The Relevance of Positivism in Social Science

Sussex Paper

Deepak Tripathi   

January 2003     

The philosophy of positivism founded by Auguste Comte (1798-1857) has come under severe criticism in the last 40 years. Criticism in itself of something that is 150 years old is not surprising. A set of theories developed by Comte so long ago is being examined and tested by social scientists now when we have the benefit of the knowledge gained over more than a century. Society has moved on in this period; there are new perspectives and many more minds ready to challenge the old theories. So the post-positivist social scientists are justified in one respect at least.[1]  

The sustained, repeated assaults on positivism over many years are quite another matter. In this respect, its critics seem to have exhausted themselves in order to demolish positivism. This raises new questions. What is post-positivism? Is it an exercise to dismiss again and again something that is old and has encountered difficulties when tested in the modern world? Does post-positivism provide a coherent alternative to positivism? Is there anything relevant in the advocacy of a scientific approach in social enquiry that Comte first advocated all those years ago?

As Anthony Giddens says, positivism has become a term of abuse. It is not fashionable to suggest that contemporary philosophers have anything to do with it. However, I am going to raise this possibility as I pose the questions mentioned in the above paragraph. But first it is important to recognise that social inquiry cannot serve its purpose if it is not relevant in the conditions in which it takes place. We need to look at positivism in its historical perspective – the social conditions in which it evolved. I will therefore examine its development to logical positivism, which I describe as a more rigorous form of positivism. I will look at some of the criticisms of positivism in today’s context. At the same time, there will be a concurrent investigation into whether there are positivist undercurrents in what the post-positivists propose. I will not hesitate to speculate about the social factors that have influenced post-positivism. I do not claim to have read all, even most, of the relevant literature before I present my view. Rather, it is an attempt to understand positivism and to determine whether it is time to accept those elements which are relevant in social science inquiry, and then move on, leaving behind those which are not. 

Development of positivism: a historical perspective

One of the most significant contributions of Comte, in his early work, was the law of three stages of knowledge. These stages were theological, metaphysical and positive. It is not in dispute that the formulation of this law played a significant role in pushing science to the forefront and relegated theology and metaphysics in the study of society. In this sense, the idea remains as relevant today as it was then. What drove him to this position?

Comte lived in the wake of the French Revolution, which began in 1789. He grew up when there was political and social upheaval in the country. It was also a period of great tensions between France and its neighbours – Austria and Britain included. France had declared war on Britain and was supporting the American war of independence against British rule.[2] On the other hand, Britain had been through the Industrial Revolution by the mid-nineteenth century. The bulk of the working population in the country had changed from agriculture to industry. Big advances in the farming methods were being introduced. Steam power had all but replaced the use of muscle, wind, and water. The textile industry was the prime example of industrialisation. Roads, railways, and steamships were to radically change the face of society. All this brought profound changes in Britain, leaving France behind. The consequences of the internal chaos and wars with other European countries were corrosive for the French society. Emmett Kennedy discusses the impact of these events on the philosophy of Comte:

The absence of any integrated, organic culture after the disorder that followed the Enlightenment and the Revolution indicated to Auguste Comte the deep malaise that beset French society. The organic worldview of medieval Christianity had been disturbed. … He approached the problems of society with reason alone; in that he was a philosopher. But he wrote from … the side that had learned the cost of corrosive criticism.[3]

It is easier to understand the intervention of Comte in the above context. His philosophy of positivism was a product of widespread upheaval in his own country, conflict with its neighbours and profound social changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The introduction of machinery in the day-to-day running of society in Britain had propelled the use of science and technology to the forefront of human thinking. Theology and metaphysics had been demoted. It is hardly surprising that almost all of the definitions of positivism by Comte have something to do with science. For example:

Positivism is a theory of knowledge according to which the only kind of sound knowledge available to humankind is that of science grounded in observation. 

Positivism is a unity of science thesis according to which all sciences can be integrated into a single natural system.[4]   

The impact of scientific advances on society gives further clues about his work. Peter Halfpenny points out that, to Comte, sociology was the ‘queen of the sciences’. Positivism was ‘scientific’ because knowledge had practical value and the growth of science was for the benefit of humankind. To him, it was ‘empiricist’ as only humans could experience it. It was ‘encyclopaedic’ because all the sciences came under a single system of natural laws. And it was ‘progressivist’ because social stability could be restored by re-establishing a moral order, based on scientific knowledge, not on religion which made the world mysterious and prevented empirical inquiry, or metaphysical speculations which had no practical value.

