Positivism in Sociology: Definition, Theory & Examples

Key Takeaways

  • Positivism is an approach to sociology, as well as philosophy, that relies on empirical evidence, such as those found through experiments and statistics, to reveal information about how society functions.
  • Sociology should approach research in the same way as the natural sciences. It should be objective and logical.
  • Positivism originates from the thinking of the French philosophers and sociologists Henri de Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, and Emile Durkheim but branched off into German-Austrian and American traditions in the early 20th century.
  • Positivisms in the philosophical and scientific sense share several key principles: phenomenalism, nominalism, refusing to call judgments and normative statements knowledge, and belief in the unity of the scientific method.
  • Beginning with the Frankfurt School, critical theorists have critiqued positivism heavily. As a result, positivist methods have had relatively little influence on sociology since the 1970s

What Is Positivism?

Positivism is a term used to describe an approach to the study of society that relies specifically on empirical scientific evidence, such as controlled experiments and statistics.

Positivism is a belief that we should not go beyond the boundaries of what can be observed. To a positivist, science is the single most important route to knowledge, and only questions that can be approached by applying the scientific method should concern us.

Reality exists outside and independently of the mind, and therefore it can be studied objectively and as a real thing. They believe that there are social facts that make up the rules of society which are separate and
independent of individuals.

Social facts are things such as institutions, norms, and values that exist external to the individual and constrain the individual.

Sociological positivism holds that society, like the physical world, functions based on a set of general laws. Positivism is based on the assumption that by observing social life, scientists can develop reliable and consistent knowledge about its inner workings.

Thus, sociological positivists argue that by applying scientific principles of research to the study of society, sociologists can put forward proposals for social change that will lead to a better society.

Due to this belief, Positivists believe that society can be studied in the same way as the natural world and that patterns can be observed
and analyzed to create the social facts which rule society.

This method is called inductive reasoning, which involves accumulating data about the world through careful observation and measurement. A theory can be formed and verified from this data through further study.

Positivists believe that sociology should follow the objective experimental methods that the natural sciences follow so that the research remains value-free and patterns and causation can be established.

Positivists prefer quantitative data and, as far as possible, should follow the experimental method of the natural sciences. This will allow them to uncover and measure behavior patterns, leading them to create social facts that govern society. Also, by using quantitative data, the positivists believe that they are able to uncover cause and effect
that determine human behavior.

Positivism, as a general term, has at least three meanings. It can describe how Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim describe social evolution, the philosophical tradition of logical positivism, or a set of scientific research methods (Riley, 2007).

Key Principles

Positivism has moved from the realm of philosophy to sociology. Nonetheless, positivism in philosophy and sociology share, according to Kolakowski (1972) four main rules:

The rule of phenomenalism

To positivists, experience is the foundation of human knowledge, according to the rule of phenomenalism. Scientists should only observe and record what they actually perceive through their experiences.

Kolaski (1966) emphasizes that positivists do not necessarily ignore events and phenomena that are initially invisible; however, they do object to accounting for “supernatural” events and beings for which knowledge is, by definition, unknowable by humans.

For sociologists, the rule of phenomenalism brings about three main difficulties.

Firstly, while this rule apparently encourages sociologists to use empirical research methods, many have accused sociologists who use these methods of over-abstractifying the social world (Mills, 2000; Willer et al., 1973).

Secondly, in sociology, the rule of phenomenalism demands that there is a common way to observe experiences without adding subjectivity. Yet, beyond the work of, say, Durkheim in The Rules of the Sociological Method (1938), sociologists have not put emphasis on finding a “neutral observation language” (Bryant, 1985).

Thirdly, as Kolakowski himself notes, it is difficult to be sure exactly what can be observed and what cannot. For example, discussions around ‘realism’ in sociology have observed hidden structures and mechanisms that Comte would have likely called unobservable (Keat and Urry, 1975; Bryant, 1985).

The rule of nominalism

According to the rule of nominalism, science is a way of recording experiences, and the recording of experiences can not create knowledge about parts of reality that were previously inaccessible to empirical research (Kolakowski, 1966).

This has created controversy in sociology, specifically around whether or not social facts are the same as individual facts. Historically, divides over this question have created breaks between schools of positivism (Bryant, 1985)

The rule that refuses to call value judgments and normative statements knowledge

Sociology brings up the issue of whether or not the evaluations that a sociologist makes about the social world can be judged scientifically or rationally.

Positivists believe that research should be detached from subjective feelings and interpretations, it is claimed that a scientist’s beliefs and values have no impact on their findings, and sociologists should be the same.

To some, such as Giddens (1974), judgments of value that are not based on empirical evidence, meaning that they cannot be proven valid or invalid through experience, are not knowledge.

