Critically Discuss the Contribution of Positivism to the Study of Society

Topics: Scientific method, Science, Sociology Pages: 7 (2274 words) Published: June 28, 2010
Critically discuss the contribution of positivism to the study of society

The positivist research method in the social sciences become more influential by August Comte, who tended to build a methodology based on facts rather than speculation. For Comte, the social sciences should concentrate on scientific laws rather than contemplation (Marcuse, 1941, p. 345). This theoretical perspective continues to be the present method of conducting research. This essay argues that positivism has accelerated the development of social science and sociology. The first part of this essay will analyse the historical background of positivism and then examine its contributions to social science research,which include creating methods of social research which are based on naturalism, giving the social sciences a high degree of authority and respectability and finally affording a ready means of comparison and exchange of knowledge between other disciplines such as law, philosophy and literature(Benton & Craib, 2001, pp. 13-27). However, this essay also argues that positivism has several significant shortcomings. First, its search for perfect standards of scientific methodology are too unrealistic when compares to the extreme complexity of social phenomenon; the second weakness, is positivism’s lack of consideration of the subjective, individual and hermeneutic aspects of social phenomenon (Popper, 1983, p. 12). The positivism originated in the 19th century,aiming at employing the methods of the natural sciences to social study (Smith, 1983, p. 12). In 1822, a French philosopher named Auguste Comte created the term sociologie and investigated social relations as natural science (Babbie, 1993). Comte believed that in order to analyse human world objectively, such religious beliefs should be replaced by scientific objectivity and empirical methods of investigation. Comte’s opinion of positivism was based on scientific objectivity and observation through the five senses instead of subjective beliefs. The view of the social world as a science that can be learned through empirical investigation became the basis for the employment of the positivist methods (Babbie, 1993). There are four main features of positivistic approaches(Benton & Craib, 2001, p. 23). (1) The empirical natural science is recognised; (2) Science is considered to be the highest or even the only true form of knowledge; (3) For establishing social sciences, it is necessary to extend scientific method to the study of human mind and social activity; (4) Based on solid foundation of social scientific knowledge, Social problems will be identified and resolved gradually just as the implementation of natural science knowledge to solve engineering and technology difficulties. In the view of positivist, knowledge and truth are related to an external referent reality (Smith, 1993). Thus, the point of view is right or wrong depends on whether a separate entity is consistent. For instance, if there are two or more statements correspond to the same external reference entity, and against each other, then the investigator must make a choice to accept one and reject the other, or both refused to select the other (Smith, 1983, p. 12). As the empirical method is quite objective and does not affect the objects, it is further suggested to be applied to the process of validation. During the investigation, researchers should use objective and scientific language to express themselves rather than subjective descriptions, so as to arrive at the world's common and accurate theories and laws (Smith, 1983, p. 12). In the traditional sense of positivism, it has always stressed the importance of appropriate application of empirical methods for producing knowledge. (Babbie, 1993; Walker & Evers, 1999, pp. 40-56). It is believed that empirical methods stipulate how the rational structure of scientific research is conceived and tested. For example, investigators often start at discovering a new pattern or...
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