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- This article describes the term 'positivism' as used in social sciences, especially within the science of sociology. For other meanings of this word, see positivism.
In sociology, anthropology, and other social sciences, the term positivism is closely connected to naturalism and can be traced back to the philosophical thinking of Auguste Comte in the 19th century. In Comte's view, positivism is an approach.
- Positivism is the view that serious scientific inquiry should not search for ultimate causes deriving from some outside source but must confine itself to the study of relations existing between facts which are directly accessible to observation.
Positivists are guided by five principles:
- unity of scientific method - logic of inquiry is the same across all sciences (social and natural)
- the goal of inquiry is to explain and predict. Most positivists would also say that the ultimate goal is to develop the law of general understanding, by discovering necessary and sufficient conditions for any phenomenon (creating a perfect model of it). If the law is known, we can manipulate the conditions to produce the predicted result.
- scientific knowledge is testable. Research should be mostly inductive, i.e. inductive logic is used to develop statements that can be tested (theory leads to hypothesis which in turn leads to discovery and/or study of evidence). Research should be observable with human senses (arguments are not enough, belief is out of question). Positivists should prove their research using logic of confirmation.
- science does not equal common sense. Researchers must be careful not to let common sense bias their research.
- relation of theory to practice - science should be as value-free as possible, and the ultimate goal of science is to produce knowledge, regardless of politics, morals, values, etc. involved in the research. Science should be judged by logic:
Positivistic assumptions about the real world
- Nature is orderly, there is an underlying causality and pattern.
- We can know nature (discover and understand all causes, patterns, etc.).
- Knowledge is always preferable to ignorance.
- Natural phenomena have natural causes.
- Knowledge comes through sensory experience.
Positivists have themselves raised questions and doubts about positivism, questioning whether anyone can follow the ideal described above. The most often raised points are:
- forms of controlled inquiry - there is a narrower range of possibilities for social science study compared to natural science study. Issues of ethics, control and of experimenters involuntarily influencing their subjects limit how we can experiment on humans. It is also difficult to test some predictions other than in time.
- knowledge is a social variable - knowing one is a subject of a study changes one's behaviour and results can modify the future (self-fulfilling prophecy).
- generalisations are limited by the complexity of culture and history; i.e. it is impossible to create statements that are true for all times and places.
- subjectivity and value orientation. Research is often subjective. Researchers always have their own motives, goals, ethics and values, some deeply unconscious, and it is thus impossible to be a completely objective observer.
Today, although many sociologists would agree that a scientific method is an important part of sociology, orthodox positivism is rare. Social scientists realize that one cannot identify laws that would hold true in all cases when human behaviour is concerned, and that while the behaviour of groups may at times be predicted in terms of probability, it is much harder to explain the behaviour of each individual. In some quarters of contemporary sociology, positivism has been replaced by a contrary view, antipositivism. Many sociologists today operate somewhere between positivism and antipositivism, arguing that human behavior is more complex than animal behavior or the movements of planets. Others reject positivism as a fundamental misunderstanding of social reality, that it is ahistorical, depoliticized, and an inappropriate application of theoretical concepts. A similar distinction is often made in the critique of analytic philosophy made by continental philosophers. Humans have free will, imagination and irrationality, so that our behavior is at best difficult to explain by rigid "laws of society".
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