Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Neopositivism can be seen as a later phase of positivism, committed to the idea of an objective reality and empiricism, with a preference, increasingly, for deduction over induction.

explanatory context

It places considerable emphasis on statistical analysis in the social sciences and tended towards falsificationism. In some respects, its concern with statistical validation links it to abstracted empiricism.


What distinguishes neo-positivism from the older positivism is the ‘method of logical analysis’ and hence the focus on the language of science. According to Otto Neurath, neopositivism is 'characterized by the reduction through logical analysis of the meaning of sentences to the simplest state- ments about something empirical. Scientific knowledge thus derives from experience which in turn rests on what is immediately given. From this point of view, metaphysics and apriorism are rejected since both lack the necessary basis in the experience of positively given empirical objects and states of affairs' (Delanty and Strydom, 2003, p. 18).


Neopositivism is often equated with logical positivism or logical empiricism.

analytical review (2011) states:

Neo Positivism arises out of the analogy between physical and social phenomena. Auguste Comte made philosophical positivism the cornerstone of his sociological thought. But the school of neo-postivisim traces the origin to statistical tradition rather than Comte’s philosophical positivism. Neo positive takes phenomena from the physical world as models for social events and uses the laws of the former to explain the latter. It asserts that sociology should be a science and its methods should follow these of the natural especially physical sciences.

Neopositivists consider sound scientific methodology to be the first principle of sociological analysis. For them sound scientific methodology involves mathematical and other formal models that incorporate formalization of variables. Computer techniques and language, experimental logics, laboratory experiments and computer simulation of human behaviour. Among early thinkers Pareto and Giddings stressed the scientific nature of sociology and recommended the use of methods commonly adopted in the natural sciences. Dodd, Ogburn, Zipf are considered to the leading exponents of neo-positivism. [nine typos in the original corrected]

Oxford Index (2011) describes neopositivism as follows:

A movement in early 20th-century American sociology which blended together the three themes of quantification, behaviourism, and positivist epistemology. Its principal proponents were Franklin H. Giddings and George A. Lundberg, although the mathematical sociology of writers such as George K. Zipf (1902–50) can be seen as a development of neo-positivist theory.

In his Studies in the Theory of Human Society (1922), Giddings offered a qualified defence of behaviourism, arguing that ‘psychology has become experimental and objective. It has discriminated between reflex and conditioning’. He also insisted that ‘sociology [is] a science statistical in method’ and that ‘a true and complete description of anything must include measurement of it’. Similarly, Lundberg maintained that sociology could be modelled on the natural sciences, and should observe the behaviour of human beings in social situations but without reference to concepts such as feelings, ends, motives, values, and will (which he described as ‘the phlogiston of the social sciences’). Like Giddings, Lundberg argued that science dealt in exact descriptions and generalization, both of which required ‘the quantitative statement’. He emphasized the importance of attitude scales in this context, and insisted (in common with earlier positivists) that science cannot formulate value statements, and that sociology must be a science in this mould.

In so far as neo-positivism had a lasting influence on the development of American sociology, this is perhaps best seen in later mathematical sociology, as for example in Richard M. Emerson's attempt to integrate mathematical theory and exchange theory (reported in J. Berger et al. (eds.), Sociological Theories in Progress, 1972). There are those (see, for example, J. Gibbs, Sociological Theory Construction, 1972) who continue to insist that the most important criterion of a scientific theory is testability, and that only a mathematically formalized theory is empirically testable.

Delanty and Strydom (2003, pp. 14–18) set neopositivism in the context of positivism as a whole:

