Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research

Positivists believe society shapes the individual and use quantitative methods, Interpretivists believe individuals shape society and use qualitative methods.

Last Updated on February 3, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Positivism and Interpretivism are the two basic approaches to research methods in Sociology. Positivist prefer scientific quantitative methods, while Interpretivists prefer humanistic qualitative methods. This post provides a very brief overview of the two.



  • Positivists see society as shaping the individual and believe that ‘social facts’ shape individual action.
  • Sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world.
  • By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.
  • Positivists prefer quantitative methods such as social surveys, structured questionnaires and official statistics because these have good reliability and representativeness.
  • The positivist tradition stresses the importance of doing quantitative research such as large scale surveys in order to get an overview of society as a whole and to uncover social trends, such as the relationship between educational achievement and social class. This type of sociology is more interested in trends and patterns rather than individuals.
  • In positivist research, sociologists tend to look for relationships, or ‘correlations’ between two or more variables. This is known as the comparative method.
Positivists step back from society and try to get an overview of social trends in a detached way.


  • Interpretivists, or anti-positivists argue that individuals are not just puppets who react to external social forces as Positivists believe.
  • According to Interpretivists individuals are intricate and complex and different people experience and understand the same ‘objective reality’ in very different ways and have their own, often very different, reasons for acting in the world, thus scientific methods are not appropriate.
  • Intepretivist research methods derive from ‘social action theory
  • An Interpretivist approach to social research would be much more qualitative, using methods such as unstructured interviews or participant observation
  • Interpretivists argue that in order to understand human action we need to achieve ‘Verstehen‘, or empathetic understanding – we need to see the world through the eyes of the actors doing the acting.
  • Intereptivists actually criticise ‘scientific sociology’ (Positivism) because many of the statistics it relies on are themselves socially constructed.
Interpretivists are interested in micro sociology. They want to understand the intricate complexities of human interactions, feelings and motives.

Positivism and Interpretivism Summary Grid 

Positivism and Interpretivism

Positivism and Interpretivism FAQ

What is the difference between Positivism and Interpretivism?

Positivism is a top down macro approach in sociology which uses quantitative methods to find the general laws of society, Interpretivism is a micro approach which uses qualitative methods to gain an empathetic understanding of why people act from their own understanding/ interpretation.

What is Positivism?

Positivism is a scientific approach social research developed by August Comte in the mid-19th century and developed by Emile Durkheim. It involves using quantitative methods to study social facts to uncover the objective laws of society.

What is an example of Positivism?

Durkehims’ study of suicide is a good example of a Positivist research study. He used official statistics and other quantitative data to analyse why the suicide rate varied from country to country.

What is Interpretivism?

Interpretivism is an approach to social research first developed by Max Weber in early 19th century. He believed we needed to understand the motives for people’s actions to fully understand why they acted, aiming for what he called Verstehen, or empathetic understanding. Intepretivists use qualitative research methods as they are best for getting more in-depth information about the way people interpret their own actions.

What is an example of Interpretivist research?

Any study which aims to understand the world from the point of view of the participants, so most participant observation studies are examples, such as Paul Wills’ Learning to Labour and Venkatesh’ Gang Leader for a Day.

Can Positivist and Interpretivist Methods be used together?

Absolutely, yes. In fact many contemporary research studies combine elements of quantitative and qualitative research to achieve greater validity, reliability and representativeness.

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Signposting and Related Posts 

Links to more detailed posts on Positivism and Social Action Theory are embedded in the text above. Other posts you might like include:

Positivism in Social Research 

Max Weber’s Social Action Theory

The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, A Summary

Links to all of my research methods posts can be found at my main research methods page.

7 thoughts on “Positivism and Interpretivism in Social Research”

  1. Does triangulation solves the differences between positivism and interpretivism?

  2. It’s better to explain with example,but this explanation is very good.thnks…

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