Applications of Positivism in Social Research

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Scientific methodology in sociology, the study of the social world, is most often associated with what is known as the positivist approach. In this essay, to determine whether or not it is indeed possible to apply scientific methods to the study of the social world, I will analyse the strengths and weaknesses of positivist sociology. “As developed by Auguste Comte, positivism is a way of thinking based on the assumption that it is possible to observe social life and establish reliable, valid knowledge about how it works.” (Johnson p231) This established knowledge was then to be used to affect the course of social change and it would help improve humanity. Comte’s work was in part a reaction to the ‘anarchy’ that besieged France in the wake of the revolution. Comte sincerely believed that scientific rationality could temper the raw human emotions that had lead to such chaos. Sociology, in his definition (and others), literally the science of society, could apply such scientific rationalism, empiricism and positivism to social life, thus improving it and preventing continued anarchy. “Comte believed that social life is governed by underlying laws and principles that can be discovered through the use of methods most often associated with the physical sciences.” (Johnson p231) One would identify the methods of positivism thus;

  1. careful observation – measurement;
  2. quantification;
  3. formalisation of concepts – precision in definition;
  4. operationalisation of theoretical questions
  5. mathematisation (connects with all of the previous features;
  6. logic and systemisation of theory
  7. symmetry of explanation & prediction;
  8. objectivity understood as value neutrality.

It consists in deliberately investigating phenomena with the expectations derived from the theory in mind and seeing whether or not the facts actually found agree with these expectations. (Delanty p52) If observed facts of undoubted accuracy will not fit any of the alternatives it leaves open, the system is in need of reconstruction. (Delanty p53)

Positivism, “Is above all a philosophy of science. As such, it stands squarely within the empiricist tradition. Metaphysical speculation is rejected in favour of positive knowledge based upon systematic observation and experiment. The methods of science can give us knowledge of the laws of coexistence.” (Marshall p510) However, as shall hopefully be shown later, these scientific methods can not show us anything about the inner ‘essences’ or ‘nature’ of things. Broadly speaking structuralism is, “Used loosely in sociology to refer to any approach which regards social structure (apparent or otherwise) as having priority over social action.” (Johnson p646) Positivism and structuralism are generally highly complementary, positivism effectively being the scientific methodology of structuralism. This can be observed in the works of Comte, Marx, Durkheim and the Vienna circle. Later theorists such as Parsons can also be described as both structuralist and positivist although in Parson’s case he does consider certain interpretivist sensibilities. Marx, Durkheim, Comte, the Vienna circle and many others all saw sociology as a science and all believed that social structure was the core component of society. “Perhaps one of the most important traits in naturalistic or positivistic sociology is the belief that social phenomena are patterned and are subject to deterministic laws much as are the laws governing the natural sciences. Sociological theory then becomes a quest for laws similar to the law of gravity or the law of material density in physics” (Poloma p3)

The main difference between the social and natural worlds is that the subject of study in the social world is humanity. People, in basic terms, have a consciousness where as the subjects of the natural sciences, rocks or atoms or chemicals, do not. People are aware of themselves and their surroundings in a way that rocks, for example, are not. This, clearly, is a potential problem for positivist sociology. However, this problem is resolved, in positivist science, by arguing that the self-consciousness of human beings (the ability to think, act and feel) is not a significant factor in our ability to understand social behaviour. This, according to positivists, is because people’s behaviour is, at its genesis, always a reaction to some form of stimulation. This stimulation can be from their socialisation (as we shall see in Parsons work), or it can be something more direct like the need to earn a living or a confrontation with another human. This produces one of the criticisms of positivist sociology, as we shall see, action and the meaning placed on that action becomes unimportant for study, only the cause of the action, the stimuli, has any sociological value for positivists.

The positivist view of sociology, of its aims, of its methods, is certainly a contentious one. Two of the first sociologists to question these methods, and the first that can be labelled as interpretivist, were Weber and Simmel. “Weber argues that sociology is not concerned with totalising explanations; only individuals have an ontological reality, society does not exist in that real sense, and so sociological explanations must be in terms of individual events and processes.” (Craib 1997 p51) Rickert’s term of Geisteswissenschaften (literally ‘the sciences of the spirit/mind) greatly influenced Weber’s conception of what sociology should be. The ontological reality which Weber speaks of is that humans are very different from other natural beings. We have free will, an inner life, use symbols, possess language, live in culture and act meaningfully. This ontological reality ensures that humanity cannot be studied using positivist scientific methodology, or any other conventional scientific methodology, sociology must use other methods. While the natural sciences wish to explain natural events, sociology, as understood by Weber, Rickert or Simmel, wishes to understand social action. Social scientists should endeavour to understand social action in very much the same way as one attempts to understand other people, by communicating, through empathy, and through argument. These views are also associated with, and expanded upon, by the philosopher Peter Winch. (Winch 1958) As Weber states, “Even the knowledge of the most certain propositions of our theoretical sciences – e.g., the exact natural sciences or mathematics – is, like the cultivation and refinement of the conscience, a product of culture.” (Delanty p110) In many ways the objective ‘fact’ of scientific enquiry is a fallacy.

