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The Foundations of

Social Research

Chapter Two:
Positivism
The March of Science
The Foundations of Social Research
 Etymology of the Word “positivism”
 “positive” not to be used in contrast with
“negative,” or confused with value judgments
like “right/wrong,” “good/bad”
 With positivism we are referring to “something
that is posited i.e, something that is given.”
 Direct experience, not speculation is the
epistemology
 What is posited (or given) in direct experience
is what is observed…
The Foundations of Social Research
 Auguste Comte
 Interested in the development of a
comprehensive social science.
 Wanted to apply the scientific method to the
study of society and human beings for their
benefit
 Even though trained in mathematics,
recognized the limitations in applying
scientific methods to human society
The Foundations of Social Research
 What are the essential features of the “Comte”
scientific method?
 Human consciousness is determined by the social
 An attitude of mind towards science and the
explanation of man, nature and society; not some
predilection for mathematical precision
 Look to ‘laws’ that can be scientifically established, i.e.,
to facts that regularly characterise particular types of
beings and constant relationships that can be shown to
obtain among various phenomena.
 The direct methods whereby these laws can be
established scientifically are observation, experiment
and comparison.
The Foundations of Social Research
 “Comte’s Method continued…
 No Social fact can have any scientific meaning
until it is connected with some other social fact
 By experiment, Comte does not mean
controlled experimentation of today, but the
study of events
 Comparison includes cross-cultural and
historical comparison
The Foundations of Social Research
 The Vienna Circle
 Members included:
 Social Philosopher Otto Neurath
 Mathematician Hans Hahn
 Physicist Phillip Frank
 Physicist Moritz Schlick (assassinated in 1936)
 Rudolf Carnap
 Kurt Godel
 A J Ayer
 Many others…
The Foundations of Social Research
 The Vienna Circle
 Primary goal: To introduce the methods and exactitude
of mathematics to the study of philosophy
 Major Influence: Ludwig Wittgenstein
 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

 Logical analysis of propositions

 Linking truth to meaning in a way that allows no

pathway to genuine knowledge other than through the


scientific method
 (later reversed position in Philosophical Investigations)