The relatively long history of positivist ideas in western thinking and the wide- spread acceptance of some of them account, at least partially, for the fact that positiv- ism attained the status of an orthodoxy in the philosophy of social science. What complicates matters considerably, however, is that there is not just one but in fact at least two distinct forms of positivism. The second, twentieth-century form has been called ‘neo-positivism’ to distinguish it from the older, preceding form of positivism which had been in its heyday in nineteenth-century France (August Comte, 1798– 1857) and Britain (John Stuart Mill, 1806–73) in particular, but also in Germany (Ernst Mach, 1838–1916). During the twentieth century, many a social scientist conflated these two forms of positivism and thus drew the criticism upon themselves of typically being 20 to 30 years behind the times. By contrast, it should be emphasized that the distinction between old and neo-positivism is crucial for an understanding of the development of the positivist philosophy of social science in the nineteenth century.
The eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment author David Hume (1711–76) is generally regarded as the founder of positivism, but it was Comte who, leaning on Saint-Simon, actually coined the term ‘positive philosophy’ in the nineteenth century. Hume’s legacy was the question whether certain knowledge based on individual facts was possible, but contrary to his pronounced (albeit not always intentional) scepti- cism, his nineteenth-century successors regarded scientific knowledge, the sole form of certain knowledge, not only as the paradigm of all valid knowledge but even as the solution to collective problems facing humankind. This was the case with Comte in particular who represented what has been called ‘systematic positivism’. Closely related to the latter was the so-called ‘critical positivism’ of Mill and Mach which shifted the emphasis from philosophy as a synthetic harmonization of the results of science with the advancement of society to the sameness of the methods for the acquisition of valid knowledge in all spheres of inquiry. The characteristic feature of this older positivism, however, was that it adopted the positively given or the empirical as its supreme value. This means that it focused on existence, reality or nature, or to put it still differently, on things, events or facts as such. Depending on how experience was defined, the positively given or the empirical dimension was understood either in phenomenalist or in physicalist terms, and sometimes even collapsed into a meta- physical naturalism. In general it was an approach that strongly emphasized induc- tion, which can be defined as presuppositionless inquiry by which theory is arrived at from the observation of facts. It is in this respect that twentieth-century neo- positivism differs sharply from its predecessor. As its alternative names – i.e. ‘logical positivism’ or ‘logical empiricism’ – suggest, the positively given or the empirical was no longer total, as earlier. An additional dimension, the logical, was introduced and came to play a significant role in neo-positivism, which took a strongly anti- inductive stance, favouring instead deductive logic (the application of theory to the concrete case).
Neo-positivism was originated by a group of philosophers called the Vienna Circle who reacted to the predominance of German idealism in particular and meta- physical doctrines in general. Their own doctrine, variously referred to as ‘logical positivism’ or ‘logical empiricism’, came into its own in the early 1920s around Moritz Schlick (1882–1936) and was carried forward by such group members as Rudolf Carnap, Herbert Feigl, Philipp Frank, Kurt Gödel, Victor Kraft, Otto Neurath, Friedrich Waismann and others. Through the travels of Ludwig Wittgen- stein (1889–1951) and Alfred Ayer, there was a relation of mutual influence between Vienna and Cambridge, and due to the emigration of various Vienna Circle group members as a result of Hitler’s rise to power, neo-positivism later spread also to the USA.
Neo-positivism looked to Mach, a physicist and professor of philosophy in Vienna, as one of its precursors and went on to draw heavily on Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica as a major resource and example. Starting from a neutral monism according to which reality or the universe was a one-layer world consisting of basic entities in the form of experiences, impressions or ‘sensa’, these authors made a clear distinction between the logical and the empirical dimensions. Whereas they regarded the former as the form of knowledge represented by the language of science, the latter concerned experience as the basis of the knowledge we have of the world. Besides the above authors, however, neo-positivism depended in particular on the early Wittgenstein, especially in so far as its objectivism and empiri- cism was not merely a continuation of nineteenth-century positivism. Breaking with the older positivist thing-event-fact model, Wittgenstein presented the first radical and therefore influential neo-positivistic thing-event-fact-language model. Rather that being concerned with things, events, facts or nature as such, he shifted the focus to the language in which things, events or facts are captured. But since everyday language was vague and misleading, his concern was with scientific language, the one intersubjective language of science. His aim was to discover the logic of language, the true logical structure of all the sentences of the language of science. A basic assump- tion here was that there was an isomorphic or mapping relation between this ideal language and reality. If scientific language is suitably constructed it could, through its logical structure, capture the very logical form of the world. It was further assumed that the capacity of language to depict the world was such that it made the thinking human subject superfluous, which implied that only the sentences of the natural sciences were meaningful or intersubjectively verifiable.