“Sociology differs from the natural sciences in that it does not deal with a pre given universe of objects. People attribute meaning to their social world and act accordingly.” (Baert p97) Weber, in his Methodology of The Social Sciences, points out that all knowledge of cultural reality is always from a particular point of view. The philosophical idea that there is no truth, only human opinion is prevalent in this argument. Simmel emphasises and expands upon this point, “In the last resort the content of any science doesn’t rest on simple objective facts, but always involves an interpretation and shaping of them according to categories and rules that are a priori of the science concerned.” (Stones p74) Any scientific conclusion, be it in the field of physics or sociology, has to be interpreted by its author, then represented by that same author and then reinterpreted by those that read it. In these interpretations any ‘truth’ or ‘law’ is surrendered to human opinion, human meaning, human understanding. This criticism of positivist sociology is probably best illustrated by a discussion of a classic positivist sociological text, Emile Durkheim’s suicide study.

In his study, Durkheim analysed the differential distribution of the occurrence of suicide by country and region. Durkheim professed to have found “suicidogenic currents” (Durkheim 1963) in society; the pressures to commit suicide, the laws of suicide. These are called social currents’…They come to each one of us from without and can carry us away in spite of ourselves.” (Delanty p28) Through a positivist, scientific methodology, Durkheim identified the pressures to commit suicide were greater in regions where the Protestant faith was dominant, and weaker where Catholicism dominated. Durkheim’s account posits an external force (suicidogenic currents) as the cause of suicide – cause and effect. (Durkheim 1963) However why suicide occurs tends not to be the issue. To say that suicide is caused, not entirely obviously but in part, by the following of the Protestant faith is to assume that the term suicide is a simple one, a fixed one, with no room for differing meanings. This view is wrong. What is of importance is how a “suicide” comes to be defined as such by the coroner’s court. One must remember that a suicide is not an objective fact, but a interpretation, an interpretation that can be influenced by the coroner’s own personal feelings. If a ruling of suicide is likely to cause the deceased’s family pain and suffering, as is likely if they are Catholics, then the coroner may be inclined, where ever possible, to not record a suicide verdict, but an accidental death instead

This alerts us to the problematic nature of Durkheim’s, and positivist sociology in general, reliance on statistics. For Durkheim takes those statistics as giving a ‘true’ picture of the incidence of suicide. But do they? Are they rather a representation of the interpretation of suicide as opposed to cold hard objective fact? Interactions/ interpretive work on suicide states that suicide statistics are a construction involving police, courts and coroners. Thus for a death to be counted as a suicide involves a complex social process concerning meaning and interpretation, two unquantifiable characteristics of humanity. Thus suicide is not just the effect of a societal cause, but an interpretation of events, thus not a positivist, scientific event. Therefore if sociologists wish a knowledge of social life, they cannot explain social actors’ action in terms of cause and effect. Rather, they must seek out what the social actors themselves say they are up to, what they mean. “Comte’s view shifted in later life, under the influence of Cloitilde de Vaux. He came to see that science alone could not be a binding force for social cohesion as he had earlier supposed. He argued that the intellect must become the servant of the heart, and advocated a new ‘religion of humanity.’” (Marshall p509) Comte, the originator of the positivist sociological methodology shifted his emphasis away from positivism in his later work, thus exposing the inherent problems and weaknesses at its methodological core. “Positivism has had relatively little influence in contemporary sociology for several reasons. Current views argue that positivism encourages a misleading emphasis on superficial facts without any attention to underlying mechanisms that cannot be observed.” (Johnson p231) For example, we cannot observe human motives or the meaning that people give to behaviour and other aspects of social life, but this does not mean that meaning and motive are nonexistent or irrelevant.

The best way to illustrate the above points is to set them within the context of a positivist sociological study, in this case Parson’s work on personality.

For society to function, it is logical according to Parsons to deduce that the individual members of society have to agree with society’s rule. “For Parsons, the social system is…made up of the interactions of individuals. Of special concern is… that such interactions are not random but mediated by common standards of evaluation. Most important among these are moral standards which may be called norms.” (Hamilton p155) When people in society interact the interactions themselves, the emotions that seemingly control them, the goals that the individual actors (people) are hoping to obtain, they are all in fact controlled by the norms of society. “The concept of order is located predominantly at the level of the social system itself and the cultural system becomes a mechanism of the functioning of the social system.” (Hamilton p146) These norms are adopted and agreed by each member of the society for Parsons and this is his consensus theory. Importantly Parsons’ theory suggests that the power of societal expectations, the power of norms, is more pervasive than merely being a moral standard that mediates interaction and personal relationships. They are in fact the organisational foci of personality, of people themselves.

