Positivists prefer to the limit themselves the study of objective ‘social facts’ and use statistical data and the comparative method to find correlations, and multivariate analysis to uncover statistically significant ‘causal’ relationships between variables and thus derive the laws of human behaviour.
This post explores the Positivist approach to social research, defining and explaining all of the above key terms and using some examples from sociology to illustrate them.
The first rule of Positivist methodology is to consider social facts as things which means that the belief systems and customs of the social world should be considered as things in the same way as the objects and events of the natural world.
According to Durkheim, some of the key features of social facts are:
- they exist over and above individual consciousness
- they are not chosen by individuals and cannot be changed by will
- each person is limited (constrained) by social facts
According to Durkheim what effects do social facts make people act in certain ways, in the same way as door limits the means whereby you can enter a room or gravity limits how far you can jump.
Positivists believed that we should only study what can be observed and measured(objective facts), not subjective thoughts and feelings. The role of human consciousness is irrelevant to explaining human behaviour according to Positivists because humans have little or no choice over how they behave.
For a more in-depth account of social facts, have a look at this blog post: What are Social Facts?
Statistical data, Correlation, and Causation
Positivists believed it was possible to classify the social world in an objective way. Using these classifications it was then possible to count sets of observable facts and so produce statistics.
The point of identifying social facts was to look for correlations – a correlation is a tendency for two or more things to be found together, and it may refer to the strength of the relationship between them.
If there is a strong correlation between two ore more types of social phenomena then a positivist sociologist might suspect that one of these phenomena is causing the other to take place. However, this is not necessarily the case and it is important to analyse the data before any conclusion is reach.
Spurious correlations pose a problem for Positivist research. A spurious correlation is when two or more phenomena are found together but have no direct connection to each other: one does not therefor cause the other. For example although more working class people commit crime, this may be because more men are found in the working classes – so the significant relationship might be between gender and crime, not between class and crime.
Positivists engage in multivariate analysis to overcome the problem of spurious correlations.
Multivariate Analysis involves isolating the effect of a particular independent variable upon a particular dependent variable. This can be done by holding one independent variable constant and changing the other. In the example above this might mean comparing the crime rates of men and women in the working class.
Positivists believe multivariate analysis can establish causal connections between two or more variables and once analysis is checked establish the laws of human behaviour.
Positivism – Establishing the Laws of Human Behaviour
A scientific law is a statement about the relationship between two or more phenomena which is true in all circumstances.
According to Positivists, the laws of human behaviour can be discovered by the collection of objective facts about the world in statistical form and uncovering correlations between them, checked for their significance by multivariate analysis.
Positivism and The Comparative Method
The comparative method involves the use of comparisons between different societies, or different points in time
The purpose of using the comparative method is to establish correlations, and ultimately causal connections, seek laws and test hypotheses.
The comparative method overcomes the following disadvantages of experiments:
- Moral problems are not as acute
- The research is less likely to affect the behaviour or those being studied because we are looking at natural settings
- The comparative method is superior to the experimental method because allows the sociologist to explore large scale social changes and changes over time
However, a fundamental problem with the comparative method is that the data you want may not be available, and you are limited to that data which already exists or which can be collected on a large scale via social surveys.
Positivism and Interpretivism in social research
Social Action Theory – criticises the positivist approach to social research, arguing that human consciousness is too complex to reduce to numbers.
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