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

Positivism asserts that knowledge should be based on direct apprehension of the objective world via empirically verified causal explanations.

explanatory context

Positivism is based on 'positive' real facts not abstract deductions. Positivism asserts that knowledge should be based on observation and experiment. No attempt should be made to understand or interpret the essence of things.

The three central tenets of positivism identified by commentators are:


1. phenomenalism:. that the data of science is direct (sensate) observable empirical phenomena.

2. causality: that phenomena are interrelated via causal propositions

3. objectivism: that scientific enquiry should be objective and value-free, its methods should be independent of the researcher, repeatable and reliable.

Essentially, this implies that the methodology of the natural science are applicable to all realms of science, that the ultimate aim should be causal laws and that the researcher should simply adopt an instrumental, value neutral approach.

Several corollaries follow that mark out positivist tendencies.

First, positivism sees theory formation as inductive generalisation from observation.

Second, empirical test is the final arbiter between competing theories.

Third, empirical verification means that theoretical disputes are transitory and thus science progresses in a linear fashion towards an ever more complete explanation of the social world.

Arguably, positivism is one of the most widespread of the idealist currents within modern bourgeois philosophy.


Positivism and sociology

Positivism in its various forms has been closely associated with the development of social science. Economics and psychology are dominated by positivist conceptions and sociology has had a strong positivist input since Comte introduced the term sociology.

Durkheim's work was influential in developing positivism in France and beyond. British sociology adopted an empiricist approach underpinned by positivism. The United States championed positivism through functionalism and structural functionalism and even interactionist perspectives did not begin to break radically from positivism until the 1960s. Positivist approaches have spread to other countries in the internationalisation of sociology.

The two main alternatives to positivism in sociology over the last half century have been Marxism and phenomenology. These both, of course, owe a great deal to the German idealist tradition of philosophy.

More recently, some feminist perspectives have proposed an alternative to positivist science in sociology through a critique of male oriented knowledge and methodology.





Types of positivism

Radical (inductivist) positivism

Radical positivism (sometimes referred to as inductivist positivism) basically adopts a view that facts are the basis of science. The only admissable evidence for science is that which can be regarded as observable fact. Verification is then dependent on the ultimate authority of such facts. Generalisations are then derived inductively from the particular observations and experiences.

This can be seen in the inductive method of Bacon and the logico-experimental method of Pareto.

Comtean positivism

Comtean positivism supposes that human history goes through various stages and reaches the scientific or positive, which bases understanding on observable facts and the relations between them. Laws are thus empirically discoverable. All other notions of, and searches for, origins are pre-scientific.



Machian positivism

Machian positivism is named after Mach, an Austrian physicist, who argued that there was a physical reality that existed independently of human thought, experience, and perception. This conventional or common sense reality is the one with which all physical statements should be shown to be compatible. The task of the physicist, or indeed any scientist, was to show that the statements about the world which they made were, both in principle and practice, statements that were compatible with, the common sense reality.

In essence Mach was both a conventionalist and an empiricist and in many respects his view of positivism is outside the mainstream development of positivism in the twentieth century.


Logical positivism

Logical positivism developed an 'extreme' version of the basic positivist tenets. It rejected metaphysics and argued that only two kinds of propositions had any scientific meaning. These were analytic and synthetic propositions. Analytic propositions are logically true, for example in mathematical theorems. Synthetic propositions are statements verified by empirical observation.

Logical positivists espouse a version of sophisticated inductivism. They asserted a distinction between direct observation and theory and maintained that the latter are justified by the extent to which they receive inductive support from the secure observational foundation. The logical positivists went so far as to say that theories or observation statements only have meaning insofar as they can be verified by direct observation.

This position is undermined by the fact that the sharp distinction between observation and theory cannot be maintained because observation, or rather the statements resulting from observation, are permeated by theory.

Logical positivism is usually seen to have originated in the early 1920s, in the Vienna Circle, which included people like Schilling.

Durkheimian positivism

The development of positivism in sociology as manifested in multivariate analysis is rooted in Durkheim's approach to sociological enquiry. Durkheim's was a positivistic approach (in most of his work), but stripped bare of the metaphysical encumbrances of Comte. Briefly, Durkheim argued that sociology was the objective study of social facts (which were coercive and outside individual consciousness), with a view to revealing causal relationships between such facts, in effect using correlation procedures.

He argued for a sort of scientific method, taking into account control variables. He referred to it as a comparative method, in the sense that he wanted to compare cases where facts are or are not present in order to assess associations. His key work in this respect is Suicice and this has been taken by members of the Columbia School and represented as a model of falsificationist multivariate analysis.

Durkheim saw society as an organism where the parts were functional to the whole, and sociology was of importance in providing knowledge for social order.



analytical review

Loyola University New Orleans (undated) introduces logical positivism as follows:

(Also known as as logical empiricism, logical neopositivism, neopositivism.) A school of philosophy which arose in Austria and Germany during 1920s, primarily concerned with the logical analysis of scientific knowledge. Among its members were Moritz Schlick, founder of the Vienna Circle, Rudolf Carnap, the leading figure of logical positivism, Hans Reichenbach, founder of the Berlin Circle, Herbert Feigl, Philipp Frank, Kurt Grelling, Hans Hahn, Carl Gustav Hempel, Victor Kraft, Otto Neurath, Friedrich Waismann.

Logical positivists denied the soundness of metaphysics and traditional philosophy; they asserted that many philosophical problems are indeed meaningless. During 1930s the most important representatives of logical positivism emigrated to USA, where they influenced American philosophy. Until 1950s logical positivism was the leading philosophy of science; today its influence persists especially in the way of doing philosophy, in the great attention given to the analysis of scientific thought and in the definitely acquired results of the technical researches on formal logic and the theory of probability.

[NB. Not everone would agree that logical positivism and logical empiricism are the same.]


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines positivism as:

A philosophical position according to which there are close ties between the social and natural sciences, which share a common logical framework.


The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'positivism' as:

The term is used in widely various ways in sociology. For Comte, it mainly meant a search for society's invariant laws, although he also often associated the term with political progress and order.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 2.2


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Loyola University New Orleans (undated) 'Logical Positivism' available at, accessed 16 March 2013, still available 24 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 24 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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