Published on February 15th, 20131
Theory of Science – What is Positivism?
By Tor G. Jakobsen
Theory of science and methodology are the pillars on which a social scientist stand when conducting research. Succinctly stated, ontology can be said to be the study of reality, or simply the science or philosophy of being, while epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge.
The former is concerned with the nature of being, while the latter deals with the nature and scope of knowledge. Your ontological position is decisive for the logic behind the methods scientists employ.
There are two main scientific traditions, and you as a student of the social sciences choose one of these based on your ontological position. These are positivism and constructivism, and are decisive for the logic for which you base your choice of methods on (this logic is called methodology).
Positivism in general refers to philosophical positions that emphasize empirical data and scientific methods. This tradition holds that the world consists of regularities, that these regularities are detectable, and, thus, that the researcher can infer knowledge about the real world by observing it. The researcher should be more concerned with general rules than with explaining the particular.
This tradition can be traced back to Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). In his work Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger) (1610) he made systematic observations of the Moon, the stars, and the moons of Jupiter. His methods stood in contrast to the prevailing approach of that time, that advocated by Aristotle and the Church.
In the same century Francis Bacon introduced a combination of induction and experiment into science as he wished to combine experience with record keeping, and thus rejected the deductive method of the time. Francis Bacon, and later John Locke and David Hume, provided the basic framework for the modern naturalist tradition.
Based on their works theorists have found fuel to their claim that there exists a real world independent of our senses. Modern scientists following the naturalist tradition argue that the regularities of this real world can be experienced through systematic sense perceptions.
Auguste Comte (1798–1857) is regarded as one of the founders of modern sociology. He coined the term sociologie, derived from the Latin words socius (companion) and -ology (science). Comte’s epistemological argument was consistent with that of his naturalist predecessors, that is, scientific knowledge about the real world comes from empirical observation. He also drew a distinction between empirical and normative knowledge. Information or knowledge that was not empirical was not considered by Comte to be knowledge about the real world, and thus fell outside the scope of science.
Methodology – The Hierarchy of Methods
The positivist tradition permits the scientist to choose from a certain “tool box” of methods when investigating the real world. This is denoted as the methodology of the discipline, and consists of its methods, rules, and postulates.
Methodology can be understood as the logic behind the methods we chose, that is, the choice of analytical strategy and research design which underpins substantive research.
A positivist approach provides us with a hierarchy of methods. Experiments are considered ideal because of their ability to determine causality. However, this method is often difficult to employ in the social sciences due to practical and ethical issues.
Statistics is a second best approach, well-suited for making generalizations. Comparative methods, as well as case studies are primarily used for theory testing/building.
Hay, Colin (2002). Political Analysis: A Critical Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Moses, Jonathon W. & Torbjørn L. Knutsen (2012). Ways of Knowing: Competing Methodologies in Social and Political Research. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave.