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Theory of Science – What is Positivism?

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Theory of science and methodology are the pillars on which a social scientist stand when conducting research. Succinctly stated, ontology can be said to be the study of reality, or simply the science or philosophy of being, while epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge.

The former is concerned with the nature of being, while the latter deals with the nature and scope of knowledge. Your ontological position is decisive for the logic behind the methods scientists employ. There are two main scientific traditions, and you as a student of the social sciences choose one of these based on your ontological position. These are positivism and constructivism , and are decisive for the logic for which you base your choice of methods on this logic is called methodology.

Positivism in general refers to philosophical positions that emphasize empirical data and scientific methods. This tradition holds that the world consists of regularities, that these regularities are detectable, and, thus, that the researcher can infer knowledge about the real world by observing it. The researcher should be more concerned with general rules than with explaining the particular. This tradition can be traced back to Galileo Galilei — In his work Siderius Nuncius The Starry Messenger he made systematic observations of the Moon, the stars, and the moons of Jupiter.

Strong critiques of this approach by philosophers such as Karl Popper , Willard Van Orman Quine and Thomas Kuhn have been highly influential, and led to the development of postpositivism. In historiography the debate on positivism has been characterized by the quarrel between positivism and historicism. Arguments against positivist approaches in historiography include that history differs from sciences like physics and ethology in subject matter and method.

Experimental methods and mathematical models do not generally apply to history, and it is not possible to formulate general quasi-absolute laws in history. Positivism in the social sciences is usually characterized by quantitative approaches and the proposition of quasi-absolute laws.

A significant exception to this trend is represented by cultural anthropology , which tends naturally toward qualitative approaches. In psychology the positivist movement was influential in the development of operationalism. The philosophy of science book The Logic of Modern Physics in particular, which was originally intended for physicists, coined the term operational definition , which went on to dominate psychological method for the whole century.

In economics , practising researchers tend to emulate the methodological assumptions of classical positivism, but only in a de facto fashion: For example, much positivist legislation falls short in contrast to pre-literate or incompletely defined common or evolved law. In jurisprudence , " legal positivism " essentially refers to the rejection of natural law ; thus its common meaning with philosophical positivism is somewhat attenuated and in recent generations generally emphasizes the authority of human political structures as opposed to a "scientific" view of law.

In the early s, urbanists of the positivist-quantitative school like David Harvey started to question the positivist approach itself, saying that the arsenal of scientific theories and methods developed so far in their camp were "incapable of saying anything of depth and profundity" on the real problems of contemporary cities.

In contemporary social science, strong accounts of positivism have long since fallen out of favour. Practitioners of positivism today acknowledge in far greater detail observer bias and structural limitations. Modern positivists generally eschew metaphysical concerns in favour of methodological debates concerning clarity, replicability , reliability and validity.

The institutionalization of this kind of sociology is often credited to Paul Lazarsfeld , [23] who pioneered large-scale survey studies and developed statistical techniques for analyzing them. This approach lends itself to what Robert K. Merton called middle-range theory: Other new movements, such as critical realism , have emerged to reconcile the overarching aims of social science with various so-called 'postmodern' critiques.

Auguste Comte — first described the epistemological perspective of positivism in The Course in Positive Philosophy , a series of texts published between and The first three volumes of the Course dealt chiefly with the physical sciences already in existence mathematics , astronomy , physics , chemistry , biology , whereas the latter two emphasized the inevitable coming of social science.

Observing the circular dependence of theory and observation in science, and classifying the sciences in this way, Comte may be regarded as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense of the term. His View of Positivism therefore set out to define the empirical goals of sociological method. This Comte accomplished by taking as the criterion of the position of each the degree of what he called "positivity," which is simply the degree to which the phenomena can be exactly determined.

This, as may be readily seen, is also a measure of their relative complexity, since the exactness of a science is in inverse proportion to its complexity. The degree of exactness or positivity is, moreover, that to which it can be subjected to mathematical demonstration, and therefore mathematics, which is not itself a concrete science, is the general gauge by which the position of every science is to be determined. Generalizing thus, Comte found that there were five great groups of phenomena of equal classificatory value but of successively decreasing positivity.

To these he gave the names astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and sociology. Comte offered an account of social evolution , proposing that society undergoes three phases in its quest for the truth according to a general " law of three stages ". The idea bears some similarity to Marx 's belief that human society would progress toward a communist peak see dialectical materialism.

Comte intended to develop a secular-scientific ideology in the wake of European secularisation. Comte's stages were 1 the theological , 2 the metaphysical , and 3 the positive. God, Comte says, had reigned supreme over human existence pre- Enlightenment. Humanity's place in society was governed by its association with the divine presences and with the church. The theological phase deals with humankind's accepting the doctrines of the church or place of worship rather than relying on its rational powers to explore basic questions about existence.

It dealt with the restrictions put in place by the religious organization at the time and the total acceptance of any "fact" adduced for society to believe. This second phase states that the universal rights of humanity are most important. The central idea is that humanity is invested with certain rights that must be respected. In this phase, democracies and dictators rose and fell in attempts to maintain the innate rights of humanity.

The final stage of the trilogy of Comte's universal law is the scientific, or positive, stage. The central idea of this phase is that individual rights are more important than the rule of any one person. Comte stated that the idea of humanity's ability to govern itself makes this stage inherently different from the rest. There is no higher power governing the masses and the intrigue of any one person can achieve anything based on that individual's free will.

The third principle is most important in the positive stage. Neither the second nor the third phase can be reached without the completion and understanding of the preceding stage. All stages must be completed in progress. Comte believed that the appreciation of the past and the ability to build on it towards the future was key in transitioning from the theological and metaphysical phases.

