Sociological Positivism Research Paper

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Positivism arose in the social sciences in an effort to legitimate sociology as a scientific discipline. In essence, positivism asserts that the social sciences, and sociology in particular, are natural sciences in which abstract laws of human organization can be formulated to explain the operative dynamics of the social universe. The plausibility of these laws are then to be assessed against systematically collected empirical data.

1. The Rise Of Positivism

Advocacy for a positivistic social science began with Auguste Comte’s (1830–42) Course of Positive Philosophy. Comte was, no doubt, influenced by Montesquieu’s ([1748] 1900) The Spirit of Laws, where the notion of formulating laws about the operation of human society was first suggested, and by both Turgot and Condorcet, from whom Comte received, via his mentor, Saint-Simon, the notion of the three stages in the evolution of idea systems. For Comte, the various sciences developed at different rates, with sociology (and by implication the other social sciences as well) emerging last. As each science develops it goes through three stages—theological, metaphysical, and eventually, positivistic. By the early 1800s, the idea that sociology and other social sciences could take their place at the table of science was widespread, but it was Comte who forged the various lines of argument into a forceful advocacy for a science of society. Comte’s preferred name for sociology was social physics, and this name demonstrates his desire to develop a sociology organized around basic laws of the social universe.

In Course of Positive Philosophy, Comte posits a view of sociology as a theory-driven enterprise. As a descendant of the French Enlightenment, and as one who admired greatly what Newton had done for astrophysics, Comte argued for a sociology in which abstract laws of human organization would explain the dynamics of the social universe. His exemplar was Newton’s law of gravity, and yet he never developed any such law—although he saw the ‘law of the three stages’ as something like Newton’s law of gravity. Still, from the opening pages of Positive Philosophy, a clear message is sent: ‘The first characteristic of Positive Philosophy is that it regards all phenomena as subject to invariable natural Laws’ (1830, pp. 5–6, emphasis in original). In this same passage, Comte argues against a search for ‘Causes, whether first or final’; rather the goal of positivism is the ‘discovery of laws, with a view to reducing them to the smallest possible number.’ In later portions of Positive Philosophy, Comte (1830–42) buttressed this emphasis on abstract laws by criticizing raw empiricism, for ‘the next great hindrance to the use of observation is the empiricism which is introduced by those who, in the name of impartiality, would interdict the use of any theory whatsoever.’ Comte concludes this passage with an even stronger statement: ‘No real observation of any kind of phenomena is possible, except in as far as it is first directed, and finally, interpreted, by some theory.’

Thus, in Comte’s view, all observation is mediated through a theory, and the goal of positivism is to make the theories explicit and formal, while employing systematic methods to gather data on the plausibility of a theory. He advocated four basic methods: observation, experimentation, comparison, and historical analysis in order to collect the broadest array of data possible to assess the validity of laws that are presumed to explain the operation of the social universe in all times and places.

By 1830, then, Comte had laid out in bold and incisive fashion the basic tenets of positivism. As Comte’s mental instability caused his star to fade, positivism was carried forward by Herbert Spencer in England and Emile Durkheim in France. The titles of almost all of Spencer’s important works indicate the positivistic slant of his work in both the natural and social sciences: First Principles, and The Principles of (sequentially) Psychology, Biology, and Sociology. But nowhere was Spencer’s advocacy more powerful than in his first published sociological work, The Study of Sociology (1873), where he not only reaffirms his commitment to seeing the universe as guided by forces whose dynamics can be captured by abstract principles, but also articulates in a systematic manner the sources of bias that can distort the formulation of these principles and their systematic assessment by data. Twenty-two years later, Emile Durkheim ([1895] 1938) made a similar plea in his The Rules of Sociological Method for a sociology based upon laws about ‘social facts.’ Both Spencer and Durkhein personified how positivistic sociology could be conducted, mixing sophisticated functional theory with presentations of data. Indeed, from Comte’s early analogies to organisms, positivism was associated initially with functional sociology, a theoretical point of view that was to flower in the middle of the twentieth century, and then to die on the vine in the latter part of the century. And as functionalism faded, so did positivism as a coherent point of advocacy. Yet, much of the fate of positivism in the twentieth century is associated with intellectual ferment in Europe around what was to become known as the Vienna Circle.