As France was going through political disorder and human suffering, the main concerns for Comte would have been how to re-establish social order and achieve scientific progress for the benefit of society. Therefore, we see the assertion by him that sociology was the “queen of sciences” and that ‘all sciences came under a single system of natural law’. It is true that Comte placed great stress on hierarchy. It became even more obvious in the latter part of his life, when he began to talk of the need for ‘a strong moral order’, which his critics described as a new kind of theology. In Comte’s view, there were four enemies of the positive philosophy: religion (as a dogma not as a moral force), metaphysics (in which he included psychology), individualism (which to him was the cause of social disorder) and revolutionary utopianism.[5]

It was at this stage that those who had agreed with his early views came to oppose him. His critics were essentially positivists, but began to articulate their differences with Comte. They also showed a marked reluctance to accept the ‘positivist’ label on themselves. By this time, the assessment of Comte had begun in several centres. The English sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a supporter of the theory of evolution like Comte but differed with him in two important respects. For unlike Comte, Spencer was a strong advocate of the pre-eminence of the individual over society and of science over religion (Comte’s new theology of a new moral order).

In his ‘Reasons for Dissenting from the Philosophy of M. Comte’, Herbert Spencer devotes the entire first chapter to his criticism of Comte:

M. Comte’s ideal of society is one in which government is developed to the greatest extent – in which class-functions are far more under conscious public regulation than now – in which hierarchical organisation with unquestioned authority shall guide everything – in which the individual life shall be subordinated in the greatest degree to the social life.  

Spencer’s response:

That form of society towards which we are progressing, I hold to be one in which government will be reduced to the smallest amount possible, and freedom increased to the greatest amount possible – one in which human nature will have become so moulded by social discipline into fitness for the social state, that it will need little external restraint, but will be self-restrained – one in which the citizen will tolerate no interference with his freedom …[6]

On Comte’s law of three stages, Spencer writes (in the same chapter) that there is one, and in essence, the same method of philosophising. The integration of causal agencies is a process, which involves the passing through all ‘intermediate steps’ between these extremes. Any appearance of stages, says Spencer, can be but ‘superficial’.

Although Spencer chose to concentrate on his disagreements with Comte, especially over his assertion about the need for subordination of the individual to universal laws, Spencer was a positivist. He may have taken issue with the law of three stages, but what he offered in its place was very similar: ‘intermediate steps’ between the extremes – theology and science. He and his contemporary English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) applied scientific rigour to the study of society.

Like Spencer, J S Mill was also impressed with Comte’s early work, and was in fact responsible for introducing his ideas in Britain. Mill agreed with Comte that the study of society had been retarded by its failure to employ scientific methods; and he was in agreement with the empirical methods recommended by Comte, including observation, experiment, comparison and historical methods. However, being a strong supporter of individual liberty, Mill dissented from other aspects of Comte’s ideas. If Comte was the pioneer who founded positivism, Spencer, and Mill, representing the British school, followed. 

The same trend was noticeable in France, too. As Halfpenny records in Positivism and Sociology (p 23), Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was instrumental in establishing an academic discipline in French universities at the beginning of the twentieth century. Durkheim adopted Comte’s major themes – empiricism, sociologism, naturalism, scientism, and social reformism, as well as contributed much to the development of sociology as a separate science. But, like Mill, he thought that Comte’s formulation of the law of three stages ‘verged on metaphysical speculation’. Durkheim added a ‘quite independent tradition’ of statistics in his book Suicide (1897); for he brought Comtean social philosophy and the collection and analysis of social facts together:

At every moment of its history, each society has a certain tendency towards suicide. The relative intensity of this tendency is measured by taking the relationship between the total of voluntary deaths and the population of all ages and sexes. We shall call this numerical datum the rate of mortality due to suicide, characteristic of the society under consideration. It is generally calculated in proportion to a million or a hundred thousand inhabitants …[7]

The areas of agreement between Comte and Durkheim were significant. Durkheim said that social facts were ‘no different’ than facts about the physical world and therefore there was no reason why the methods used to study the natural sciences could not be used in the social studies[8]. He stressed the need for objectivity and rules. And he argued that there were external objects (social factors) that influenced human behaviour, that society was greater than the sum total of its members and that the properties of society could not be understood by studying individuals only living in it.

