Many of the founding fathers of sociology believed that it would be possible to create a science of society based on the same principles and procedures as the natural sciences such as chemistry and biology. This approach is known as positivism. Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who is credited with inventing the term sociology and regarded as one of the founders of the discipline, maintained that the application of the methods and assumptions of the natural sciences would produce a ‘positive science of society’. He believed that this would reveal that the evolution of society followed ‘invariable laws’. It would show that the behaviour of man was governed by principles of cause and effect which were just as invariable as the behaviour of matter, the subject of the natural sciences.

The positivist approach makes the following assumptions:

  1. The behaviour of man, like the behaviour of matter, can be objectively measured. Just as the behaviour of matter can be quantified by measures such as weight, temperature and pressure, methods of “objective measurement” can be devised for human behaviour. Such measurement is essential to explain behaviour. For example, in order to explain the reaction of a particular chemical to heat, it is necessary to provide exact measurements of temperature, weight and so on.
  2. With the aid of such measurements it will be possible to accurately observe the behaviour of matter and produce a statement of cause and effect. This statement might read A+B=C where A is a quantity of matter, B a degree of heat and C a volume of gas. Once it has been shown that the matter in question always reacts in the same way under fixed conditions, a theory can be devised to explain its behaviour.
  3. From a positivist viewpoint such methods and assumptions are applicable to human behaviour. Observations of behaviour based on objective measurement will make it possible to produce statements of cause and effect. Theories may then be devised to explain observed behaviour.

The positivist approach in sociology places particular emphasis on behaviour that can be directly observed. It argues that factors which are not directly observable, such as meanings, feelings and purposes, are not particularly important and can be misleading. For example, if the majority of adult members of society enter into marriage and produce children, these facts can be observed and quantified. They therefore form reliable data. However, the range of meanings that members of society give to these activities, their purposes for marriage and procreation are not directly observable. Even if they could be accurately measured, they may well divert attention from the real cause of behaviour. One individual may believe he entered marriage because he was lonely, another because he was in love, a third because it was the ‘thing to do’ and a fourth because he wished to produce offspring. Reliance on this type of data for explanation assumes that individuals know the reasons for marriage. This can
obscure the real cause of their behaviour.

The positivists’ emphasis on observable ‘facts’ is due largely to the belief that human behaviour can be explained in much the same way as the behaviour of matter. Natural scientists do not inquire into the meanings and purposes of matter for the obvious reason of their absence. Atoms and molecules do not act in terms of meanings; they simply react to external stimuli. Thus if heat, an external stimulus, is applied to matter, that matter will react. The job of the natural scientist is to observe, measure, and then explain that reaction. The positivist approach to human social behaviour applies a similar logic. Men react to external stimuli and their behaviour can be explained in terms of this reaction. For example Man and Women enter into marriage and produce children in response to the demands of society. Society requires such behaviour for its survival and its members simply respond to this requirement. The meanings and purposes they attach to this behaviour are largely inconsequential.

Systems theory in sociology adopts a positivist approach. Once behaviour is seen as a response to some external stimulus, such as economic forces or the requirements of the social system, the methods and assumptions of the natural sciences appear appropriate to the study of man.

Marxism has often been regarded as a positivist approach since it can be argued that it sees human behaviour as a reaction to the stimulus of the economic infrastructure.

Functionalism has been viewed in a similar light. The behaviour of members of society an be
seen as a response to the functional prerequisites of the social system.

The study of society and social phenomena till the middle of the nineteenth century was made mostly on the basis of speculation, logic, theological thinking and rational analysis. August Comte, a French philosopher, described these methods inadequate and insufficient in the study of social life. In 1848, he proposed positive method in the field of social research. He maintained that social phenomena should be studied not through logic or theological principles or metaphysical theories but rather in society itself and in the structure of social relations. For example, he explained poverty in terms of the social forces that dominate society. He described this method of study as scientific. Comte considered scientific method, called positivism, as the most appropriate tool of social research. This new methodology rejected speculation and philosophical approach and focused on gathering of empirical data and became positivistic methodology, using similar methods as employed by natural sciences. By the 1930s, positivism came to flourish in the USA and gradually other countries also followed the trend.

Critique to Positivism:

  • Comte’s positivism was criticized both from within and outside the positivist domain. Within positivism, a branch called logical positivism was developed in early twentieth century which claimed that science is both logical and also based on observable facts and that the truth of any statement lies in its verification through sensory experience.
  • Out side positivism developed schools of thought like symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, etc. These schools questioned the positivist methodology and its perception of social reality.
  • But Positivism came to be accepted more in the 1950s and 1960s onwards by the academics. Today some writers refer to the emergence of a new stage of research, the post-empiricist research marked by the notion that the scientific method is not the only source of knowledge, truth and validity. Thus, today, sociological methodology is no longer based on positivist methodology as in the past but it has become a body of diverse methods and techniques, all of which are perceived as valid and legitimate in social research.

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