Critically discuss the contribution of positivism to the study of society
The initial form of positivism was formed in the 17th century. Until the first half of the 19th century, the French positivist and philosopher, founder of sociology, A. Comte established positivism philosophy system(Gordon, 1991).In the 20th century, the positivism had been widespread around the world. It derived from empiricism which was opposed to metaphysical mode. Positivist believed that genuine knowledge comes from experience and can be found from experiments, moreover social studies is similar to natural sciences, thus social phenomena could be quantified, observed, or formed by experiments, also universal laws must can be tested, and the formation of universal law should be applied to all similar circumstances(Smith, 2003). Positivism has three types which were traditional positivism, logical positivism and the standard positivism (Mill, 2008). It is generally considered that positivism stage is the third of human development evolution; therefore, positivism is a step forward in human history, at least it was the ideological core of society. In fact, unlike the theology and metaphysics stages, positivism employs the natural science approach to do social survey (Smith, 2003), including experimental methods, as well as well-known closed system. This paper, I will focus on the following contribution of positivism for social research: experimental method and the closed system on the impact of production new knowledge and scientific methods abandon the traditional metaphysics, social fact to make results more objective, statistics and the use of induction makes the experiments more controllable. Moreover, the rise of positivist ideology wave gave rise to various factions in the emergence of the idea, positivism and non-positivism, which is more appropriate in the study of society. This can be used for the future and laid the ideological foundation of sociology.
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First of all, there is not essentially different between positivism and natural science (Swingewood, 1984). Generated in the period of positivism, to coincide with the European Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, people began to believe in science and can create everything (Hankins, 1985). Therefore, the positivism has won some support by its scientific methodology, but most thinkers still tried to avoid their public remarks with God or religion. 17th century ago, all human phenomena or events could not be explained would be the property of God, as, which is theological and the impact of religion on society at that time (Byrne, 1996). The positivist considered that all non-tested and non-proven knowledge are not true, and even does not make sense (Smith, 2003). Therefore, positivism sociological studies and natural sciences that are similar to the community can be seen as a body, and different social phenomena is the organ. Society can be divided into various parts by scientific controlled experiment, and these parts are independent. However by artificial circumstances researcher made, they are able to observe the relationship between each component objectively and justify which is the cause and which is the result (ibid). This allows people to get rid of the fetters of speculative philosophy, in a more scientific and objective method to study social phenomena. However, this approach itself is flawed, society is an open system, and the experimental results under the manual control can be applied to all circumstances? In addition, social research is kind of research about human being, is it possible to keep the way objective when people do research on themselves? It seems impossible. But the positivism did brought the new blood to the feudal society had been affected by theology and metaphysics, and it manifests strongly that scientific method can create new and real knowledge when Newton found the components of light by three closed and controlled experiments (ibid).
However, science experimental methods of early days were defective. Later on, closed system was formed, opposed to open system which is referred to the whole society. Closed system has been widely implemented, it still affects the era of scientific research and social research nowadays. Firstly, positivism considers that social phenomenon and humans can be researched as objects. In a specific experimental environment, these variables are independent and they exist regardless the influence from the researcher or the external world (Smith, 2003). In another word, social facts can be regarded and researched as objects and various facts of social life. For instance, belief systems, social customs, social systems and so on, can all be regarded as objects which can be observed directly and measured objectively. It is just like the change of material can be regarded as its response to external stimulus, human behavior can be regarded as human’s response to external stimulus which means external positive action of social facts (Ferrante, 2006). Therefore, social facts can be analyzed utilizing natural science methods upon this view towards human and society nature. As researchers observe the whole process of the experiment and find out relations between variables without personal emotions or value, the data and results that carried out can be examined and verified in condition of the same specific environment (Smith, 2003). This method brings the possibility of researching social phenomenon which was impossible to be done in the past. Meanwhile it’s been widely implemented in social science, for example, astronomy (ibid). See through the appearance to perceive the essence, and then implement the essence to the real world. Closed system provides social research a practical method, meanwhile, as all variables are determinant and not affected by external elements, the results are more persuasive and authoritative. But closed system is based on the premise that observers are objective and value-free. Since observers live themselves in this society, their sense-experience is from the external world, it has affected the way observers think of fact and value.
