In sociology, positivism is the view that the methods of the natural sciences can and should be used in research. The natural sciences, it is argued, give us the most accurate knowledge about the world around us, and so there is no reason why the same methods that have proved so successful in chemistry, biology, and so forth shouldn't also be applied to sociology.
Positivists have argued that their chosen method is the most consistently reliable. They claim that if a research finding can be replicated—as in natural science, for example—then it can be said to be reliable.
To illustrate this point, let us imagine for one moment what would happen if an experiment kept on giving us different results. Then we would be forced to conclude that the relevant methods used in this experiment were unreliable. And if such methods were unreliable, they would also be unscientific. In emulating the methodology of the natural sciences, positivists believe that they are ensuring that sociological research comes as near as it can to the reliability of scientific research.
Positivists also argue that their methods can produce results that are more representative. That is to say they can show us what is typical among a certain subsection of the population. If we can establish what is typical, then we are in a position to make generalizations, which is what natural scientists do. As a result, it becomes possible to draw more effective conclusions, as they apply to larger numbers of people than just the original subset.
Critics of positivism argue that it is entirely inappropriate to use the methods of natural science. For one thing, humans aren't objects of study in the same way as rocks, animals, plants, or trees. They are thinking, reflecting beings, which makes it nigh impossible to make the kind of generalizations about them made by those working in scientific research in relation to objects. Human behavior is simply too complex to be generalized in such a way. Certain generalizations can be observed, but they can never give us the whole picture. Human beings and their lives are simply much too complicated.
Besides, quantitative research is all very well, so the critics of positivism argue, but when it comes to studying humans in their social setting, we also need qualitative research methods that take into account the underlying reasons why certain forms of behavior—for example, the propensity to commit crime—are more prevalent in some societies rather than others.