Positivism in the Study of Sociology

Defining What This Theory Means

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Positivism describes an approach to the study of society that specifically utilizes scientific evidence such as experiments, statistics, and qualitative results to reveal a truth about the way society functions. It is based on the assumption that it's possible to observe social life and establish reliable knowledge about its inner workings.

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. Nineteenth-century French philosopher Auguste Comte developed and defined the term in his books "The Course in Positive Philosophy" and "A General View of Positivism." He theorized that the knowledge gleaned from positivism can be used to affect the course of social change and improve the human condition.

The Queen Science

Initially, 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 just as gravity is a truth in the physical world, similar universal laws could be discovered in relation to society.

Comte, along with Emile Durkheim, wanted to create a distinct new field with its own group of scientific facts. He hoped that sociology would become the "queen science," one that was more important than the natural sciences that preceded it.

Five Principles of Positivism

Five principles make up the theory of positivism. It asserts that the logic of inquiry is identical across all branches of science; the goal of inquiry is to explain, predict, and discover; and research should be observed empirically with human senses. Positivism also maintains that science is not the same as common sense, and it 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. The stages included the theological-military stage, the metaphysical-judicial stage, and the scientific-industrial society.

During the theological-military stage, society held strong beliefs about supernatural beings, slavery, and the military. The metaphysical-judicial stage saw a tremendous focus on political and legal structures that emerged as society evolved, and in the scientific-industrial stage, a positive philosophy of science was emerging due to advances in logical thinking and scientific inquiry.

Positivism Today

Positivism has had relatively little influence on contemporary sociology because it is said to encourage 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, researchers immerse themselves 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.