Belief in the essential unity of the scientific method

Finally, Kolakowski says that the scientific method can be applied to all ways of knowing. Different positivists interpret what Kolakowski means by unity differently.

For example, some positivists have argued that the unity of science stems from a single fundamental law that all other laws can be derived from – such as Saint-Simon, who argues that this fundamental law is the law of gravity).

However, Kolaski himself holds that different types of science have certain principles and practices in common (Kolakowski, 1972; Bryant, 1985).

Theories of Positivism

Usually, scholars say that the French philosopher Auguste Comte coined the term positivism in his Cours de Philosophie Positive (1933). This is not completely accurate, as Comte did not write about the term positivism itself but about the so-called “positive philosophy” and “positive method,” and the philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon wrote about these ideas before him (Bryant, 1985).

Positivism has a long history in sociology which began in the French tradition. Following Saint-Simon’s application to positivism with industry and science and Comte’s commentary on science and religion, Emile Durkheim offered what scholars widely considered to be a positivistic interpretation of sociology and education.

Nonetheless, Durkheim was himself a critique of positivism, connecting positivism with an oversimplified conception of social science and exaggeration of the field’s achievements, both of which he considered dangerous to the new applied social sciences.

Durkheim rejected attempts to reduce the complexity of humanity to a single law or formula. He attacked Comte for assuming “that mankind in its totality constitutes a single society which always and everywhere evolves in the same manner” when “what exists, in reality, are particular societies (tribes, nations, cities, states of all kinds, and so on), which are born and die, progress and regress, each in its own manner, pursuing divergent goals” (Durkheim, 1915).

Despite these criticisms, Durkheim argued that sociology deals with social facts and social facts alone (1895), that people are controlled by certain factors that can be seen through how individuals act, and that by observing how people act, sociologists can figure out social facts.

Following Durkheim, Comte, and Saint-Simon, positivism evolved into different branches in both Germany and Austria, and the United States.

Discussions around positivism began in Germany and Austria around economics; more generally about the differences between the natural and the historical, cultural and social sciences.

A dispute over the place of values in academic and social sciences, known as the value-freedom dispute, and a further dispute over whether sociology should be in university departments (Bryant, 1985).

The Vienna Circle and the Frankfurt School shaped German-Austrian positivism following World War I. The Vienna circle was a group of philosophers and scientists from the natural and social sciences, logic, and mathematics who met from 1924 to 1936 at the University of Vienna.

Vienna Circle

The Vienna Circle conceptualized the world as empiricist and positivist – that there is only knowledge from experience. And secondly, that logical analysis can be used to gather knowledge about the world.

This concept of Logical Analysis differentiates the Vienna Circle from earlier positivisms. According to logical analysis, there are two kinds of statements: those reducible to simpler statements about what is empirically given and those that cannot be reduced to statements about empirical experience.

The second statements, such as those in the field of metaphysics, were meaningless to the Vienna Circle and either arose from logical mistakes or were interpretable as empirical statements in the realm of science (Bryant, 1985).

The Vienna Circle also pursued the goal of a unified science, meaning a scientific system where every legitimate, logical statement can be reduced to simpler concepts that relate directly to an experience. This inspired a search for a so-called “symbolic language” that eliminates the ambiguity of natural languages (Bryant, 1985).

Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School, in contrast, critiqued positivism post-World War II. Horkheimer, a main figure in the Frankfurt School, believed that the methods of inquiry used in the social sciences could not imitate the scientific method used in the natural sciences.

This was because, Horkheimer argued, the ongoing search for universal laws – a logical and mathematical prejudice – served to oversimplify and separate theory from how people interact in the world.

Horkheimer posited that “we should reconsider not merely the scientist, but the knowing individual, in general” (Horkheimer, 1972).

The main arguments of Horkheimer and other members of the school involved:

