Positivist Approach in the Study of Sociology

By Saul Mcleod, published Oct 04, 2022


The positivist paradigm believes that society should be studied in a scientific manner. Sociology should approach research in the same way as the natural sciences. It should be objective and logical and follow the hypothetico-deductive method.

A positivist approach prefers collecting quantitative data using objective research methods, such as closed questionnaire, structured interviews and experiments.

This will allow them to uncover and measure patterns of behaviour which will lead them to create social facts which govern society. Social facts are things such as institutions, norms and values which exist external to the individual and constrain the individual. For example, the reality of crime is measured in terms of Official Statistics.

Comte named the scientific study of social patterns positivism, and that using scientific methods to reveal the laws by which societies and individuals interact would create a "positivist" age of history.

Also by using quantitative data the positivists believe that they are able to uncover cause and effect that determine human behaviour.

The search for causality comes from the desire to be able to change things for the better. Causality means the relationships between cause and effect. How one stimuli can lead to a certain action.

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

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

Hypothetico-Deductive Method

The hypothetico-deductive method is a scientific process used in positivism, in which certain logical steps are taken to arrive at the truth.

Scientific method explanation scheme with test experiments outline concept

This method is usually conceptualized as consisting of a series of stages:

  1. Observation: the researcher observers a phenomenon considered worthy of investigation
  2. Conjecture: the research thinks of a plausible explanation
  3. Hypothesis formation: the conjecture is put in the form of a predictive statement that can be empirically tested
  4. Testing: a rigorous empirical test is designed and carried out under controlled conditions, with all observations and measurements objectively recorded
  5. Data analysis: the resulting data are carefully analyzed, using applied logical reasoning
  6. Conclusion: in the light of the results, the researcher decides whether the hypothesis is supported, rejected, or in need of further testing.

What are the weaknesses of positivism?

Critics, such as Verstehen, argue that this is untrue, because science cannot help with the moral choices that social changes necessarily involve.

Many sociologists who subscribe to the verstehen approach have critiqued positivist sociology for its failure to take into account the complexities of human behavior.

They argue that the positivist approach is reductionist, and that it fails to capture the richness of human experience.

Max Weber believed that standard scientific methods were largely inadequate in predicting the behavior of groups in the ways that positivists such as Auguste Comte thought they would be.

Instead, Weber argued that the influence of culture on human behavior, as well as the cultural biases that researchers themselves had, needed to be taken into account.

Positivism has also been criticized from a number of other positions:

  • That scince itself is not as objective as it claims, and its 'truths' are as ideologically tainted as other systems of thought.
  • That positivism has not lived up to its promise in sociology, in that universal laws have not been developed.
  • That positivism is not an appropriate vehicle for the study of human society, because humans have free will and are not subject to invariate laws.

Ethnomethodology rejects the idea that here can be cause explanations for human behaviour and that society is not out there determining our actions. Instead it argue that society is a shared set of meanings and knowledge. They are interested in finding out what these shared meanings are and where they originate from.

About the Author

Saul Mcleod is a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

mcleod, s. (2022, Oct 04). Positivism in the Study of Sociology. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/positivist-approach.html