2. The Vienna Circle And The Transformation Of Positivism

During the first half of the twentieth century, a group of intellectuals located mostly in and around Vienna debated issues of thought and reasoning as well as connections between the empirical world and modes of representing this world (Johnson 1983). Two outside and somewhat marginal figures of the Vienna Circle—Ernst Mach (1893) and Karl Popper (1959, 1969)—are critical to the debate that raged within the Circle for the first half of the twentieth century. Mach had proposed a radical empiricism in which all conceptions of the universe as guided by natural laws were rejected in favor of mathematical descriptions of relations among empirically observable variables. This extreme position called for a radical empiricism, emphasizing that formal thought must always be tied to, and inducted from, observable empirical facts. At the other pole were those concerned with the structure and logic of formal thinking to either the exclusion or subordination of empirical observations to rules of logic. Karl Popper’s famous solution to this impasse was to emphasize that theories can never be proven by empirical facts, only disproven. The goal of science is, therefore, to assess the empirical plausibility of hypotheses deduced formally from abstract principles by repeated assaults from empirical observations. For many decades, this argument became the new standard way to assert the viability of positivism; and it led to the notion of ‘logical positivism’ in which emphasis is on the logic of deduction from abstract principles to testable hypotheses. Comte had never conceptualized how one makes abstract laws available for empirical assessment, and so this point of emphasis was perhaps required in a more complete formulation of positivistic science.

3. Vienna Circle Debates And US Sociology

The Vienna Circle had much more influence on US social science than on disciplines in Europe where scholars were, in general, more philosophically sophisticated than their US counterparts. But much more was involved; US social science adopted Popper’s argument because these Vienna-inspired arguments were compatible with the new social science emerging in the USA.

If we look at US sociology of the 1920s and 1930s, there was a vacuum of theory. Spencer’s star had faded, and other figures in sociology’s European pantheon—Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, and Pareto—remained largely untranslated and, hence, unknown to many US sociologists. And yet, US sociology had been very much committed to Comte’s view of science, and many early texts refer to ‘principles’ of various subjects in a manner reminiscent of Spencer. At the same time, quantitative statistical methods were being adopted by US sociologists under the influence of Franklin Giddings (1901), and later his students and followers. Sociologists were thus very much interested in finding a legitimating mantra for statistical analysis of data that could make claims to being scientific (Turner and Turner 1990). One mantra was quantification, per se, but many early sociologists had a more Comtean–Spencerian view of science as a search for laws. Popper’s solution provided the reconciliation of the debate within not only the Vienna Circle but also within conflicting camps of US sociology as well: theories were to be tested against quantitatively arrayed data using new statistical techniques borrowed from the European agronomist, Karl Pearson. Through much of the midcentury, the theory part of this reconciliation took a back seat to quantification. And, not surprisingly, it is from this period that the misperception of positivism as ‘raw empiricism’ becomes prominent, despite the fact that this label is wholly inappropriate to positivist epistemology.

The radical empiricism of the Vienna Circle found a comfortable home in American quantitative research in the last quarter of the century, and for a brief time, the logical part of positivism was trumpeted through the effort to ‘build’ and ‘construct’ theories. A host of books on ‘theory building’ and ‘theory construction’ emerged in the late 1960s, beginning with Hans Zetterberg’s (1965) On Theory and Verification in Sociology, and continuing through the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., Blalock 1969, Dubin 1969, Gibbs 1972, Hage 1972, Reynolds 1971). These books attracted great interest in an effort to overcome the radical empiricism of quantitative research, since they tried to reconnect methods and theory along the lines suggested by Popper. The problem was that these books had a cookbook and mechanical character, in essence trying to do for theorizing what standardized quantitative protocols had done for quantitative methods. As a result, they soon fell into disuse—at about the same time that functionalism, which had been allied with positivism since its origins, was also going out of style. The result was that as functionalism faded and as the rather mechanical and restrictive character of theory construction books was exposed, positivism as Comte had conceived of it also declined. Indeed, the very term ‘positivism’ is now seen as anachronistic or as an epithet for raw empiricism.

4. The Critics Of Positivism

Beyond inviting the label of ‘raw empiricist,’ proclaiming oneself a positivist in the contemporary era is to invite an additional series of attacks on scientific sociology in general and, more specifically, on the prospects for formulating universal laws on the dynamics of the social universe. Some of the most common lines of criticism are enumerated below (Turner 1992).

