Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



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
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.2 Positivism

2.2.4 Summary of the Positivist Approach
The key point to remember is that the term positivism is associated with the view that social science can be carried out in essentially the same way as natural science. Its main purpose is to reveal cause-and-effect relationships. This means, for example, that positivist sociologists conceptualise society in the same way as natural scientists would conceptualise the natural world. Just as the natural world cannot be said to have thoughts and feelings, positivist sociologists choose to treat the social world in a way that, in general, ignores the thoughts and feelings of the individuals that make up society.

In sociology, the term positivism is used to refer to both inductive (see and deductive (see reasoning.

Induction assumes that:

  • researchers can rid themselves of all preconceptions;
  • data precede theories;
  • 'facts' can then be collected through careful recording of observations;
  • a series of observation statements can lead to universal statements or 'laws'.

Deduction assumes that:

  • theories precede data, that is 'facts' are derived from theories;
  • universal laws cannot be found;
  • sense experience is not a sound basis of scientific knowledge.

In practice, falsificationism (see is the deductivist approach adopted in social science. It requires that:

  • researchers should subject themselves to critique by forming falsifiable hypotheses;
  • theories that remain unfalsified are the best we can have for now.

In reality science operates both inductively and deductively, as Durkheim's Suicide illustrates.

Science is carried out within particular frameworks or paradigms, which tend to remain unquestioned until there are many puzzles that cannot be solved.

Despite these disagreements about the precise nature of 'the scientific method', most positivist sociologists agree with the following basic elements of the positivistic approach.

  • review existing theory and establish a hypothesis;
  • operationalise concepts;
  • collect data;
  • test the hypothesis using multivariate analysis;
  • generalise from the results and suggest changes to theory and propose new hypotheses to test.

Positivist sociologists look for four things from data used to test hypotheses:

  • Validity: does the data being collected actually measure the concept being investigated? (see 1.8.2)
  • Reliability: is the data being collected in the same way each time? (see 1.9.1)
  • Accuracy: is the data recorded accurately, that is, without making mistakes? (see Section 1.9.2)
  • Representativeness: does the data represent the 'population' it is supposed to represent? Are the proportions of the different categories of people in the sample similar to the proportions of these different categories in the population that is being explored? (see 1.10)

Positivists also argue that researchers should not become involved in making suggestions as to the way the world ought to be, rather they are in the business of explaining what the social world is like.

As we saw in Section 1 of the Guide, sociologists do not agree on whether or not it is possible to separate facts and values in the way that positivistic sociologists suggest. The research examples that we have examined suggest that, in practice, the fact-value separation is more imagined than real.

Positivist sociologists use a wide variety of methods of data collection including observation studies, in-depth interviewing and content analysis. However, they often carry out large-scale studies using questionnaires or structured interviews, (see Part 8).

Figure 2.2:1 is an overview of some of the key people and ideas that influenced the development of positivist social research


Next 2.3 Phenomenology