“Socialisation is the process by which we learn to become members of society, both by internalising the norms and values of society, and also learning to perform our social roles (as worker, friend, citizen and so forth.)” (Marshall p624) The family, for instance, is controlled by the same norms as society because it is that society, just it is a smaller component of it. The subsystems of society are analogous to body parts in the Parsonian model, they are all essential, each provide their own unique function and all interrelate, interpenetrate and are dependent upon one another. Analogous to the human body where each body part has a specific function to perform, and all of those parts work in unison to keep the structure going, so society is organised. Immersion within these subsystems, such as the family leads to internalisations of norms and objects, and this in turn creates personality. Because personality is internalised from society, “The foci of organisation of both types of system lies in…the value systems.” (Parsons p357) The values of society are the values of people, or personality. People are not just guided by the norms of society, but their very personalities are organised by the very same norms and principles and morals, according to Parsons. Thus peoples actions are quantifiable, reducible to a law since they are mediated by common standards. As gravity is a constant, so are the norms of a society and therefore of personality.

The positivist law here is that personality, every action of a human is controlled by the same standards of evaluation as society. The person’s personality is derived directly from society, it is society. Thus a scientific study of society is possible because there is cause and effect, there is a reaction to stimuli. Socialisation is the stimulation that people react to. For Parsons, laws can be discerned from humanity because people will react in predictable ways, mediated by norms, to the stimulation of events and socialisation. Thus sociology can be scientific, empirical and positivist.

A major problem with Parson’s work is that it reduces human personality to being produced and organised solely by societal expectations and norms. This societal determinism fails to acknowledge or explain where certain feelings, motives and actions originate. Goffman argues that “it is . . . against something that the self can emerge. . . Without something to belong to, we have no stable self, and yet total commitment and attachment to any social unit implies a kind of selflessness. Our sense of being a person can come from being drawn into a wider social unit; our sense of selfhood can arise through the little ways in which we resist the pull.” (Goffman 196 p305) A favourite example of this for Goffman was that of mental patients in asylums. The total institution of an asylum probably forces more strict adherence to societal expectation than most other social situations by using methods such as drug induced control and disciplinary measures such as EST. Yet in these institutions, despite being forced to play the role of the mental patient, to conform to societal expectation), patients still resisted those expectations. The hoarding of banned materials being an example of this. The motivation to do this does not come from internalisation of norms, as the correct way to behave is to not horde banned items. It comes from a need to keep ones own identity, to satisfy needs and drives and wants. These needs drives and wants are absent from the Parsonian model and a full understanding or explanation of society and social actions needs to take them into account.

“The maintenance of this surface of agreement, this veneer of consensus, is facilitated by each participant concealing his own wants behind statements which assert values to which everyone present feels obliged to give lip service.” (Goffman 1990 p20-21) The norms and laws that Parsons believes to control personality and society, are revealed by Goffman as only being a veneer. Furthermore Goffman states that other feelings and motives in fact influence social action, not just norms. If, as Goffman claims, the so called common standards of evaluation that Parsons identifies are in fact a veneer that hides other motives and feelings, then the actions of humanity are not as easily quantifiable, reducible to a scientific, positivist law, as Parsons first shows.

Freud’s metapsychology deals with the general structure of mental life. For Freud there were three psychic structures. The first, the id, contains, “those basic drives we have by virtue of being human, of which sexuality is the most important.” (Craib 1989 p3) The Id is often equated to by Freud as being like an infant, demanding immediate satisfaction irrespective of societal expectations. The Id makes up the greatest part of the unconscious and it is in this unconscious realm of basic biologically influenced drives that the motivational forces that Parson’s can not identity come from. The Id influences personality. It is important to remember that, as opposed to biological instincts driving us to act like a shark would, a mindless automaton, “the unconscious is composed not of biological instincts but of the mental representations we attach to these instincts.” (Craib 1989 p4) Thus each individual creates their own mental representation for their drives thus meaning that every persons internal world has a different geography. This clearly poses problems for the positivist approach to personality and society and social action, as represented by Parsons here, for if reaction to stimulation is not predictable because each person acts differently, then universal scientific laws can not be established.

