The Central Tenets of Positivism and Effects on Social Research and Methodology – Sociology Research Paper

The Central Tenets of Positivism and Effects on Social Research and Methodology – Sociology Research Paper
Becoming a sociologist involves learning techniques and modes of analysis through which the merits of various competing versions of reality can be assessed. Most people have knowledge of the society of which they are a member, but their personal experience is insignificant when compared with the total experience of all members of that society.

To gain more general knowledge of society, sociologists have developed or adopted a variety of methods of information collection and analysis. Sociological research is often differentiated on the basis that it is either quantitative or qualitative (Giddens). Quantitative research involves the construction of numerical information on large groups of people through means such as the census. Qualitative research involves the collection of more detailed and descriptive information on smaller groups of people. The method chosen for a research project may depend on the subject matter of the research, the aims of the sociologist within that research project, and on that sociologists underlying philosophy of knowledge or epistemology. Quantitative and Qualitative research methods are often associated with positivist and interpretive philosophies. Particular methodologies may also be associated with particular social theories. Research methods is therefore not a technical exercise involving the application of statistics or techniques of interviewing and observation, it also involves the understanding of different theories of knowledge and philosophical standpoints.

These philosophical standpoints first came to the fore front in the early nineteenth century when sociology first developed. At this point in history, industrialisation was resulting in massive social changes, along with these social changes came intellectual changes, during which science was becoming a lot more influential with philosophers and professionals. Science appeared to be capable of producing objective knowledge that could be used to solve human problems. Therefore, many early sociologists chose to turn to science for methodology on which to base their subject.

Emile Durkheim argued that sociologists should apply the methodologies of the natural sciences such as physics to the study of human beings, seeing the scientific method as the only valid and reliable source of knowledge. This implies that scientific sociological research produces collection of facts, and that sociologists should aim at establishing general laws describing human behaviour from which predictions can be made. This perspective is known as positivism and often underpins quantitative research methods. Positivist sociology originated with the work of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), he believed that the social world closely resembled the natural physical world. Comte believed that there was a hierarchy of scientific subjects with sociology at the pinnacle of that hierarchy. He believed that both the social and natural world were made up of objective facts which were independent of individuals and waiting to be discovered.

He believed that behaviour in both the natural and social world was governed by external laws, he argued that sociology could be called a ‘science of society’, engaged in discovering the social laws governing human behaviour. “Comte was confident that scientific knowledge about society could be accumulated and used to improve human existence, so that society could be run rationally without religion or superstition getting in the way of progress”. (Haralambos)

Bryman (1988) describes positivism as having five main features:
Methodological naturalism or the belief that social research should employ the methods of the natural sciences.
Empiricism, or the belief that knowledge can be gained only from observable phenomena.
Inductivism or the belief that theory reflects an accumulation of verified facts expressed as laws.
Deductivism or the process of generating hypotheses from theory and subjecting them to empirical testing in order to confirm or undermine that theory.
Objectivity, or the belief that valid knowledge is obtained when scientists do not allow their personal values to intrude on their research.

The central tenets of positivism as they appeared in twentieth century philosophy of science firstly include the belief that the scientific study of society should be confined to collecting information about phenomena which can be objectively observed and classified, this relates to Bryman and his feature of objectivity. Comte argued that sociologists should not be concerned with the internal meanings, motives and emotions of individuals, because, these mental states only exist in the person’s consciousness. Therefore they cannot be observed and measured in any objective way. Durkheim also agreed that sociologists should confine themselves to studying social facts, he claims, “Consider social facts as things”. In other words, the facts of the social world for example, institutions, belief systems and customs – they should all be considered as things in the same way as the objects and events of the natural world.

Another aspect of positivism concerns the use of statistical data, as many positivists believed it was possible to classify the social world in an objective way, therefore it was then possible to count sets of observable social facts and so produce statistics. An example of this would be Durkheim’s study of suicide; he collected data on social facts such as the suicide rate and the membership of different religions in order to determine if there was a correlation between the two. After this he was able to produce statistics, determining the correlation that more people from the Protestant religion committed suicide. This method of looking for and establishing correlations between social facts is another aspect of early positivism. An example of this, again using Durkheim’s study of suicide, would be the correlation that married people were more prone to suicide than those who were single. However, he also found that married women who had no children ended up with a high suicide rate.