By the 1920s and early 1930s, a group of philosophers and scientists describing itself as the Vienna Circle had begun to discuss the implications of logic for the debate. There was a striking similarity with the social conditions in which Comte founded positivism. For members of the Vienna Circle were debating in the wake of the devastation caused by the Second World War. Under the leadership of Moritz Schlick, the Vienna Circle argued for a ‘reduction of human knowledge to scientific and logical foundations’. To separate itself from positivism, the Vienna Circle adopted the term ‘logical positivism’. One of its most significant characteristics was its rejection of the non-empirical statements made in metaphysics, theology, and ethics as meaningless. Ethics and morality, the Circle believed, are a matter of taste and not connected to science. Science, the Circle said, tells only what will happen, not what should happen.

In an essay entitled ‘Logical Positivism’ (Positivism and Sociology, p 47), Peter Halfpenny makes a further distinction between positivism of Comte and that of the Vienna Circle. Logical positivism, he says, was scientistic but not progressive or social reformist. And, he adds that the Vienna Circle believed the growth of science would benefit humankind but would not do so necessarily.

Positivism and its essence 

It is very difficult to gain a clear understanding of positivism because of the number of ways in which the term has been defined and interpreted by many of its supporters and critics. It is, however, safe to say that an important goal of positivism was objectivity.  The law of three stages of Comte suggests that he used the term ‘positive’ to mean ‘scientific’. His assertion was that scientific inquiry must be empirical; it should be based on the observation of facts and not on religion which created mystery about the world, or metaphysics which was of no practical value.  In 1944, W T Stace wrote a critique of positivism. In it, he put forward his Positivist Principle, which explains the essence of positivism:

A set of words purporting to express a factual proposition P is significant only if it is possible to deduce or infer from it, in combination if necessary with other premises, some proposition or propositions (Q1, Q2, Q3 … etc), the truth or falsity of which it would be logically possible to verify by direct observation. If no such direct deductions are possible, then the set of words purporting to express P is non-significant, and P is not really a proposition at all.[9] 

The use of verification by ‘direct observation’ is noticeable. For it helped to free positivism of theological and metaphysical presuppositions. Stace developed from this the Principle of Observable Kinds later in the essay, and explained why (p 218). He recalled that the Vienna School had, at one stage, required full and complete verification under the ‘Principle of Verifiability’, but had faced difficulty. It was realised that if direct verification were required, statements about the past would become ‘non-significant’, because it was logically impossible to observe the past. For the same reason, if complete verification were required, all universal statements would be impossible to verify. As a consequence, the Vienna school later came to accept indirect and partial verification. Stace said that, in his Principle of Observable Kinds, verification meant the possibility of observing at least some of the effects of a statement for it to be significant. 

We require general laws for verification. Laws, in turn, characterise relationships between given objects. We need data to arrive at general laws. In his System of Positive Philosophy (1830, pp 5-6), these were precisely the recommendations of Auguste Comte.[10] Writing his essay, In Defence of Positivism (Sociological Theory, 1985, pp 24-36), Jonathan Turner makes strong criticisms of modern sociologists who, he says, have portrayed Comte as an ‘eccentric’ and positivism as ‘negative’ and ‘naïve’. He says that modern sociologists ‘rarely theorise’, which is why our knowledge about the social universe is ‘embarrassingly little’. Turner’s view is that this lack of knowledge is because ‘we have failed to be positivists in Comte’s sense of the term’.

Post-Positivism: some reflections      

Post-positivism is a confusing term. It does not represent one school of thought, but includes philosophers and social scientists that have been strongly critical of Comte and ‘logical positivism’ of the Vienna Circle over the last four decades. For example, there are those who reject the positivist view that the aim of scientific investigation should be to find regularities between events, or laws that can be used to make society better; rather, they say, human behaviour cannot be determined by external laws and the investigation should be into the underlying causes of events (Critical Realism). Then there are advocates of social inquiry by interpretation (Interpretive account). Some say there should be a strict separation between objectivity and all value judgements (Ideal types). Still others regard theories as catalytic agents that will overthrow, or replace the established order and create something new (Critical Theory). There are advocates of social inquiry into the actions of individual actors (Methodological Individualism) and of inquiry within a framework (Functionalism). And so on …

Positivism was about understanding the world so that we could predict and control it by changing laws. In a period of chaos in Europe, it was for order and unity. Post-positivism has renounced unity and represents ‘methodological pluralism’.[11]

Yosef Lapid has described post-positivism as a ‘loosely patched-up umbrella’ of remotely related articulations.[12] I am interested in looking at the context in which the new philosophy of science is seeking to establish itself. This context is radically different from the glory days of ‘logical positivism’ in the 1920s and 1930s. The Second World War (1939 – 1945) ended in the defeat of fascism and set the stage for the economic and political reconstruction of Western Europe. Since the 1950s, we have seen an intensification of the ideological war, followed by the defeat of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. The United States and West European countries have enjoyed an increasing degree of individual freedom and prosperity in the second half of the twentieth century. Countries of the former Communist bloc are rapidly moving towards that goal. This is reflected in the ‘pluralism’ of the post-positivist era.