  1. The rejection of scientists: the Frankfurt school rejected the idea that that which cannot be known scientifically cannot be known. Horkheimer (1972) argued that this was because “science and its interpretation are two different things,” presenting an argument that the equation of science with knowledge rejects metascience, which is the only way through which science can be critiqued and its limitations exposed. Ironically, according to the Frankfurt School, positivists had wrongly claimed to have located the essence of knowledge in science (Bryant, 1985).
  2. The rejection of the positivist conception of science: according to what Keat calls “the positivist conception of science,” science tries to explain and predict observable phenomena by creating universal laws that apply in all regions of space and time (Keat, 1981). The Frankfurt School offers objections amounting to the idea that there are many ways how phenomena are connected and thus many valid accounts of them and that it is wrong to reduce these accounts to one. To the critical theorists countering positivists, there are structures and processes limited by history that cause observable phenomena but whose existence can only be inferred (Bryant, 1985).
  3. The rejection of any theory-neutral observation language: the Frankfurt School dismissed the Vienna Circle’s quest for a theory-neutral observation language for science, saying that everyone who does science makes inquiries about the world in a way that will always be in relation to their own ideas around understanding, the presuppositions of their culture, and the theories they explicitly acknowledge (Bryant, 1985).
  4. The rejection of empiricism: to the Frankfurt School, what scientists consider to be empirical is really the popular opinion of scientists at the time (Adorno, 2000). Theory cannot completely account for theoretical findings because the testing of theories involves deforming and breaking parts of the theory, and all empirical research happens in a world where theory and reality are out of joint in a way where people can choose to change the world so that it conforms better to what is possible (Bryant, 1985).
  5. The rejection of any conception of the unity of the sciences: the Frankfurt School’s critique of positivism also rejects the idea that all sciences operate in the same way by arguing that there are differences between the physical objects studied by natural sciences and the objectification of the mind studied by the social sciences (Bryant, 1985).
  6. The rejection of an exclusively instrumental reason: the Frankfurt School further critiques positivism by equivocating reason and instrumental reason. Thinking of reason as just a calculation of the most appropriate means to pre-given ends is dangerous because it threatens to degenerate into the philosophy of “might is right” (Bryant, 1985).
  7. The rejection of the dualism of facts and values: finally, the Frankfurt School rejects that there is a dualism of facts and values. In this view, social science must have values (Bryant, 1985).

Instrumental Positivism

Positivism has also taken on a number of forms in American Sociology. The most distinctive of these, what Bryant (1985) calls “Instrumental Positivism,” came into prominence in the late 1920s before enduring more intense criticisms from the 1960s and 1970s onward.

In contrast to the French tradition positivism and that of the Vienna Circle, American instrumental positivism was influenced by what Hinkle calls the founding theory of American sociology (2020) – that human behavior is evolutionary behavior – and the surveys and empirical work on social conditions that influenced sociology in its early stages.

Instrumental positivism has several key characteristics (Bryant, 1985):

  1. The preoccupation with the refinement of statistical techniques and research instrumentation: American sociologists such as Giddings introduced developments in statistics from other countries to American sociology as well as creating new statistical techniques themselves (Bryant, 1985).

  1. The endorsement of a nominalist or individualistic conception of society: according to Hinkle and Hinkle (Andrews, 1955), American sociology assumes that the structure of all social groups is a consequence of the individuals in those groups and that all social phenomena come from the motivations of these individuals. According to this view, individuals are the main “objects” of sociological study (Bryant, 1985).

  1. The affinity with induction, verificationism, and incrementalism: because American sociology was developed largely on questionnaires and surveys (Horowitz, 1964), instrumental positivism is inductive, verificationist, and incrementalist. This means that facts about social life can be verified by correctly conducted research and that all verifiable facts add to the cumulative development of social science. Further, in this view, laws about social behavior can be verified by experience, although later thinkers, such as Hempel, have argued that inductively-obtained laws could also be valid (Hempel, 1958). 

  1. The linkage of a dichotomy of facts and values with a conception of value-freedom: instrumental positivism was determined to be objective, in which came to a determination to exclude value judgments from claims to knowledge (Gouldner, 1962). To American instrumental positivists, not only were the values of the people conducting sociology separable from sociological facts and research, but this separation was essential to an objective science (Bryant, 1985).

  2. The prominence of team research and the multiplication of centers or institutes of applied social research: finally, instrumental positivists tended to assemble research teams in centers that often did contract research. This had the consequence that those doing sociological research in America were those that could afford to have an established and well-placed team (Bryant, 1985).

Criticism and Controversy

Implicit to these key positivist principles are several points of contention.

For one, positivism assumes that the methods that scientists use in the natural sciences can also be applied to sociology.

This means that the subjective nature of human experience and behavior, to positivists, does not create a barrier to treating human behavior as an object in the same way that, say, a falling rock is an object in the natural world (Giddens, 1974).

However, there has also been a great amount of debate over how much sociologists can generalize human behavior before it is no longer truly representative of human behavior and whether or not conclusions drawn from these so-called adaptations of human behavior are positivist (Bryant, 1985).

As a consequence, scholars agree there is little agreement as to what sociology is supposed to adapt or adopt from the natural sciences when studying human behavior.

Positivism also presupposes that the end result of sociological investigations is a set of laws, like those that natural scientists have established, that can describe human behavior.

This assumption has been problematic in some sociologists’ view because while positivism assumes that natural laws hold true regardless of time or location, social laws can be bound by the historical period and culture where they were created.

Additionally, the assumption that sociology is technical in nature put forth by positivists has generated controversy.

This assumption has the consequence that sociological knowledge is “instrumental” in form, and sociological research acquires findings that “do not carry any logically given implications for practical policy for the pursuit of values” (Giddens, 1974).


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