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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.2 Positivism
2.2.1 Background and core concepts The centrality of cause and effect The social context from which positivism derived The 'scientific method' Inductive science Deductive science Falsificationism Paradigms

2.2.2 Elements of the positivistic approach Theory and hypotheses Operationalising concepts Positivist data collection Multivariate analysis Sampling error Generalising results and developing theory

2.2.3 Middle-range theory Examples of middle-range theory Testing for spuriousness: the incomes of art and design graduates Evaluating the evidence: race and sentencing Retaining a falsified theory: the case of a Neighbourhood Watch scheme Using a non-typical sample to falsify an hypothesis: the affluent worker

2.2.4 Summary of the positivist approach

Activity 2.2.1
Activity 2.2.2
Activity 2.2.3
Activity 2.2.4

Activity 2.2.5

2.2.1 Background and core concepts

Top The centrality of cause and effect
Positivism is one way of knowing the social world. It encompasses our taken-for-granted view of scientific knowledge. It asserts that science explains the world through identifying what causes the things and events that we observe. Positivism attempts to apply a natural scientific approach to the study of the social world.

The approach seeks to identify cause-and-effect relationships. It is assumed that for each social phenomenon there is a social cause. In other words, positivism assumes that we only know about something if we can explain what caused it. The notion of cause and effect is thus at the heart of positivist methodology.

The positivist approach, looking for causal explanations, is widely used in sociology, business studies, health sciences, psychology and law. It takes various forms. These range from attempts to provide causal laws, through identifying possible causal factors, to testing theoretical statements against observable evidence and demonstrating the correlation between variables.

The approach is usually regarded as being exemplified in the work of Emile Durkheim (1897). (Although this is somewhat misleading as discussed in section 1.13). The search for causes or associations can be found in sociological perspectives such as functionalism, behaviourism, sociobiology and social ecology. (We will explore the different sociological perspectives in relation to particular issues throughout the Guide.)

In summary, positivist approaches to the social world:
1. use sense data (that is evidence that is observable or otherwise grasped through our senses);
2. seek cause-and-effect relationships;
3. attempt to be value-free.

Positivism deals with 'social facts': these are observable empirical data that can be recorded and verified. (Observable is not restricted to directly observed, any sensory function applies and the data can be a written text, a verbal response, an observed action and so on).

As was noted in section 1.4.2, the idea of social facts is questioned.

As noted above the aim is to verify causes but often, in social science, positivists settle for weaker indications of cause and effect, such as statistical associations.

Positivism assumes that we can rid ourselves of any preconceptions that we might have in order to produce 'factual' information that is value free. This is a disputed assumption.

Top The social context from which positivism derived
To understand the debates surrounding the question of whether sociology should be a science or not, it is necessary to examine the context in which sociology emerged as an academic discipline.

The early sociologists, such as Marx, Weber and Durkheim, were trying to make sense of the rapid social changes that characterised the transition from traditional, agricultural societies to modern industrial societies. In the former, there was very little sense of individuality, as we know it today, because most tasks were carried out in groups. Modern society, on the other hand, was one in which tasks became increasingly divided and specialised.

These changes brought about the development of an intellectual tradition that challenged the faith in religious knowledge as the way to understand the world. Instead, there was a move to raise the status of science. A group of French and Scottish social thinkers argued for a rational approach as a way of challenging the power of both religious leaders and kings. This 'enlightenment' thinking, as it was called, was radical in its time. It promised a shift from the seemingly fixed social positions, in which some people were assured of continued wealth and power and others were doomed to poverty. In traditional societies, inequalities were ascribed to 'the will of God'. The belief in the power of this new 'scientific' reasoning was, therefore, understandably seen as a way in which society could be changed for the better.

Enlightenment thinkers challenged knowledge that was taken for granted. As Fuller (1997) argued, the sociological function of enlightenment thinking was to challenge the existing social order. The way of thinking, that was seen to be typical of science, was open to anyone, not just élite groups (such as priests). However, although enlightenment thinking was 'radical' in some respects it was mainly concerned with greater freedoms for particular groups of (white) men. There was little concern, for example, amongst the 'philosophes' (as these thinkers were called) for women and ethnic minorities.

There was a fear that in a modern world of increased specialisation society would become disorderly. Thus positivism, the science that was advocated by early sociologists, aimed to bring consensus to society. The positivistic view of science assumed that it would be carried out by 'experts' who would know what was best for society. The main purpose of these experts would be to justify particular courses of action by providing empirical evidence.

