Critically discuss the contribution of positivism to the study of society The positivist research method in the social sciences become more influential by August Comte, who tended to build a methodology based on facts rather than speculation. For Comte, the social sciences should concentrate on scientific laws rather than contemplation (Marcuse, 1941, p. 345). This theoretical perspective continues to be the present method of conducting research. This essay argues that positivism has accelerated the development of social science and sociology.
The first part of this essay will analyse the historical background of positivism and then examine its contributions to social science research,which include creating methods of social research which are based on naturalism, giving the social sciences a high degree of authority and respectability and finally affording a ready means of comparison and exchange of knowledge between other disciplines such as law, philosophy and literature(Benton & Craib, 2001, pp. 13-27). However, this essay also argues that positivism has several significant shortcomings.
First, its search for perfect standards of scientific methodology are too unrealistic when compares to the extreme complexity of social phenomenon; the second weakness, is positivism’s lack of consideration of the subjective, individual and hermeneutic aspects of social phenomenon (Popper, 1983, p. 12). The positivism originated in the 19th century,aiming at employing the methods of the natural sciences to social study (Smith, 1983, p. 12). In 1822, a French philosopher named Auguste Comte created the term sociologie and investigated social relations as natural science (Babbie, 1993).
Comte believed that in order to analyse human world objectively, such religious beliefs should be replaced by scientific objectivity and empirical methods of investigation. Comte’s opinion of positivism was based on scientific objectivity and observation through the five senses instead of subjective beliefs. The view of the social world as a science that can be learned through empirical investigation became the basis for the employment of the positivist methods (Babbie, 1993). There are four main features of positivistic approaches(Benton & Craib, 2001, p. 3). (1) The empirical natural science is recognised; (2) Science is considered to be the highest or even the only true form of knowledge; (3) For establishing social sciences, it is necessary to extend scientific method to the study of human mind and social activity; (4) Based on solid foundation of social scientific knowledge, Social problems will be identified and resolved gradually just as the implementation of natural science knowledge to solve engineering and technology difficulties.
In the view of positivist, knowledge and truth are related to an external referent reality (Smith, 1993). Thus, the point of view is right or wrong depends on whether a separate entity is consistent. For instance, if there are two or more statements correspond to the same external reference entity, and against each other, then the investigator must make a choice to accept one and reject the other, or both refused to select the other (Smith, 1983, p. 12).
As the empirical method is quite objective and does not affect the objects, it is further suggested to be applied to the process of validation. During the investigation, researchers should use objective and scientific language to express themselves rather than subjective descriptions, so as to arrive at the world’s common and accurate theories and laws (Smith, 1983, p. 12). In the traditional sense of positivism, it has always stressed the importance of appropriate application of empirical methods for producing knowledge. Babbie, 1993; Walker & Evers, 1999, pp. 40-56). It is believed that empirical methods stipulate how the rational structure of scientific research is conceived and tested. For example, investigators often start at discovering a new pattern or contradictions with established theories and its initial finding as an issue to be investigated. After further exploration, investigators made assumptions and inference. In principle, as long as the predictions and assumptions have been verified as valid, it would be considered to be the truth.
If the hypothesis is rejected, researchers often choose to change the previous assumptions, or propose a new one, and the steps remain the same. This process can be self-correcting, and researchers usually narrow the scope of search for the correct hypothesis by examining incorrect one (Borg & Gall, 1996). Generally, the knowledge that generated through a rigorous empirical validation is considered to be an objective and accurate description of entity, and is widely recognized as the truth. Obviously, there are a number of advantages in terms of positivism.
First and fore most strength of a positivistic approach is that it helps social sciences gaining the ability to compare the perfection of rigorous experiments, precise assumptions, definite laws and thus prediction of behaviour with natural sciences(Benton & Craib, 2001, pp. 13-27). The implement of positivist research methods make social scientists get a more accurate forecasting result, and therefore more close to a complete description of social phenomena meanwhile away from the prejudice, superstition, and other non-scientific concepts (Marsh & Smith, 2001).
In other words, positivism claims that only those things which meet its stringent standards of investigation can be considered as valid, in order to restore the essence of social phenomena. The second key advantage of taking a positivist approach to the social sciences is that it firmly rooted the social sciences in the achievements of the natural sciences in the past four hundred years.
The early positivists such as Saint-Simon Comte and Spencer know that their theories are directly from the great natural scientist’s experimental and theoretical achievements (Perry, 1993, pp. 121-170). Comte believed that the natural sciences and natural scientists are essentially positivist, it means that they called for the adoption of perception and measurement of objective sense-data from which to make experiments, analyse outcomes so that to establish the theory, predict social behaviour and summarize the laws.
