Of Methods and Methodology: 1. Positivism

No.1 Positivism

A methodology is a framework for research that focuses on how it is possible to collect reliable and valid data about, in this instance, the social world. It’s shaped by two main considerations:

1. Our beliefs about the fundamental nature of the social world (ontological concerns).

2. How we believe is possible to construct knowledge about the world (epistemology).

In turn, these ideas shape our choice of research methods when we come to actually collect data.

Basic Principles

As a general approach Positivism argues it’s both possible and desirable for sociologists to study social behaviour using similar methods to those used to study behaviour in the natural world – a belief we can examine by identifying some of the key ideas underpinning this approach.

1. A basic principle of this methodological approach is that social systems consist of structures that exist independently of individuals.

Institutions, such as families, education systems, governments and so forth, represent behaviour, at the macro (or very large group) level of society. As individuals we experience social structures as forces bearing down on us, pushing us to behave in certain ways and shaping our behavioural choices. An interesting example of how an institutional structure works is language.

To be part of a society we must communicate using language, both verbal (words) and non-verbal (gestures). As conscious individuals we exercise some choice over which language we speak, but our freedom of choice is actually limited for two reasons:

a. To engage in social action we must “speak the same language” – speaking Spanish to people who don’t understand it is a recipe for confusion.

b. Whatever language we use it remains a language; it has a structure of rules (grammar) that must be obeyed if people are to communicate successfully.

In other words, although we have some degree of choice in our daily lives this is constrained by social structures.

In this example, once we have learnt and understood the various conventions involved in the structure of a particular language (the aforementioned rules of grammar) we can converse happily in that language. In this respect, while we can choose what we talk to people about it is the structure of language that makes conversation possible. It is the structure of something like language that determines whether or not we can engage in this particular form of social action.

For positivists, therefore, where social action is determined by structural forces it makes sense to study the causes of behaviour: the structural coercion that makes people choose one course of action over another, rather than their effects – the different choices they make within a structure of possible actions.

2. Social structures are seen as real, objective, forces (in Durkheim’s (1895) formulation, “social facts“) that act on people in ways they are powerless to prevent. Durkheim, for example, theorised structural forces in terms of the collective conscience – the expression of a society’s “collective will” that bears down on individuals and shapes their behavioural choices.

Structure, in this respect, determines action because to engage in social action we must “speak the same language”, something we can’t do without social structures. Just as natural scientists have observed the effects of “unseen forces” such as gravity or electro-magnetism, social structures are unseen forces whose effect can also be observed using similar techniques to those of the natural sciences:

  • systematic observation.
  • rigorous testing.
  • quantitative measurements that create reliable knowledge.
  • More specifically, knowledge is created by:

  • observing social behaviour.
  • developing and testing hypotheses.
  • analysing and evaluating evidence.
  • This systematic process culminates in the development of theories that explain the initial observations and predict future behaviours.

    In this respect scientific research must satisfy two conditions:

    a. It must explainsomething, such as why some children achieve more in an education system than others, rather than simply describe it.

    b. Knowledge is exclusive; if we can explain why a particular type of behaviour occurs – such as differences in educational achievement being explained by differences in family incomes, social class background or whatever – we also exclude alternative explanations.

    For positivists therefore, knowledge is hierarchical; some forms – that which is factual, objective and reliable – are more significant than others, such as those based on opinions or faith.

    3. The task of social science is to isolate, analyse and explain the causes of human behaviour – and to understand how social forces shape behaviour we must study social groups rather than individuals. This follows because if social forces are created by collective participation in groups and relationships it makes methodological sense to study the nature of the forces that shape individual behaviours, rather than the behaviour itself.

    Natural scientists explaining why an apple always falls to the ground, for example, don’t examine the individual properties and attributes of the apple; they explain this behaviour in terms of a force (gravity) acting on the apple.

    Similarly, to explain why people go to school, live in family groups or commit crimes, positivists don’t look at the properties and attributes of individuals; they explain this behaviour in terms of the structural forces acting those individuals; individuals may choose (social action) to live in family groups, for example, because this arrangement is the most efficient way to organise behaviour for the purposes of survival, reproduction and child care (social structure).

    4. To reliably and validly study the causes of behaviour sociologists should use empirical methods; that is, those based on the evidence of our senses, such as the ability to ask questions or observe behaviour. Anything not directly observable, such as people’s thoughts, cannot be considered reliable or valid since we can never objectively know what someone is thinking. The best we can do is make logical deductions about people’s thoughts on the basis of their actions.

    5. Since this version of science is concerned only with what is – rather than what we might want something to be – scientists must be personally objective in their work; they don’t participate in the behaviour being studied to avoid biasing or influencing the data collection process.

    6. Quantitative methods are favoured because they allow for the collection of objective and reliable data; questionnaires / structured interviews, experiments or comparative and observational studies not only offer higher levels of reliability than qualitative methods, they also allow the researcher to maintain a high level of personal objectivity through the ability to “stand apart” from the behaviour being researched; they allow, in other words, the researcher to “observe without participating”.

    Research methods should not depend on the subjective interpretations of a researcher and research should be capable of exact replication.


  • the primary research goal is to explain, not describe, social phenomena.
  • scientific research involves the ability to discover the “general rules” (or structures) that determine individual behaviour.
  • the social scientist must be both personally objective – their research must not be influenced by their values, beliefs, opinions and prejudices – and systemically objective.
  • research methods must be capable of producing objective data because scientific research involves the ability to quantify and measure behaviour.
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