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Sociological positivism

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 naturalismand can be traced back to the philosophical thinking of Auguste Comtein the 19th century. In Comte's view, positivism is an approach to understanding the world based on science. Positivists believe that there is little if any difference between social sciencesand natural sciences, as societiesoperate according to laws, as does nature. Structuralanthropologist Edmund Leachdescribed positivism during the 1966Henry Myers Lectureas follows:

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.


  • 1 Principles
  • 2 Positivistic assumptions about the real world
  • 3 Positivists' self-critique
  • 4 Contemporary thinking
  • 5 See also


Positivists are guided by five principles:

  1. unity of scientific method- logic of inquiry is the same across all sciences (social and natural)
  2. 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.
  3. scientific knowledgeis testable. Research should be mostly deductive, i.e. deductive logic is used to develop statements that can be tested (theoryleads to hypothesiswhich 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 confirmationor logic of falsification.
  4. science does not equal common sense. Researchers must be careful not to let common sense bias their research.
  5. 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:
  • universal conditionals-> for all condition x, if x has property p, then x has property q
  • all statements must be true for all times and places
  • research can be proved only by empiricalmeans, not argumentations

Positivistic assumptions about the real world

  1. Natureis orderly, there is an underlying causality and pattern.
  2. We can know nature (discover and understand all causes, patterns, etc.).
  3. Knowledge is always preferable to ignorance.
  4. Natural phenomena have natural causes.
  5. Nothing is self-evident.
  6. Knowledge comes through sensory experience.

Positivists' self-critique

Positivists have themselves raised questions and doubts about positivism, questioning whether anyone can follow an ideal typesuch as that 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 difficult 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 nearly impossible to be a completely objective observer.

Contemporary thinking

Today, although most sociologists would agree that scientific methodis an important part of sociology, extreme positivism is rare. Social scientists realize that it is extremely hard to create a law that would hold true in all cases when human behaviour is concerned, and that often while behaviour of groups may be sometimes explained and predicted with some probability, it is much harder to explain the behaviour of each individuals. In some quarters of contemporary sociology, positivism has been replaced by a contrary view, antipositivism. Most sociologists today operate somewhere between positivism and antipositivism, arguing that human behavioris more complex than animal behavioror the movements of planets. Humans have free will, imaginationand irrationality, so that our behavior is at best difficult to explain by rigid "laws of society".

See also

  • Logical positivism
  • Positivist calendar
  • postpositivismar:?????

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Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/Sociological_positivism"

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It uses material from the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociological+positivism Wikipedia article Sociological positivism.

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