The idea of progress was central to Comte's new science, sociology. Sociology would "lead to the historical consideration of every science" because "the history of one science, including pure political history, would make no sense unless it was attached to the study of the general progress of all of humanity". The irony of this series of phases is that though Comte attempted to prove that human development has to go through these three stages, it seems that the positivist stage is far from becoming a realization.

This is due to two truths: The positivist phase requires having a complete understanding of the universe and world around us and requires that society should never know if it is in this positivist phase. Anthony Giddens argues that since humanity constantly uses science to discover and research new things, humanity never progresses beyond the second metaphysical phase.

As an approach to the philosophy of history , positivism was appropriated by historians such as Hippolyte Taine. Many of Comte's writings were translated into English by the Whig writer, Harriet Martineau , regarded by some as the first female sociologist.

Debates continue to rage as to how much Comte appropriated from the work of his mentor, Saint-Simon. Brazilian thinkers turned to Comte's ideas about training a scientific elite in order to flourish in the industrialization process. Brazil 's national motto , Ordem e Progresso "Order and Progress" was taken from the positivism motto, "Love as principle, order as the basis, progress as the goal", which was also influential in Poland. In later life, Comte developed a ' religion of humanity ' for positivist societies in order to fulfil the cohesive function once held by traditional worship.

In , he proposed a calendar reform called the ' positivist calendar '. For close associate John Stuart Mill , it was possible to distinguish between a "good Comte" the author of the Course in Positive Philosophy and a "bad Comte" the author of the secular-religious system. Although Comte's English followers, including George Eliot and Harriet Martineau, for the most part rejected the full gloomy panoply of his system, they liked the idea of a religion of humanity and his injunction to "vivre pour autrui" "live for others", from which comes the word " altruism ".

The early sociology of Herbert Spencer came about broadly as a reaction to Comte; writing after various developments in evolutionary biology, Spencer attempted in vain to reformulate the discipline in what we might now describe as socially Darwinistic terms. Fabien Magnin was the first working class adherent to Comte's ideas. Comte appointed him as his successor as president of the Positive Society in the event of Comte's death.

Magnin filled this role from to , when he resigned. While Durkheim rejected much of the details of Comte's philosophy, he retained and refined its method, maintaining that the social sciences are a logical continuation of the natural ones into the realm of human activity, and insisting that they may retain the same objectivity, rationalism, and approach to causality.

What has been called our positivism is but a consequence of this rationalism. Durkheim's seminal monograph, Suicide , a case study of suicide rates amongst Catholic and Protestant populations, distinguished sociological analysis from psychology or philosophy.

By carefully examining suicide statistics in different police districts, he attempted to demonstrate that Catholic communities have a lower suicide rate than Protestants, something he attributed to social as opposed to individual or psychological causes.

He developed the notion of objective sui generis " social facts " to delineate a unique empirical object for the science of sociology to study. Durkheim described sociology as the "science of institutions , their genesis and their functioning".

Ashley Ornstein has alleged, in a consumer textbook published by Pearson Education , that accounts of Durkheim's positivism are possibly exaggerated and oversimplified; Comte was the only major sociological thinker to postulate that the social realm may be subject to scientific analysis in exactly the same way as natural science, whereas Durkheim saw a far greater need for a distinctly sociological scientific methodology.

His lifework was fundamental in the establishment of practical social research as we know it today—techniques which continue beyond sociology and form the methodological basis of other social sciences , such as political science , as well of market research and other fields.

At the turn of the 20th century, the first wave of German sociologists formally introduced methodological antipositivism, proposing that research should concentrate on human cultural norms , values , symbols , and social processes viewed from a subjective perspective. Max Weber argued that sociology may be loosely described as a 'science' as it is able to identify causal relationships—especially among ideal types , or hypothetical simplifications of complex social phenomena.

Weber regarded sociology as the study of social action , using critical analysis and verstehen techniques. Karl Marx's theory of historical materialism and critical analysis drew upon positivism, [46] a tradition which would continue in the development of critical theory.

Positivism may be espoused by " technocrats " who believe in the inevitability of social progress through science and technology. In the original Comtean usage, the term "positivism" roughly meant the use of scientific methods to uncover the laws according to which both physical and human events occur, while "sociology" was the overarching science that would synthesize all such knowledge for the betterment of society.

Neither of these terms is used any longer in this sense. The extent of antipositivist criticism has also become broad, with many philosophies broadly rejecting the scientifically based social epistemology and other ones only seeking to amend it to reflect 20th century developments in the philosophy of science. However, positivism understood as the use of scientific methods for studying society remains the dominant approach to both the research and the theory construction in contemporary sociology, especially in the United States.

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. For example, the European scientists decided that supernatural ideas could not be used to explain their observations, an idea that would become central in modern positivism.

Positivism reached its peak in the early 20th century, when philosophers in Britain and America were at the height of their efforts to integrate philosophy with the natural sciences. They were understandably impressed with the progress that science had made over the previous centuries, and believed that this progress was due to the inherent superiority of science over all other systems of thought.


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It has to be acknowledged that the positivism research philosophy is difficult to be explained in a precise and succinct manner. This is because there are vast differences between settings in which positivism is used by researchers.

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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 This tradition holds that the world consists of regularities, that these regularities are detectable, and, thus, that the researcher can . Positivism and Interpretivism Positivism Positivists prefer quantitative methods such as social surveys, structured questionnaires and official statistics because these have good reliability and representativeness.

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Positivism is a philosophical system deeply rooted in science and mathematics. It’s based on the view that whatever exists can be verified through experiments, observation, and mathematical/logical proof.