The search for causal connections is a central tenet of positivism; this is when there is a strong correlation between two or more types of social phenomena. A positivist might then believe that one of these phenomena was causing the other to take place. However, it has been found that this is not always the case. Robert Merton (1968) believes there is a correlation between a person being working class therefore there being a high chance of that person being convicted of a crime. This is not always the case as there are other possibilities including the criminal could be of middle class origin but their conviction of crime causes them to be downward socially mobile causing lack of employment and therefore becoming working class.

In order to overcome the problem of spurious correlation, Durkheim devised a technique known as multivariate analysis. This involves trying to isolate the effect of a particular independent variable upon the dependant variables. The dependant variable is the ‘thing’ that is caused, for example, crime. The independent variable is the factors that cause the dependant variable, for example, gender. Quantitative researchers can therefore analyse the relative importance of many different variables. Durkheim for example, checked whether or not Protestantism was associated with a high suicide rate regardless of nationality by examining suicide rates in a range of countries. Positivists believe that multivariate analysis can establish causal connections between two or more variables. If these findings are checked in a variety of contexts for example, in different societies at different times, then the researchers can be confident that they have gained the ultimate goal of positivism: a law of human behaviour. Auguste Comte believed he had discovered a law that all human societies passed through three stages, the theological, the metaphysical and the positive. In the first humans believed that events were caused by the actions of gods, in the second, events were held to be caused by abstract forces, but in the third scientific rationality triumphed so that scientific laws formed the basis of explanation.

These various tenets of positivism have had many various implications for social research and the researchers. It has been argued that the positivist approach has highlighted the concept of value freedom. This is the view that sociology can and should conduct research according to the dictates of science; excluding any influence of the researchers own values. This in turn will make the research more reliable. However, in the social sciences we all tend to have beliefs and commitments in relation to whatever we are studying and researching. It can be said to be impossible to exclude all biases introduced into a researchers work, this in turn influencing the research process. Another implication of positivism is that the sociological positivist insists that the methods and techniques applied in research should be objective. This is when the knowledge researchers’ gain is claimed to meet criteria of validity and reliability, therefore making the research free of bias. Even if the bias does occur, sociological studies are often closely scrutinised and criticised and then repeated by different members of the scientific community, therefore bias is often eliminated in the long run. Due to positivists arguing that official statistics are objective, easily quantified and reliable, many researchers will now employ statistics in their research as they are easy to use and easy to read. Positivists also argue that there is little opportunity for error or subjectivity to affect the truth of hard data such as the birth and death statistics. One of Bryman’s features of positivism – deductivism – is also essential for research as the generating of hypotheses and the empirical testing of hypotheses will help the researcher in the long run with the problem of bias again as I stated above making the research more reliable. A method popular with positivists who are collecting data for their research is the social survey as it gathers quantifiable data, it is regarded as objective and reliable – both of which are essential for researchers.

Although positivism has had many implications for social research, it has also been strongly criticised. An example of this would be that although sociological researchers profit from being able to pose questions directly to those they are studying – human beings. On the other hand, people who know their activities are being scrutinised, frequently will not behave in the same way as they do normally. Foe example, when individuals answer questionnaires, they may consciously or unconsciously give a view of themselves which differs from their usual attitudes. Individuals may even try to assist the researcher by giving the responses they believe he or she wants. The main view of positivism is that laws of human behaviour can be discovered by the collection of objective facts about the social world in statistical form by careful analysis of these facts and by repeated checking of the findings in a series of contexts. From this point of view, humans have little or no choice about how they behave, what takes place in their consciousness is held to be irrelevant since external forces govern human behaviour; people react to stimuli in the environment in a predictable and consistent way. Therefore positivists are implying that humans react directly to a stimulus without attaching a meaning to it first. “It is this implication of the positivist approach that has attracted the strongest criticism”. (Haralambos).

To conclude this assignment I believe that the positivist approach within sociology is as useful today within research as it was back at the end of the nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century. Its many tenets are still widely used throughout the research world including statistical data, correlation and causation. Although there are also other philosophical standpoints within sociology, I believe that the positivist belief that social facts make individuals behave in a particular way is the most relevant to researchers today as it gives the researcher an opportunity to have his or her own beliefs and values regardless of what their customs and practices are.


Bryman, A (1988) Quantity and Quality in Social Research. Routledge, London.

Giddens, A (1993) Sociology Second Edition. Polity Press, London.

Haralambos, M & Holbourn, M (1995) Sociology. Harper Collins, London.

Merton, R (1968) Social Theory and Social Structure. The Free Press, New York.