4.1 The Phenomenological Critique

The world ‘out there’ can only be known through human consciousness, and so the nature of reality is ultimately filtered through the human mind. Hence, laws of human organization cannot be formulated without a prior understanding of the dynamics of the human mind.

4.2 Hermeneutics

The fundamental nature of the social world can be changed by human agency. Hence, since the nature of social organization is subject to change in its most fundamental character, universal laws about generic processes are, at best, time bound and, at worst, the illusions of social theorists. Moreover, even if a law of social organization is articulated, it soon becomes a tool for changing the fundamental processes described by the law, thereby obviating the validity of the law.

4.3 Critical Discourse

Any set of laws describing the social universe operates as a legitimating umbrella for current social arrangements, many of which are oppressive. Thus, science legitimates the status quo and closes off discourse on less oppressive alternatives.

4.4 Historical Particularism

Social reality is historically specific, reflecting particular confluences of events at a particular moment in time. Hence, any effort to generalize beyond a given historical epoch is doomed to failure, since history constantly remakes the very nature of social reality. The most recent version of this kind of argument can be found in postmodernism, where it is postulated that a fundamentally new reality has emerged, obviating the laws of modernist social organization.

4.5 Scientific Politics

Since science is an organized activity, the knowledge produced by scientists reflects organizational, professional, and political processes as much as reality ‘out there.’ Thomas Kuhn’s (1970) famous work reinvigorated what had previously been known as ‘the sociology of knowledge’—an approach revolving around analyses of the social context of knowledge production. Scientific knowledge is, therefore, distorted by the very social processes that organize scientists.

5. The Defense Of Positivism

The five lines of criticism listed above make interesting points, and then take them to the extreme. But they represent an ad hoc coalition of positions that oppose positivism, seeing positivism as a ‘failed epistemology’ in the social sciences. Others (e.g., Turner 1985) have sought to defend positivism, addressing the specifics of these points of critique, while trying to re-establish the search of universal and abstract laws about generic social process.

The phenomenological and scientific politics critiques are undone by the fact that the same problems exist for the physical and biological sciences; and yet scientists in these areas still manage to generate verifiable knowledge. The hermeneutical critique poses a unique challenge to scientific positivism in the social sciences, but it is merely assumed by those making this critique that the universe is constantly changing its fundamental character. To make their point stick, critics have to demonstrate that the fundamental forces governing the social world have changed; to assert this to be the case without demonstration with data makes the critique less convincing. The historical particularism critique encounters similar problems, for while it is true that specific events and processes are the product of a particular configuration of events, the underlying dynamics of specific historical conditions may still be generic processes of the social universe. Every specific event is the product of a causally unique historical chain of causes—such is the case in both social and physical universes—but this fact does not mean that the forces that move this chain of causes along are unique historically. Indeed, positivists would argue that these forces are universal, operating in all times and places.

The critical discourse critique is perhaps the most important because, to the extent that generalizations from current empirical reality are viewed as ‘laws’ of how things are, these statements summarizing current empirical reality will assert implicitly that the status quo is the way things must be. But the critical theorists run into the opposite problem of postulating ideal states that must be pursued, even if they violate basic laws of human organization and, as a consequence, positively harm people. If ideology were informed by scientific laws, then it is the theory more than the ideology that is useful in reconstructing the social universe in humane ways.

6. The Prospects Of Positivism

Positivism will perhaps never be accepted uncritically in sociology, and perhaps not in anthropology and even some branches of psychology and political science. In other social sciences, especially economics, the basic arguments of positivists are not even subject to debate. Positivism was a unique advocacy created by Comte to legitimate the scientific study of human organization by a discipline reluctantly labeled ‘sociology,’ but his advocacy was never accepted by all in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, and it is unlikely to be accepted in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the term positivism might be best phased out, since it appears to raise such a bright red flag to an ad hoc coalition of positions critical of the scientific pretensions of some social sciences. In a sense, theoretical and empirical work dedicated to discovering and assessing general laws has been relegated to the status of yet another specialty in some social sciences, although one still can find positivistic elements within virtually all specialties of social science. Thus, there is some hope that science will persist in those disciplines, particularly sociology and anthropology, where doubts about science are greatest, but positivism in any guise will never be the only epistemology within sociology and anthropology.


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