Also in the second half of the twentieth century, decolonisation has seen the emergence of a large number of new nations. First, it happened as a result of the withdrawal by the old colonial powers like Britain and France from Asia and Africa; then, in Europe and Central Asia when the Soviet Union disintegrated. The process has been chaotic. Political upheaval still continues in several parts of the world, but there is little doubt that the most important social and political phenomenon to emerge out of all this is democracy. There has been greater pluralism of ideas and political views in societies which are mature democracies: for example, the United States and West European countries. One need not go back more than 40 years to see this diversity in the movements opposed to the American role in Vietnam, nuclear armament, capitalism and free trade, environmental pollution and so forth. The main characteristic of these, and of the social phenomena like the Hippie movement in the 1960s, has been opposition to the ‘established order’. Even as problems with the centrally planned economic system in the Soviet bloc were becoming increasingly obvious, and the system was collapsing, Marxist thinking continued to exercise considerable influence at university campuses and the thinking of many post-positivist philosophers (in Critical Realism and Critical Theory, for example). 

Clearly, a ‘more precise formulation’ of the vastly differing post-positivist philosophies is needed to understand them better. Debra Morris has provided an account that distinguishes post-positivism from its predecessor and suggests some common features within its components.[13] According to Morris, post-positivism represents: (1) a determination to free theoretical speculation from strict dependence on confirming data (2) gives the theory component ‘a pride of place’ and approaches science in a philosophical way, and (3) opens a direct link to democratic theory. 

The most simple and enduring definition of democracy is that of Abraham Lincoln, who described it as ‘a government of the people, by the people, and for the people’. However, democracy in the second half of the twentieth century, both in aspiration and reality, has thrown complications. Different individuals and groups in each society have differing views about its meaning and how it would best serve the interests of citizens. Nationalist aspirations have given rise to an increasing number of conflicts. Spirited debates continue in established democracies about what kind of society there should be. Such debates cannot take place without ‘democratic individuality’[14] and ‘perspectivism’[15]. The former acknowledges the right of equal say for each individual, the latter allows underlying assumptions in the formulation and application of theory. The need for maintaining neutrality or distance from the objects of social inquiry does not come into it.

What then happened to objectivity? As assumptions have become an accepted part of post-positivism, its supporters may say that objectivity is not really their goal. Those who engage in social inquiry critical of the existing order claim that they want to change the status quo in any case. Others contend that post-positivistic pluralism creates conditions for ‘objective conclusions’ to be reached. This presupposes that all those who wish to reach objective conclusions have the knowledge to do so. Another major problem arises in deciding which of the large number of alternatives to choose, and how to avoid ‘ignorance’ or ‘intolerance’ in the absence of clear ‘criteria’?[16] Indeed, as Thomas Biersteker says, ‘post-positivist scholars have been extremely effective critics but have been generally reluctant to engage in the construction and elaboration of alternative interpretations and understandings’. 

Having focused on the many differences, let us finally see what remains common between positivism and post-positivism. Rejection of metaphysical inquiry in favour of science was the most important feature of positivism. It remains among the foundations of modern social inquiry. The role of theory and science was always crucial for positivists.[17] So it is today. To Comte, positivism had practical value and the growth of science was for the benefit of humankind. Most post-positivist scholars would not deny that such reformist tendencies remain among their underlying objectives. Data collection and analysis are still part of social inquiry. The purpose of all these examples is not to deny that the two have significant differences. They do and their differences are well established. It is, however, time to move on from the debate that focuses on the criticisms of positivism towards a more coherent post-positivistic philosophy in social science.*

*Word Count: 3960.

Bibliography

- Biersteker, Thomas. September 1989. “Critical Reflections on Post-Positivism in International Relations”, International Studies Quarterly: Volume 33, Issue 3, pp 265-266.