Wittgenstein thus provided the neo-positivists with a starting point for their objectivist programme of unified science, which included a programme of the reduc- tion of the social sciences to so-called ‘behavioural sciences’. According to them, social sciences such as sociology were not genuine sciences due to their use of inten- tional sentences and therefore would gain respectability only if they patterned them- selves upon the model of the natural sciences. In fact, the neo-positivists did not really develop a philosophy of the social sciences as such, but since they believed that what they discovered in respect of the natural sciences should be universally applicable to everything worthy of the title ‘science’, they simply extended their philosophy of science to the social sciences. To the detriment of their own disciplines, social scien- tists in the English-speaking world in particular for a considerable period during the twentieth century sympathetically embraced the recommendation to seek scientific respectability by subjecting themselves to positivism. Some kept up with develop- ments in neo-positivism and as it dissolved were thus able to gradually emancipate themselves from this debilitating recommendation. Tragically, however, a large num- ber of credulous social scientists, never appreciating the difference between old and neo-positivism, not only continued to operate with an old form of naďve positivism, but also sought to emulate a long out of date model of the natural sciences.
After its emergence in the early 1920s, neo-positivism underwent a gradual process of internal development which from one point of view appears as liberalization and from another as dissolution. In keeping with the fact that the analytic philosophy of language had been the dominant approach in the first part of the twentieth century and thus provided a widely accepted framework for philosophy, the change in the neo-positivist philosophy of science paralleled its philosophy of language. Whereas analytic philosophy successively passed through ‘logical atomism’, ‘logical positivism’ and ‘ordinary language analysis’, a shift of emphasis occurred in the philosophy of science from ‘syntactics’ – in the sense of logical form – via ‘semantics’ – in the sense of frameworks of meaning – to ‘pragmatics’ – in the sense of the use of language. It is during the second phase of analytic philosophy in particular that the neo-positivist – variously called the ‘logical positivist’, ‘logical empiricist’ or ‘empirical-analytical’ – philosophy of science enjoyed its most elaborate formulation and reached its peak.
In the first phase, exemplified by various Vienna Circle group members inspired by Wittgenstein such as Carnap and Neurath, the emphasis was on the one logical form of the language of science by which alone the logical form of the world could be extracted and captured. Under the pressure of the so-called problem of ‘empirical significance’, however, this strict demand to formulate the ideal language of unified science was abandoned in the second phase in favour of the requirement that scientific statements must be intersubjectively verifiable. Karl Popper (1902–94), in a certain sense a reluctant member of the Vienna Circle, played an important role here by means of his theory of falsification as well as his recognition that theories structure the observation of reality – what meanwhile has come to be called ‘the thesis of theory-ladenness of observation’. This change meant that a shift occurred from logical form or syntactics to semantics, or the meaning of scientific language in so far as it refers to objects and from induction to a general preference for deduction. The concern with the semantic or meaningful conceptual framework of science was central to the work of Carnap, who drew on the seminal contribution of Alfred Tarski. Closely related to this liberalization was, for instance, Carl Hempel’s (1905–97) attempts to transform the problem of causality into the problem of explanation and to show that the explication of a scientific law requires contextual over and above formal criteria and that empirical significance resides not in concepts and sentences but in whole postulational or theoretical systems.
By the third phase, however, it had become apparent that it was not enough to embed logical relations in the content or meaning of concepts, sentences and postula- tional systems. It was realized that, beyond the construction of semantic or meaning- ful frameworks, the semantic dimension itself presupposed the pragmatic dimension of the established use – or rather uses – of language by the various sciences as they have developed historically. Carnap only reluctantly accepted Charles Morris’ idea, derived from American pragmatism, of the pragmatic dimension alongside syntactics and semantics. The introduction of the element of choice into science, which earlier softened the sharp distinction between the logical and the empirical, now took on the character of a much stronger conventionalism which decisively blurred the dis- tinction. Eventually, Carnap himself embraced the idea of a multitude of possible syntactic-semantic systems or linguistic frameworks among which the scientists had to choose according to external criteria. Both Hempel and Quine revived the con- ventionalism of the French philosopher of science Pierre Duhem (1861–1916), with Quine for instance arguing that it is impossible to falsify a hypothesis because it is always possible to modify the language or the system of postulation involved. On the basis of lectures that Wittgenstein started giving in Cambridge in 1932 in which he, in self-criticism and partial repudiation of his earlier work, focused on the empirical pluralism of self-consistent and self-justifying language games, British analytic phil- osophy embarked on the analysis of the plethora of uses made of ordinary, everyday language. The internal criticism and revision inaugurated by such philosophers as Popper, Morris, the later Wittgenstein and Quine opened the way for what can be regarded as the gradual dissolution of positivism from the late 1930s onwards and its displacement by post-empiricism. The break with the positivist or empiricist concep- tion of science became fully apparent with Stephen Toulmin and especially Thomas Kuhn’s account of the development of scientific knowledge in terms of shifting frameworks of understanding or paradigms rather than the testing, confirmation or falsification of hypotheses. In a similar post-empiricist vein, Imre Lakatos stressed the role of research programmes in the growth of knowledge, while Paul Feyerabend more radically argued that inductive and deductive logic and also the methodology of hypothesis testing are irrelevant to the development of scientific knowledge.

associated issues


related areas

See also


logical empiricism


Delanty G. and Strydom, P., 2003, Philosophies of Social Science, London, McGraw-Hill.

Oxford Index, 2011, 'Neo-positivism' available at, accessed 16 March 2013, still available 24 December 2016 (copyright 2016)., 2011, 'Neo-positivism' available at, accessed 16 March 2013, still available 24 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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