We should not really be surprised that early sociologists accepted this view since, as Bauman (1990) suggested, a new discipline would need to secure public recognition and approval and one way of doing this was to assert that sociology could be used to improve the human condition. In Bauman's (1990, p. 218) words: 'The pressure to conform to the standard established by natural sciences was enormous and virtually impossible to resist'. Fuller (1997) argued that the primary concern of enlightenment thinkers was freedom from the constraints of 'mindlessly reproduced tradition'. In contrast, he saw the early positivist sociologist, Auguste Comte (the man who first coined the term 'sociology'), as primarily concerned with restoring order to society.

Top The 'scientific method'
Positivists tend to refer to their approach to the study of society as 'the scientific method'. However, although positivism attempts to uncover cause-and-effect relationships, there are disagreements among positivists as to the ways in which this can be achieved.

In short, they disagree about what constitutes 'the scientific method'. For some, positivist science depends on an inductive method, for others it based on deduction. We shall explore each in turn below.

Some versions of positivism assume that the only evidence that we can accept is that which we can perceive with our senses. As noted in Part 1 (section 1.4.5), this is called empiricism. This approach usually works from the basis that the observable 'facts' can lead us to theoretical explanations.

However, not all research that comes under the label 'positivist' is empiricist. Indeed, most positivism starts with the theoretical conjecture and attempts to confirm or reject it based on empirical evidence.

Study Point
Write down what you consider to be the key characteristics of science. Compare your answer with the two versions (inductivism and deductivism) below?

Top Inductive science
Francis Bacon, an early 17th Century thinker, set out a way of doing science that involved the collection of 'facts'. For Bacon, facts were to be collected through careful recording of observations following which it is possible to make an observation statement. The key assumption here is that it is possible for researchers to rid themselves of all preconceptions in order to record 'the facts'. Say, for example, we decided to study people with red hair. We might, following lots of observations, state that 'the redheads observed in places A, B and C at times F, G and H, all had freckles'. We could check whether this is true or not by carrying out more careful observations. Eventually, having observed redheads in many places and at various times we could then make a universal statement 'all redheads have freckles'. This view of science is called inductivist science.

Chalmers (1994, p. 5) sums up the principle of induction in the following way:

If a large number of As have been observed under a wide variety of conditions and if all those observed As without exception possessed the property B, all As have the property B.

We can thus see that inductive reasoning is a process of generalisation from particular observations to general statements. The data, therefore, are assumed to precede theories. Put more simply, this approach assumes that researchers can discover certain knowledge by finding more and more evidence to support their theories.

Activity 2.2.1
Working in pairs, choose a location such as a fast food outlet. Independently write down your observations of the people going in. Compare your observations with those made by your partner. Do your written observations suggest that you have observed the same thing? Do these observations provide you with the basis for conclusions about the types of people who use fast food outlets? What does this tell you about the role of theory in observation? An inductivist view of science implies that theories are developed from facts. Having carried out your observation do you agree? Or do you think that when you observe something you bring your existing theoretical knowledge to that which you observe?

This activity involves some exteral observation, which may take around 45 minutes followed by analysis and comparison, which would take about an hour.

Top Deductive science
Deduction begins from the opposite direction to induction. Those who utilise a deductive method acknowledge the role of theory at the start of their research. That is, deductivists challenge the view that data precedes theory. Deductivism involves a process of elaborating theory by deducing relationships and then exploring whether the evidence confirms them.

For a practical example of deductive and inductive analysis see
CASE STUDY: Durkheim's study of suicide: inductive or deductive?

In practice, in social research, the predominant positivist approach is based on a version of deductivism known as falsificationism.

Top Falsificationism
In the 1930's, the philosopher of science, Karl Popper (1980), pointed out the mistaken logic of inductivism. First, it is not possible to rid ourselves of our preconceptions when we observe (as you may by now have found out). Second, Popper argued that no matter how many times we verify something we can never assert that we have reached the 'truth' because the next observation may prove us wrong. He used the example of swans, the statement 'all swans are white' was refuted when the black swan was observed in Australia.

Therefore, Popper suggested an alternative version of science known as falsificationism in which more limited claims are made. For example, once a black swan has been observed we can come to the more limited conclusion that not all swans are white. This is more logical than inductivism because both the premise (a black swan) and the conclusion (not all swans are white) are true.

This means that instead of trying to make theories fit the facts, as in induction, Popper acknowledges that facts are derived from theories. Popper was concerned that researchers should subject themselves to critique. In order to do this he believed that it was appropriate that they should maximise their chances of being proved wrong by making statements that, at least in principle, are capable of being falsified. This avoids the situation in which researchers simply go out to find data that confirm their theories.