- Durkheim, Emile. 1897. Suicide (ed) Thompson, K & Martell, Luke (1985). ResFac, Sussex Library.

- Why do Durkheim’s theories remain appealing to social scientists?. EssayBank, available from http://www.essaybank.co.uk/free_coursework/335.html (accessed on 20 November 2002).

- Giddens, Anthony. 1977. Positivism and its critics (pp 29-95) of Studies in Social and Political Theory.  London: Hutchinson.

- History of Anglo-French relations. 29 October 2002. Guardian, from politics.guardian.co.uk/foreignaffairs/story/0%2C11538%2C821636%2C00.html (accessed on 25 November 2002).

- Halfpenny, Peter. 1982. Positivism and Sociology. London: George Allen and Unwin.

- Kateb, George. August 1984. “Democratic Individuality and the Claims of Politics”, Political Theory: Volume 12, Issue 3, p 332.

- Kennedy, Emmett. 1989. A Cultural History of the French Revolution [online]. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. From www.tasc.ac.uk/histcourse/frenrev/resource/20a1.htm (accessed on 6 December 2002).   

- Lapid, Yosef. September 1989. “The Third Debate: On the Prospects of International Theory in a Post-Positivist era”, International Studies Quarterly: Volume 33, Issue 3, pp 235-254.

- McLennan, Gregor. 2000. The New Positivity (Ch 1, pp 18-20) of For Sociology: Legacies and Prospects (ed) Eldridge, J, MacInnes, J et al. London: Sociology Press.  

- Morris, Debra. April 1999. “How Shall We Read What We Call Reality?: John Dewey’s New Science of Democracy”, American Journal of Political Science: Volume 43, Issue 2, pp 611-612.

- Spencer, Herbert. 1864. Reasons for Dissenting from M. Comte [online]. From www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/en/spencer.htm (accessed 0n 15 November 2002).

- Stace, W T. July 1944. “Positivism”, Mind, New Series: Volume 53, Issue 211, pp 215-237.

- Turner, Jonathan. Autumn 1985. “In Defence of Positivism”, Sociological Theory: Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 24-30.


[1] Anthony Giddens, ‘Positivism and its critics’ (Studies in Social and Political Theory, 1977, pp 29-95). 

[2] History of Anglo-French relations, Guardian, 29 October 2002, from   politics.guardian.co.uk/foreignaffairs/story/0%2C11538%2C821636%2C00.html). 

[3] Emmett Kennedy, A  Cultural History of the French Revolution (1989, pp 374-384), available online www.tasc.ac.uk/histcourse/frenrev/resource/20a1.htm.

[4] Peter Halfpenny, Positivism and Sociology (1982, p 114). 

[5] Peter Halfpenny (p 18).[6] Herbert Spencer, Reasons for Dissenting from M. Comte (1864), available from http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/en/spencer.htm

[7] Emile Durkheim, Suicide, Part Four, K Thompson and Luke Martell (ed), 1985, p 95.

[8] For an overview, see ‘Why do Durkheim’s theories remain appealing to social scientists’, from http://www.essaybank.co.uk/free_coursework/335.html.

[9] W T Stace, ‘Positivism’ (Mind, New Series, July 1944, p 215).

[10] Jonathan Turner, ‘In Defence of Positivism’ (Sociological Theory, Autumn 1985, p 24).

[11] Yosef Lapid, ‘The Third Debate: On the Prospect of International Theory in a Post-Positivist Era’ (International Studies Quarterly, September 1989, p 244).

[12] Yosef Lapid (p 239).

[13] Debra Morris, ‘How Shall We Read What We Call Reality?: John Dewey’s New Science of Democracy’ (American Journal of Political Science, April 1999, pp 611-612).

[14] George Kateb, ‘Democratic Individuality and the Claims of Politics’ (Political Theory, August 1984, p 332).

[15] Yosef Lapid, ‘The Third Debate: On the Prospect of International Theory in a Post-Positivist Era’ (International Studies Quarterly, Sep 1989, p 241).  In the same article, he identifies, in addition to ‘perspectivism’, two more component themes of post-positivism: ‘paradigmatism’ and ‘relativism’.

[16] Thomas Biersteker, ‘Critical Reflections on Post-Positivism in International Relations’ (International Studies Quarterly, September 1989, pp 265-266).

[17] Gregor McLennan, ‘The New Positivity’ (For Sociology: Legacies and Prospects, 2000, pp 18-20). 

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