Comte and the other early positivists thus understood their task is to elaborate on the theory which natural sciences have followed by for hundreds of years (Perry, 1993, p. 121-170). The academic authority in Western Europe has been dominated by these sciences for nearly four hundred years, and social scientists believe that compared with other research methods, positivist approach for the social sciences provides a greater objectivity, certainty of prediction and more in-depth study of their subjects(Benton & Craib, 2001, pp. 13-27).
Thirdly, the social sciences and natural sciences shared belief in the positivist philosophy, means that if the knowledge can be transferred between the social sciences and the natural sciences, then any improvements in respect of the experimental methods, theory and analysis that gain from the natural sciences can be quickly applied to the social sciences also. And vice-versa, this exchange prompted a more liberal communication of discoveries of social science in the field of natural science (Marsh & Furlong, 2002, pp. 17-45). In addition, by sharing a positivist philosophy ith the natural sciences, the social sciences may introduce their results to the wider scientific and academic community. “That is, the application of positivism by the social sciences, dispels and neutralizes the accusations from some quarters of the scientific and outside world, for instance those of Karl Popper, that such sciences are ‘pseudo-sciences’, however this claim can hold no weight if it is seen that the natural and social sciences share alike the same methodology and principles of operation” (Marsh & Furlong, 2002, p. 5). It is true that science requires rigorous empirical inquiry. But much of the rest of the positivist program turns out to be badly suited to social science research and explanation. Historically, it is believed that the greatest weakness of positivism has been its insistence upon methodological absoluteness (Popper, 1983, p. 12). According to this scientific philosophy positivism must establish absolute laws to describe the behaviour and properties of phenomenal objects. The naivety of this search for the excellence of methodology and absoluteness of social scientific laws was exposed in the second half of the twentieth century, firstly by the advent of post-modernism, which showed the epistemological difficulties —“impossibilities” of extending science to such extreme levels; Secondly, positivism’s applicability in all circumstances was increasingly undermined by the new theories of social scientists themselves” (Popper, 1983, pp. 109-128).
A variety of discoveries of sociology, anthropology, political science and other social sciences led investigators to an ever clearer conclusion: the social phenomena are far too complicated and involve the intimate interaction of too many separate objects, people and processes to be scientifically observed in their totality. Sociologists for example, in their investigations into the structure of the smallest of social units, the family, soon realised that there are no absolute and comprehensive laws could be employed to the behaviour of these units (Gerhard, 1969, pp. 01-212). According to pure positivism the laws of social science are of the same type and importance as the laws of natural science; but for these laws to achieve this equality, the laws of social science must be easily expressible and as rigorously verifiable as those of the natural sciences. “The difficulty of achieving such equality is easily demonstrated by Gerhard’s experiments, where he analyses the complexity of social issues involved in a four member family unit in America, and then suppose the near mpossibility of scientifically demonstrating that family units in Northern France, in Thailand, in Hawaii and in all other places can be shown to obey the same exact rules as those affecting the family in America” (Gerhard, 1969, pp. 1-13). Thus social scientists from the 1950’s onwards, began to question the possibility of establishing social laws that would be universally and ubiquitously binding. (Gerhard, 1969, pp. 201-212) Another disadvantage of extreme positivism has been its lack of accuracy to prove its assumptions through empirical experiments (Popper, 1983, p. 2). Generally, experimentation in the natural sciences often involves the research of objects such as metals, stars, and chemicals etc, which are relatively quite simple and maintain the same nature steadily. By contrast, social phenomenon such as people, communities, organizations and so on, are mixtures of massive intertwining feelings, emotions, thoughts, values, passions, motives, associations and so on (Popper, 1983, p. 12).
Therefore, in doing a social experiment, a social scientist has to be sure that he can separate the individual mental or behavioural element, for example ‘a criminal tendency’ that he wants to investigate, and then to exclude the influence of the other mental and social factors that will affect the accuracy of the experiment. “In many instances such exclusion is nearly impossible to the degree of purity demanded by extreme positivists; a human being cannot be put in a test-tube or a vacuum and so shielded from external influences in the way that magnesium or atoms can” (Dowding, 1995).
Therefore social scientists have noticed that a major shortcoming of the positivist approach is its insistence upon perfect conditions for experimentation and for the accuracy of assumptions and predictions (Dowding, 1995). In conclusion positivism has been a dominant mode of inquiry in social science for over a century (Wardlow, 1989, p. 30). Since Comte’s employment of positivism in the 19th century, there has been major progress in social research with the improvements of methodology and statistical analyses(Benton & Craib, 2001, pp. 3-27). However, the positivism as a scientific philosophy has always been criticized by its unavoidable shortcomings. Therefore, positivists must learn to accept subjectivism. If positivism can be combined with the subjective in the social sciences, and if positivists can learn to tolerate something less than excellence in their methodological approach, then positivism must still be said to have a large contribution to make to the future of social science.
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