The Evolution of Positivism in the Study of Sociology

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Positivism describes an approach to the study of society that specifically utilizes scientific evidence, like experiments, statistics and qualitative results, to reveal a truth about the way society operates and functions. It is based on the assumption that it is possible to observe social life and establish reliable, valid knowledge about how it works.

The term was born during the 19th century when Auguste Comte revealed his ideas in his books The Course in Positive Philosophy and A General View of Positivism.

The theory is that this knowledge can then be used to affect the course of social change and improve the human condition. Positivism also argues that sociology should concern itself only with what can be observed with the senses and that theories of social life should be built in a rigid, linear, and methodical way on a base of verifiable fact.

Background of the Theory of Positivism

First, Comte was primarily interested in establishing theories that he could test, with the main goal of improving our world once these theories were delineated. He wanted to uncover natural laws that could be applied to society and he believed that the natural sciences, like biology and physics, were a stepping stone in the development of social science. He believed that like gravity is a truth in the physical world,  similar universal laws could be discovered in relation to society.

Comte, along with Emile Durkheim, established sociology as an academic discipline of sociology, wanted to create a distinct new field with its own group of scientific facts. Comte wanted sociology to become the "queen science," one that was more important than the natural sciences that proceeded it.

Five Principles of Positivism

  • The logic of inquiry is identical across all branches of science.
  • The goal of inquiry is to explain, predict, and discover.
  • Research should be observed empirically with human senses.
  • Science is not the same as common sense.
  • Science should be judged by logic and remain free of values.

Three Cultural Stages of Society

Comte believed that society was passing through distinct stages and was then entering its third. These included:

Theological-military stage: During this period, society held strong beliefs in supernatural beings, slavery, and the military.

Metaphysical-judicial stage: During this time, there was a tremendous focus on political and legal structures that emerged as society became more focused on science.

Scientific-industrial society: Comte believed society was entering this stage, in which a positive philosophy of science was emerging as a result of advances in logical thinking and scientific inquiry.

Modern Theory on Positivism

Positivism has had relatively little influence on contemporary sociology, however, because the prevailing theory is that it encourages a misleading emphasis on superficial facts without any attention to underlying mechanisms that cannot be observed. Instead, sociologists understand that the study of culture is complex and requires many complex methods necessary for research.

For example, by using fieldwork, a researcher immerses himself in another culture to learn about it. Modern sociologists don't embrace the version of one "true" vision of society as a goal for sociology like Comte did.