Since the positivists prefer focusing on doing research on objective fact and production of society, and use the social phenomenon existing objectively as the starting point. Besides, it also emphasizes on how to sum up the social law and attempt to find the correlation between social phenomena, or causation (Smith, 2003). Therefore, it uses a number of scientific research methods to conduct social research, such as induction and statistics. Induction or inductive reasoning, sometimes called inductive logic, is the premise of argument to support the conclusions, but does not ensure that the conclusions of the reasoning process. It comes down to the character or the relationship between the special representatives based on the (token) limited observation type; or formula to express the phenomenon based on a repeated pattern of representation (pattern) of the limited observation (Cohen, 1989). And Mathematical Statistics is the mathematical basis of statistics from a mathematical point of view to study the statistics, in order to provide theoretical support for a variety of applied statistics (Baldwin, 1902). It is to study how to effectively collect, collate and analyze with a random data to examine the issue of the right to infer or predict, up to a certain degree of decision-making and actions taken to provide a basis and recommendations of the branch of mathematics (ibid). Mathematics is considered the most accurate science which is consistent with positivism, the pursuit of accurate and scientific purpose. Consequently, positivism always treat the lots of social phenomena and evolution as a random phenomenon to study by the usage of statistical principles and methods, specifically attributed to the search for random events and random variables on the evolution of trends and pattern. “Suicide” of Durkheim is considered as the best example to demonstrate the use of inductive method and statistical method combined with sociology. When Durkheim studied the manner of suicide, he collected 26000 cases of suicide archival materials from 12 European countries during the period from 1835 to1890, and made analysis, classification, statistics on these data (Durkheim, 1958). At the same time, Durkheim defined suicide rate that suicide rate is not only formed by individual suicidal behaviour, but also is it a group or society may have emergent phenomena. This is to avoid things such as the study of metaphysics is only superficial, while fragmented and isolated incident that can be observed is defined as the measurable variables. Therefore, the positivism research methods makes the phenomenon quantitative so that they can be applied to observation, experiment, measurement, interpretation, hypothesis etc. sort of search method of natural science or empirical science. However, the induction of the application, there may be a confusing correlation and causation may be, and sometimes results will be summed up very incomplete. With the powerful features of statistical method, making the data results are accurate and correct, but it’s easy to overlook the relation between the social phenomenon itself and the outside world, and also it is difficult to exclude the impact of social factors when people live in the society we study.
The formation and rise of the study of positivism, has caused the opposition and furious attack from rationalism. History of sociology indicates that sociologists who follow the “quality” research method never stop arguing with those who follow the “quantity” research method. Researchers who upholding positivism criticize the research of quality can only preliminarily quest and describe the research questions, but not for logic reasoning or scientific verification, while researchers upholding constructivism boast that their research methods is dominating the quantity research on experience level, philosophy level and ethics level. In fact, the conflict between the two has raised thinking and research among some ideologists, boosting the emerging of new thoughts. Later on, people started realizing that neither extreme positivism nor rationalism is perfect. For instance, Immanuel Kant believes that experimentalism and rationalism are equally important, the world should be in between the two (Smith, 2003). Also another import thinker Max Weber in his “Essays on Science” and argued that the distinction between social phenomena research and pure scientific research is social phenomena involving conscious actors themselves and give meaning to their acts. Thus if sociologists try to describe and explain social phenomena, they should have to understand the concept and practical experience, that means understanding, empathy and intuition (Halfpenny, 2001). Therefore, positivism in some extent has promoted the development of sociological research, as well as the booming of various ideologies. All these changes that positivism made have founded its scientific reputation in sociological research.
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To sum up, the scientific methods and closed system that positivism stands for have brought scientific methods for sociological research; they make the entire research process practical, testable, observable and tangible as natural science. Furthermore, induction and statistic that positivism implements integrate perfectly with natural science which make the results even more accurate. The booming of various ideologies promoted by positivism has also induced ideological reforms. New ideologies are formed under influence of positivism. Positivism has laid the groundwork for future development of sociology. Despite the existence of many limitations of positivism, but relatively speaking, its core idea made a great contribution to the community during that period, some of which still affect the thinking of the social research field.
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