 Verification Principle
The Foundations of Social Research
 Verification Principle: No statement is
meaningful unless it is capable of being
verified
 Two ways to verify:
 Must categorize whether analytic statement or
synthetic statement
 Analytic statement is one whose ascription of a
predicate to a subject can be verified, and its
meaningfulness thereby established, simply via
an analysis of what the subject is
The Foundations of Social Research
 Analytic Statement
 “A” is “A” or “not-A” is “not-A”
 A doe is a female deer
 Verifiable because what is predicated of the
subject is nothing more than something
included in the very definition of the subject.
 Tautological or contradictory
The Foundations of Social Research
 Synthetic Statements
 Non-analytic, incapable of verification
 What is predicated of the subject is not included in its
definition. Something new is being said about the
subject, therefore.
 How to verify?
 Synthetic statements can only be verified by
experience i.e., sense-data
 Therefore this exludes meta-physics, religion, ethics,
aesthetics, etc. from the purview of genuine
philosophy/epistemology
 Establishes the distinction between fact and value,
cognitivism and emotion/spiritual
The Foundations of Social Research
 Contemporary Positivism
 Still strongly linked to empiricism/science
 Very progressive with scientific discovery and
technology the driving force for progress
 Conviction that scientific knowledge is both accurate
and certain
 Important to maintain distinction between objective,
empirically verifiable knowledge and subjective,
unverifiable knowledge
 What does it mean to say that the scientific world is an
abstraction from the everyday world? Isn’t that a
contradiction?
The Foundations of Social Research
 Post-Positivism
 Without necessarily jettisoning objectivism
inherent in positivism, some scientists have
challenged positivism’s claims to objectivity,
precision and certitude, qualifying positivism’s
claims.
 Werner Heisenberg
 Founder of quantum theory and “the
uncertainty principle”
The Foundations of Social Research
 Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle
 It is impossible to determine both the position
and momentum of a subatomic particle (i.e.,
electron) with any real accuracy. Not only
does this preclude the ability to predict a future
state with any certainty but it suggests that the
observed particle is altered in the very act of
being observed, thus challenging the notion
that observer and observed are independent.
The Foundations of Social Research
 Neils Bohr’s take on Heisenberg:
 The limitation in determining subatomic
dynamics with accuracy is due to the very
nature of subatomic particles themselves and
not what we know of them. These particles
need to be seen as a kind of reality different
from the reality we are used to dealing with.
We need a new set of concepts other than
“momentum” and “position” to deal with them.
The Foundations of Social Research
 Sir Karl Popper
 Also exiled during WWII due to the Nazis
 The Logic of Scientific Discovery
 The Open Society and its Enemies
 Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary
Approach
 The Self and its Brain (with Eccles)
 Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of
Scientific Knowledge
The Foundations of Social Research
 Popper’s Principle of falsification
 An advance in science is not a matter of
scientists making a discovery and then proving
it to be right. It is a matter of scientists making
a guess and then finding themselves unable to
prove the guess wrong.
 “null hypothesis” Just because the guess
cannot be proven wrong does not mean that it
is necessarily certain to be right.
 Popper is taking issue with induction in
science
The Foundations of Social Research
 We may boil water a thousand times and find that it
boils at 100 degrees Celsius, but that doesn’t mean
that it always will…
 Popper advocates substituting falsification for
verification. No matter how many examples we
muster in support of a general principle, we are
unable, logically, to prove it true in absolute terms;
yet it takes only one example at variance with a
general law to prove, logically, and in absolute terms,
that it is false. So Popper believes that, in engaging
in observation and experiment, scientists are called
upon not to prove a theory (they can never do that)
but to try to prove it wrong.
The Foundations of Social Research
 Thomas Kuhn
 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
 Kuhn challenges the notion of cumulative and
progressive knowledge in positivism.
 While examining Newtonian Physics and
Aristotelian physics, he realizes that
Newtonian physics could not have come from
Aristotle. There had to have been a
revolution in scientific thinking.
The Foundations of Social Research
 Kuhn continued…
 Scientists do their work in and out of a
background of theory. This theory comprises
a unitary package of beliefs about science and
scientific knowledge. It is this set of beliefs
that Kuhn calls a paradigm. A paradigm is an
overarching conceptual construct, a particular
way in which scientists make sense of the
world or some segment of the world.
The Foundations of Social Research
 Kuhn continued…
 For scientists in general, the prevailing
paradigm is the matrix that shapes the reality
to be studies and legitimates the
methodology and the methods whereby it can
be studied. The prevailing paradigm is quite
simply taken for granted within the
contemporary scientific ethos. In normalized
science, novelties are dismissed because
they are subversive to the basic commitments
of the paradigm
The Foundations of Social Research
 Kuhn continued…
 The paradigm establishes the parameters
and sets the boundaries for scientific
research and, in the ordinary course of
events, scientific inquiry is carried out strictly
in line with it.
 Eventually a paradigm will become
inadequate to deal with the number of
findings that challenge the basic assumptions
of the paradigm. It is a time of crisis, time for
a paradigm shift.
The Foundations of Social Research
 Kuhn continued…
 Paradigm Shifts characterized by
 Willingness to try anything
 Expression of explicit discontent
 Recourse to philosophy
 Debate over fundamentals
 Normal science turned on its head,
extraordinary science ushered it
 Scientific revolution
The Foundations of Social Research
 Kuhn Continued…
 Scientific revolutions are not mere changes
within science but changes of science.
 What are the implications of Kuhn’s theory for
how we view science and those who “do
science”?
The Foundations of Social Research
 Feyerabend’s ‘Farewell to Reason.’
 Science is an essentially anarchic enterprise
 An anarchism helps to achieve progress in
any one of the senses one cares to choose
 Popper’s student
 Accused of being an enemy of science, the
enfant terrible of late 20th century philosophy
of science
 Read quotation on p. 37-38. What do you
think?
The Foundations of Social Research
 While Feyerabend (in Killing Time) writes that
he is not denigrating reason as such but only
attacking petrified and tyrannical versions of
it.
 Since science cannot be grounded
philosophically in any compelling way,
scientific findings are no more than beliefs
and we should not privilege them over other
kinds of belief—like Voodoo.
The Foundations of Social Research
 Feyerabend continued…
 The scientific anarchist is like an undercover
agent who plays the game of reason in order
to undercut reason’s authority.
 Influenced by dadaism and nihilism, stressing
the absurd and unpredictable in artistic
creation i.e., the absurd and unpredictable in
scientific knowledge.
The Foundations of Social Research
 Feyerabend continued…
 Despite his anarchic stance, he does issue
some basic norms for scientific research
 Test out your perceptions: Adopting a certain
point of view means a starting point for
research, not some kind of conclusion
 Utilize counterinduction: calling commonly
used concepts into question by developing
something with which they can be compared,
an external standard of criticism
The Foundations of Social Research
 Where on the spectrum do you find yourself?
 What do positivism and post-positivism
contribute to understanding the research
process and what do they emphasize in
presenting your research?
 What does Crotty mean when he says:
“It is a matter of positivism v. non-positivism,
not a matter of quantitative v. qualitative.”