists think and work and the way we think in our everyday life are not distinctly different.

Scientific reasoning and common sense reasoning are essentially the same process. There is no difference in kind between the two, only a difference in degree.

Scientists, for example, follow specific procedures to assure that observations are verifiable, accurate and consistent. In everyday reasoning, we don't always proceed so carefully although, if you think about it, when the stakes are high, even in everyday life we become much more cautious about measurement. Think of the way most responsible parents keep continuous watch over their infants, noticing details that non-parents would never detect.

One of the most common forms of post-positivism is a philosophy called critical realism. A critical realist believes that there is a reality independent of our thinking about it that science can study. This is in contrast with a subjectivist who would hold that there is no external reality -- we're each making this all up!

Positivists were also realists. The difference is that the post-positivist critical realist recognizes that all observation is fallible and has error and that all theory is revisable. In other words, the critical realist is critical of our ability to know reality with certainty. Where the positivist believed that the goal of science was to uncover the truth, the post-positivist critical realist believes that the goal of science is to hold steadfastly to the goal of getting it right about reality, even though we can never achieve that goal!

Because all measurement is fallible, the post-positivist emphasizes the importance of multiple measures and observations, each of which may possess different types of error, and the need to use triangulation across these multiple errorful sources to try to get a better bead on what's happening in reality.

The post-positivist also believes that all observations are theory-laden and that scientists and everyone else, for that matter are inherently biased by their cultural experiences, world views, and so on. This is not cause to give up in despair, however. Just because I have my world view based on my experiences and you have yours doesn't mean that we can't hope to translate from each other's experiences or understand each other.

That is, post-positivism rejects the relativist idea of the incommensurability of different perspectives, the idea that we can never understand each other because we come from different experiences and cultures.

Most post-positivists are constructivists who believe that we each construct our view of the world based on our perceptions of it. In addition, positivists usually believe that scientific progress will eradicate, or at least sharply reduce, the problems facing mankind.

Positivists are almost always strong realists — that is, they believe that what we experience as reality is really out there in the world.

In other words, they believe in objective truth. They also tend to deny the influence of things like theoretical and cultural biases that get in the way of science. Positivism divides all statements into three categories: This is an extreme example, of course, but many other sentences fall into this category when their terms are not clearly defined. If a statement does have a meaning, then it must be either true or false.

It would be impossible to count all the domestic cats one by one, so no one can verify the statement. Positivism hit peak popularity in the early 20th century, but after that a new school — the postpositivists — started to notice problems with the theory.

However, there are also serious problems with it, notably the fact that positivism fails to acknowledge the cultural, political, and psychological factors that get in between the observer and the truth. Even more importantly, positivism is self-defeating. Positivism claims what is true can be verified by science and logical proof. Positivism also claims everything else is either false or meaningless. In other words, if positivism is true, then positivism is false!

There is no objective basis for believing in objective truth! Realizing this flaw, many people decided to abandon positivism altogether — they developed new schools of thinking that completely abandoned the positivist project. The postpositivists, however, still held on to many aspects of the older school.

In particular, they still felt that the goal of philosophy should be to aim at objective truth. They believed that there was an objective reality, and felt that science was a flawed but still highly respectable means of understanding it, but they accepted that there were major complications in the process of knowing or understanding that truth. And, of course, they accepted that there was no objective basis for believing in objective truth.

Postpositivism has been so successful in critiquing positivism that there are very few fully-convinced positivists left today. Auguste Comte was a French philosopher who lived in the early 19th century and was strongly associated with positivism though he was more interested in sociology, a science that was just then getting under way, than he was in the natural sciences.

In this short quote, he expresses the basic hope of positivism: Notice, too, that he places religion at the bottom of his hierarchy, referring to it as a fiction. This skepticism of religion is common among positivists. Despite being such an important scientific figure, however, Popper was skeptical about positivism. As an early postpositivist, he argued that there were limits to scientific knowledge simply because there are limits to what we as human beings can possibly know and understand.

Thus, he thought that positivism placed too much faith in science without being attentive enough to its blind spots. The basic insight of positivism is as old as philosophy itself, and probably a lot older.

That is, human beings have always understood that one of the best ways to know about reality is to observe it systematically, and ordinarily people believe pretty easily that the world around them is an objective reality. The modern form of positivism, however, is defined by the modern form of science, which dates back to around the 17th century. European thinkers developed a system for testing and evaluating their ideas which was not completely new — it was strongly influenced by Indian and Islamic ideas developed in previous centuries — but which did include some striking new elements.

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Positivism often involves the use of existing theory to develop hypotheses to be tested during the research process. Science can be specified as a cornerstone in positivism research philosophy. Specifically, positivism relies on the following aspects of the science.

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The positivist approach is popular in the social sciences, as it allows researchers to assess results without personal value judgments. Research methods that involve the use of quantitative data are popular among researchers who align to a positivist approach.

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Positivism & Post-Positivism Let's start our very brief discussion of philosophy of science with a simple distinction between epistemology and methodology. The term epistemology comes from the Greek word epistêmê, their term for knowledge. positivist approach to research leads to the use of experimental and quantitative meth- ods. We will also be introducing you to the idea of research paradigms.

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Methodology can be understood as the logic behind the methods we chose, that is, the choice of analytical strategy and research design which underpins substantive research. A positivist approach provides us with a hierarchy of methods. Positivism and Interpretivism are the two basic approaches to research methods in Sociology. Positivist prefer scientific quantitative methods, while Interpretivists prefer humanistic qualitative methods. This post provides a very brief overview of the two. Positivism Positivists prefer quantitative methods such as Continue reading →.