Social positivism is a sociological theory developed by Auguste Comte in the 1830s. The theory holds that the addition (i.e., positive rather than subtractive) of new material combined with what is already known can be used to predict future social events and behavior. Positivists rely on data of an empirical nature, believing that only what can be observed can be considered the truth. In addition, positivists appreciate the quantification of data as it does not include the subjective interpretations of people, only fact. There are several criticisms of positivism, especially its reliance on observable phenomena, as it does not allow for concepts including spirituality or the supernatural. Scientists also argue over the value of quantitative versus qualitative data.
Keywords Comte, August; Empiricism; Epistemology; Metaphysical; Methodology; Positivism; Qualitative; Quantitative; Structural Functionalism
For most people, the thought of proving a concept is as challenging as identifying the criminal in an episode of Law and Order. Most people do not collect and analyze data on a regular basis, but they can if they have to for the duration of a television show. For a scientist, though, a concept is not considered a concept until it can be proven as such; a chair is not a chair until it is ruled out as being some other piece of furniture. In many cases, it is the methodology of how that proof is gathered (and subsequently interpreted) that determines into what branch of science an investigator can be categorized. Within the field of social science, or sociology, a social positivist studies facts; a naturalist studies what happens in certain environmental conditions; and a realist prefers to see things for him or herself, ignoring what might be ideal. And, within many scientific disciplines, each category of investigator agrees to disagree with the others.
Social positivism is such a category. Positivism manifests itself across all scientific realms (biology, chemistry, physics, sociology, etc.) because it is clear, concise, and leads to an answer that can be proven by fact, i.e., empirical data. From a positivist perspective, a concept can only be considered a concept when the facts (what can be seen, calculated, or dissected) prove that it is (in fact) a concept. Auguste Comte, a founder of sociology who first coined the term, created the theory in the nineteenth century as a way to rid the scientific world of rationalism, a perspective that relies on reason as the guiding voice for action. Comte believed that proof is essential to science (and the science of sociology); since reason includes intuition, positivists have no use for it.
As a social philosophy that relies heavily on science, positivism is distinct from other philosophies in several ways. First, a positivist investigator has to obtain facts (from various sources) in an objective manner; emotions and values have no place in positivism. Second, induction of generalizations is the basis for beginning an investigative search. As Turner (2006) notes, a positivist's work is "guided by highly abstract theoretical principles" (p. 453). Third, empiricism guides all of an investigator's work. The abstract is a good place to begin, but in the end, there must be concrete evidence to prove a concept. Finally, practicality is essential; the more quantifiable the data, the easier it is to control. The point of the theoretical work is to make a prediction about future social behavior based on new information being added (i.e., positive) to the old (behavior that occurred within history).
Positivism across Various Fields
Other scientists saw the value in Comte’s generalist methodology, and a surge of cross-perspective research resulted from positivism. The fields of psychology, education, economics, business, and the labor industry received an increase in interest as data collection relied on quantification rather than supposition (Smelser, 1990). However, while the popularity of positivism grew, so did its critics. Those critical of the theory, according to Turner (2006), misunderstood it, especially its methodology. Turner (2006) argues that data collection was not the only goal of positivist theorists.
A few positivists use mathematics in their formulation of theoretical principles, but this is not the same as quantifying variables. The more important point is that, at times, quantification is possible, and if possible, it is probably desirable, but quantification for its own sake violates the basic tenets of positivism. The most important tenet for positivists is to denote universal and generic properties of the social world and to formulate laws about their dynamic properties (Turner, 2006, p. 452–453).
Turner (2006) also notes that taking an historical Perspective—analyzing events in social history—in addition to other positivist methodology, helps to predict those social dynamics (457). Using this view, positivism could be summarized as looking at the whole plus its parts.
An Example of Quantitative Data
An example of positivism could be the high school student looking for the perfect college. Many students look at a school's history when considering the idea of spending four years there. At the State University College at Plattsburgh, New York, the curriculum began in the late 1800s when the school opened as a normal school; it taught teachers how to teach. Since then, though, it has developed a cross-disciplinary curriculum as a school of arts and sciences. While it still has a division of education on both undergraduate and graduate levels, it also shares space with business, chemistry, and history when it once did not.
To find out if the school of education has experienced a negative in no longer being the college's primary function, a prospective student might do two things. First, he or she could look at statistics, discerning how many applicants finish the education program and how many of those graduates find positions within the field of education. Second, the student could ask people who attended the education program what their experience was. All of the information gathered would have to be compared first to information gathered when the school was entirely education-based, and second, to similar information gathered from other schools with education programs.
The statistical data that is based on the history of the school and the conclusions made solely on those numbers are thus quantitative. The subjective details provided by former education majors is considered qualitative and would only appeal to a positivist if the details are based on fact rather than opinion, which is rarely the case. However, considering the historical dynamic of the school and any quantitative data collected, a positivist would be able to predict how a prospective student would fare at Plattsburgh State for the next four years.
One way to make a theory seem valuable is to make it applicable to real life. For photographers, according to Saltz (2006), positivism was the golden egg in the nineteenth century, and inventor William Henry Fox Talbot was the mother goose sitting on it. Historically, photography and positivism gained popularity around the same time in the mid-1800s. While people were able to create still pictures earlier, photography (daguerreotype) was not invented until 1839. That is just about the time that Auguste Comte was knee-deep in publishing his multivolume work Cours de Philosophie Positive. Berger (1982) points out that the concepts of photography and positivism grew up together (as cited in Saltz, 2006).
According to Saltz (2006), the two had a great deal in common:
Photography, like positivism, limits the real and knowable to the visible, to facts that can be observed, measured, and quantified. A positivist model of knowledge likewise assumes a split between a neutral observing subject and the objects or people observed (Saltz, 2006, p. 73).
Observation needs light, and Talbot's focus as a photographer was embedded in the duality of light and dark, picture and shadow. Interestingly, while the ideas of light and dark seem in opposition, they rely on each other for existence, as without the ability to identify darkness, the human eye does not perceive light. As a result of Talbot's work, positivist...
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