The second structure of personality according to Freud, the ego or the ‘I’ is the central organiser of mental life. The third, the superego is thought of as the conscience. “The superego is the internalisation of external control which demands the renuncification of instinctual satisfaction in order that society might be formed and maintained.” (Craib 1989 p21) The superego is the part of personality that Parson’s identifies the part that internalises norms. The basic drives of the id demand immediate satisfaction, immediate gratification of those drives, these demands are contrary to the superego norms and morality, and the conflict has to be resolved by the ego. Our consciousness, predominantly consisting of the ego and superego, protects us from our own id impulses that, if they were followed, would leave it impossible for us to exist within society. Freud stated that “Civilisation depends upon repression…If we tried to gratify all our desires, sexual or otherwise, as and when they arose, society, civilisation and culture would vanish over night.” (Craib 1984 p195) For Freud the ‘I’, is the resolution of the conflict between the id biologically directed drives, and the superego’s societal restraints. Therefore personality is the site of the, hopefully, resolved conflict between the normative mind evaluated by common standards as Parsons identifies, and the basic id drives. These Id drives, as I shall show, influence personality thus influence social action and society. This being the case then Parsons’ explanation for personality is insufficient and so is the positivist claim for the scientific study of society. The positivist tenants of careful observation and measurement; quantification; formalisation of concepts – precision in definition; operationalisation of theoretical questions; mathematisation; logic and systemisation of theory; symmetry of explanation & prediction and objectivity cannot be applied to individualistic Id drives and impulses. “The desire to kill anyone who frustrates us thus becomes unconscious, but none the less remains.” (Craib 1989 p24) Evidence for these desires for Freud appears in slips, where the unconscious desire can ‘slip’ into conscious conversation. “Freud quotes the husband who supposedly said, ‘If one of us two die, I shall move to Paris.” (Craib 1989 p24) One can not scientifically measure how these unconscious desires influence and effect social action, especially since it can be so hard to identify them as existing in the first place.

“A feature of human life is that an instinct such as the sexual instinct is not directed at any one object, but has to be socially channelled, in our society usually towards members of the opposite sex.” (Craib 1989 p4) “Human beings are restrained by social organisation from a free and good expression of their drives. Through its oppression, society forces people into neuroses and psychoses.” (Craib 1989 p19) For Freud the very problems that he and other psychoanalysts dealt with were in fact often as the result of the repression of id drives by the superego and societal repression. As such the very existence of neuroses and psychoses can be seen as evidence to the fact that this conflict does indeed exist, that the resolution of this conflict does indeed produce the ‘I’ with all its faults and problems. To fully understand society, sociology needs to be aware of societal pressures, the Parson’s personality through positivism, but also needs to recognise the other meanings and emotions that cannot be quantified, cannot be analysed scientifically. Sociology needs to use interpretivism and positivism together. In terms of this example, Parsons positivist models needs to be considered at great length and detail as he does indeed identify a huge force in shaping society, that of norms and how they do penetrate into the psyche and personality. However, a study that only concentrates on the positivist methodology misses the crucial aspects of personality that Goffman and Freud identify, and that is not in the interest of any sociologist.

“Positivism may be dead in that there is no longer an identifiable community of philosophers who give its simpler characteristics unqualified support, but it lives on philosophically, developed until it transmutes into conventionalism or realism. And even if in its simpler philosophical forms it is dead, the spirit of those earlier formulations continues to haunt sociology.” (Halfpenny p120) In conclusion positivism’s attempt at scientific sociological methodology, though fallacious is admirable and certainly many of the aspects of positivism should be considered desirable. As quoted elsewhere, “positivism is a way of thinking based on the assumption that it is possible to observe social life and establish reliable, valid knowledge about how it works.” (Johnson p231) The desire for reliable, valid knowledge is of course a relevant and important sociological aim and some of the tools that positivism uses to try to reach such knowledge are useful and worthwhile. Careful observation, measurement; quantification; formalisation of concepts – precision in definition; operationalisation of theoretical questions; logic and systemisation of theory; symmetry of explanation and prediction and objectivity, if all of these tenants of positivism can at least be attempted in a sociological study then that sociological study will indeed be the better for it. However, sociological study needs to recognise, as Comte himself did, that these aims, in their fullest, are unobtainable and that those aims are not ends in themselves, rather a very rough guide to sociological methodology. As I have hopefully shown above, sociological analysis needs positivism, needs scientific methodology, but a carefully tempered and monitored positivism. The aim of sociology is understanding and that understanding should not be limited by methodology, especially a methodology that is inherently flawed. Positivism shows us how to analyse data, data that is essential to sociological understand, but that data must not be treated uncritically thus a synthesis of positivism and interpretivism is recommended. To study the social world using a strict scientific methodology is impossible, that does not, of course, mean that scientific methodology is not a useful and critical tool in sociological study.


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