This post provides a brief overview of Positivist Research Methods, which consist of a scientific approach to social research using quantitative data to ensure objectivity and reliability. (In contrast to the Interpretivist approach to research which favours qualitative data.)
The historical context of Positivism is that it emerged out of The Enlightenment and The Industrial Revolution….
The Enlightenment refers to a period of European history spanning from 1650 to 1800. During this time, the authority of the church was challenged as people started to believe that knowledge should be derived from science rather than from God. The Enlightenment witnessed the birth of modern science which lead to massive social changes. The following three core beliefs (there were others too!) emerged out of The Enlightenment:
- Underlying laws explained how the universe and society work (wasn’t just God’s will)
Scientific study could reveal these laws.
- All men could understand these laws (unlike religious belief – God’s will is unknowable)
- Laws could be applied to society to improve it (the belief in progress and the pursuit of happiness).
The Enlightenment, Industrialisation, ‘Progress’ and the Birth of Sociology
The 18th and 19th centuries saw a number of new scientific discoveries in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology. Most notably for students of Sociology, scientific discoveries lead to new technologies which in turn lead to industrialisation, or the growth of factory based production and the building of such things as railways.
This in turn lead to much social transformation – such as Urbanisation and the growth of what Marxists called the Proletariat. Many commentators from the early 19th century onwards were disturbed by the contradiction between the huge advances, or progress being made in science and industry and the apparent worsening of the lives of the majority. As hundreds of thousands of people flooded into expanding industrial city centres such as Manchester and elsewhere in Britain and Europe, these new urban centres were plagued with new social problems – most notably poverty, unemployment, and social unrest.
It was in this context that August Comte founded Sociology – Comte basically believed that if we can use scientific findings to bring about improvements in production through industrialisation then we can study the social world and figure out how to construct a better society that can combat social problems such as poverty, lack of education and crime.
Auguste Comte (1798-1857): The Founder of Scientific Sociology (aka Positivism)
Comte introduced the word “Sociology” in 1839. The term “Sociology” is derived from the Latin word Socius, meaning companion or associate, and the Greek word logos, meaning study or science. Thus, meaning of sociology is the science of society.
Comte concentrated his efforts to determine the nature of human society and the laws and principles underlying its growth and development. He also laboured to establish the methods to be employed in studying social phenomena.
Comte argued that social phenomena can be like physical phenomena copying the methods of natural sciences. He thought that it was time for inquiries into social problems and social phenomena to enter into this last stage. So, he recommended that the study of society be called the science of society, i. e. ‘sociology’.
The General Ideas of Positivism – or The Scientific Method Applied to the Study of Sociology
1. Positivists believe that 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.
2. By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies and social behaviour just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.
3. Positivists believe that good, scientific research should reveal objective truths about the causes of social action – science tells us that water boils at 100 degrees and this is true irrespective of what the researcher thinks – good social research should tell us similar things about social action
4. Because positivists want to uncover the general laws that shape human behaviour, they are interested in looking at society as a whole. They are interested in explaining patterns of human behaviour or general social trends. In other words, they are interested in getting to the ‘bigger picture’.
5. To do this, positivists use quantitative methods such as official statistics, structured questionnaires and social surveys. Statistical, numerical data is crucial to Positivist research. Positivists need to collect statistical information in order to make comparisons. And in order to uncover general social trends. It is much more difficult to make comparisons and uncover social trends with qualitative data.
6. These methods also allow the researcher to remain relatively detached from the research process – this way, the values of the researcher should not interfere with the results of the research and knowledge should be objective
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) – Positivism and Quantitative Sociology
The modern academic discipline of sociology began with the work of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). While Durkheim rejected much of the details of Comte’s philosophy “positivism”, he retained and refined its method. Durkheim believed that sociology should be able to predict accurately the effect of particular changes in social organisation such as an increase in unemployment or a change in the education system.
Durkheim believed the primary means of researching society should be the Comparative Method which involves comparing groups and looking for correlations or relationships between 2 or more variables. This method essentially seeks to establish the cause and effect relationships in society by comparing variables.
Durkheim’s Study of Suicide (1897)
Durkheim chose to study suicide because he thought that if he could prove that suicide, a very personal act, could be explained through social factors, then surely any action could be examined in such a way. Durkheim’s method consisted of comparing the incidence of various social factors with number of cases of suicide. Durkheim did this work so well, that seventy years later his study was still being cited in textbooks as an excellent example of research methodology
The starting-point for Durkheim was a close analysis of the available official statistics, which showed that rates of suicide varied:
• From one country to another – countries experiencing rapid social change had higher suicide rates.
• Between different social groups – The divorced had higher suicide rates than the married.
• Between different religious groups – Protestants had higher suicide rates than Catholics
Durkheim noted that these rates were relatively stable over time for each group. The rates may have gone up or down, but the rates remained stable relative to each other. Durkheim theorised that if suicide was an entirely individual matter, untouched by the influence of social factors, it would be an astonishing coincidence if these statistical patterns remained so constant over a long period of time. Entirely individual decisions should lead to a random pattern.
Durkheim used his data to derive his now famous theory – that suicide rates increase when there is too little or too much social regulation or integration. Social Regulation is the extent to which there are clear norms and values in a society, while social integration is the extent to which people belong to society.
Even though this study is now almost 120 years old it remains the case that suicide rates still vary according to the levels of social integration and regulation.
Positivism and Social Facts
Durkheim argued that social trends are ‘social facts’ – they are real phenomena which exist independently of the individuals who make them up. He claimed that by if sociology limited itself to the study of social facts it could be more objective. He argued that these facts constrain individuals and help us to make predictions about the way societies change and evolve.
Some Criticisms of the Positivist Approach to Social Research
- Treats individuals as if they passive and unthinking – Human beings are less predictable than Positivists suggest
- Interpretivists argue that people’s subjective realities are complex and this demands in-depth qualitative methods.
- The statistics Positivists use to find their ‘laws of society’ might themselves be invalid, because of bias in the way they are collected.
- By remaining detached we actually get a very shallow understanding of human behaviour.
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Signposting and Related Posts
This post was primarily written for students studying the second year compulsory Theory and Methods module.
Positivism is often contrasted to Interpretivism – and a summary of the differences can be found here: Positivism and Interpretivism – A Very Brief Overview.
Functionalists are generally regarded as positivists, especially Emile Durkheim who was a student of Comte.
Positivists generally prefer quantitative data and so another related post is Official Statistics in Sociology