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November 28, 2014 / C H Thompson


For a less detailed look at positivism go here.

The French philosopher Auguste Comte grew up in the radicalism of the years following the French Revolution. Thesocial science turmoil of those years prompted him to think of a rational (scientific) way of planning society so as to avoid any future turmoil. His work entitled ‘Plan of the Scientific Works Necessary for the Re-organisation of Society’ (1822) is seen as coining the term sociology through the application of sociological positivism.

Positivism claims to construct scientific theories from information (data) gathered from researching society. In this way Comte saw sociology as a new science because just as there are causes of things in the natural world (e.g gravity makes objects fall to the ground) there are forces in society which influence individual behaviour (the turmoil Comete witnessed in the French Revolution).

Emile Durkheim, also a positivist, called the external forces acting on people social facts. He said it was the job of sciologists, through social research, to study and measure the influence of these social facts.

For Durkheim, social facts are to sociologists what gravity is to a scientist. In the same way scientists have to use instruments to measure gravity, it is the job of the sociologist to come up with ways of measuring social facts (Durkheim said social facts should be considered as things which live outside the individual – like gravity). An example of a social fact influencing people’s behaviour is social-class. Social-class though an abstract idea, like gravity, can been seen to influence people’s behaviour. For example in the same way gravity might limit your ability to fly might your social-class have any influence on your ability to succeed in life.

In order to measure the extent social-class might determine a person’s ability to succeed some sociologists use postitvist research methods to measure or quantify the influence of social-class. Research methods which objectively measure data are known as quantitative methods, these include:

Positivism assumes general laws about society could be gathered from conducting objective quantitative research, using any of the above methods (which method you choose is examined here). The assumption here is individual motivations can be studied and predicted in the same way a scientific methods predict the temperature at which water boils. Interpretivists challenge this assumption.


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