This can be seen as a rejection of the early positivist project of seeking universal laws. Theories that remain unfalsified are the best we can have for now. This is not the same as saying that they are true for all time. The falsificationist view of science is that science is made up of the theoretical statements that have not been disproved.

Falsificationism can also be seen as a rejection of the view that sense experience is the only basis of scientific knowledge.

Popper's work was important because it demonstrated that theories inform data. However, as we shall see in the following chapters, this is not the end of the debate. As social scientists, you will need to ask yourselves why you would want to let go of a theory simply because it was falsified by an instance. Many scientists have made important discoveries precisely because they have ignored falsifying evidence. You might also want to ask why Popper did not recognise that the acceptance of the falsifying evidence is ultimately dependent upon the researcher's interpretation of that evidence. That is, we are returned to a key problem with induction because observation does not occur in a theory-free way and all observation statements are fallible (see Section 1.4.2 on the theory-related nature of observation).

Furthermore, if we take Popper's falsification approach literally in social science, then there would be hardly any statement that would not appear to have a falsifying instance. What we would end up with is a set of trivial statements about the social world that would add little or nothing to our understanding of the social world.

Activity 2.2.2
Write down a statement about the social world that you think would be difficult to falsify by collecting empirical data.

Top Paradigms
If we look at the ways in which natural scientists carry out their work we can see that, in practice, they use both inductive and deductive methods. Indeed, if natural scientists had abandoned their theories each time they were presented with falsifying evidence then there would be very little scientific theory. Debates in the philosophy of science have shown how the positivistic version of science has been attacked from within science itself. This means that those who argue that social science should copy natural science may be operating with a conception of natural science that many scientists would now reject (Delanty, 1997).

Thomas Kuhn (1970), for example, examined the ways in which scientists carry out their research. He argued that science takes place within a framework of rules (called a 'paradigm') to which all scientists adhere. Science is a communal activity, not an individual one. Therefore, scientists share assumptions, which tend to remain unquestioned. Kuhn identified four phases of science:
1. pre-science;
2. normal science;
3. revolutionary science;
4. new normal science.

In the first phase, many competing frameworks operate. A dominant framework emerges, which becomes the 'normal' scientific mode. This model then becomes the exemplar for all scientific work. This becomes the dominant paradigm. Scientists operate normally within the framework of the dominant paradigm and it is difficult to challenge the framework. This is because the community of scientists take the dominant framework for granted. Kuhn argued that paradigms only break down when it becomes impossible to solve the current problems within that framework. This takes quite a long time to occur because when scientists achieve unexpected results they usually assume that they have made mistakes rather than questioning the framework itself. It is only when there are so many anomalies, which can no longer be ignored, that scientists as a community begin to develop alternative frameworks. This shift takes place when some scientists develop a new set of theories and concepts outside the existing paradigm. This revolutionary phase eventually settles down as the new normal scientific paradigm.

Popper's version of science, whilst rejecting certainty, nevertheless retains the view that we edge ever closer towards 'the truth'. Kuhn is arguing that the shift from one paradigm to another represents a complete shift in a conceptual framework.

Positivism thus asserts that science is powerful because it leads to truth. Kuhn's version of science asserts that science is powerful because it is useful (and here there are echoes of pragmatism). Once the concepts and theories in use fail to help us to solve 'puzzles' new ones take their place. What we once considered to be true becomes false within the context of the new paradigm.

Note: There is a tendency in social science and business studies to refer to 'paradigms'. This is a sloppy use of the Kuhnian concept as there are no paradigms in social science or business that in any way correspond to Kuhn's notion. The things that most social scientists and business analysts call paradigms are at best theoretical perspectives and often just fads (Harvey 1982).

Paradigm also has another meaning, that of 'exemplar'; i.e. a paradigm case is an exemplary case. However, most uses of 'paradigm' tend not to be referring to exemplary situations but use it instead of 'theory' or 'orientation'.

Study Point
Examine the list you made earlier of the key characteristics of science. Which model of science does your list resemble? (It is quite likely that it will resemble inductivism as this is closest to a common sense understanding of science).


We will return to the philosophical debates about the nature of knowledge throughout the Guide.

The best way to gain a clearer understanding of the assumptions made in positivistic sociology is to examine a piece of research that has been carried out within this tradition. In this way you will be in a better position to judge for yourself how far you think that positivism is appropriate to the study of society.


Next 2.2.2 Elements of the positivistic approach