Positivism in the Twentieth Century

Peter Halfpenny. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

Comte coined both the terms ‘positivism’ and ‘sociology’ in the early nineteenth century and their development has been intertwined ever since. The twentieth-century history of sociology is a prolonged engagement with positivism, attempting either to consolidate sociology’s positivist inheritance or repudiate it. Given the multifarious forms which positivism takes, this history is convoluted, with critical rejection of one strand of positivism often leaving other strands untouched. Moreover, especially over the past twenty-five years, the number of practitioners of sociology has increased enormously, and they speak with proliferating voices. There has been no consolidation of the discipline into a dominant paradigm, instead diversity has increased. Some of this diversity has been expressed in terms of multiplying challenges to positivism. This chapter describes various twists and turns in the twentieth-century debates over positivism which are, essentially, driven by one central methodological question: is sociology a science? But first it is necessary to go back to Comte and review his legacy to the twentieth century.

Comte’s Legacy

Comte’s positivism drew on earlier ideas, combining in particular notions of science influenced by seventeenth-century empiricism and a commitment to progress emerging from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment (Comte, [1830] 1970). The result was enthusiastic avowal of the modernist project: the goal is orderly progress towards a better future for humankind and the means to accomplish this is the practical application of science (Becker and Barnes, 1938). Scientific knowledge is achieved by the rational evaluation of empirical evidence. Application of this knowledge enables us to control both the natural and the social worlds, to bend them to our needs. All vestiges of unscientific thought, and especially traditional religion as a guide to human action, are to be abandoned. Instead, a scientific sociology is to be our guide. Indeed, in Comte’s later writings, his positivist science of society took on the form of a secular religion of humanity devoted to moral regeneration through the worship of society organized by the positivist church (Wright, 1986).

To these strands—of progress, scientism and humanist religion—Comte added another. His ‘law of three states’ provided an interpretation of the history of ideas which he believed gave empirical support to a unity of science thesis (or naturalism). All domains of knowledge progress from an initial theological stage, in which events are explained by appeal to other-worldly beings, through the metaphysical stage, where religious superstitions are repudiated, to the final positive stage, where science is ascendant but limits itself to the systematic ordering of empirical knowledge in general laws. In their mature form, all disciplines become, in essence, the same. In particular, there are no differences in principle between the natural and social sciences, a claim which is an enduring aspect of positivist sociology.

Each of the various strands of Comte’s positivism was carried forward into the twentieth century, often by thinkers who developed one strand but rejected others, and who disagreed with each other about which strands were the crucial elements of the positivist legacy. As a result, his influence on the subsequent development of sociology is more indirect than direct. For example, Spencer’s evolutionary sociology became a popular characterization of the idea of progress in the late nineteenth century. But Spencer turned away from Comte’s view that progress relied on increasing individuals’ conformity to the harmonizing laws uncovered by the science of society (Spencer, 1864). Instead, Spencer proposed a theory of historical development in which competition between individuals was the motor of progress. This dovetailed with both the social Darwinism and the laissez-faire ethos of the day and, for many, provided a more acceptable account of progress than an alternative which was attracting increasing attention at the time: the revolutionary theory proposed by Marx and Engels.

J.S. Mill was a leading exponent of Comte’s early work, playing a major role in bringing it to the attention of British thinkers, though he distanced himself from the later religion of humanity (Simon, 1963). Mill was attracted to the idea that the study of society would benefit from the application of scientific methods, meaning the systematic collection and analysis of empirical data, oriented towards the production of laws summarizing the regular association of observables. Mill developed an account of the methods of the moral sciences (his term for the disciplines that study humans) in the sixth book of his System of Logic, setting out there the principles of induction through which the truth of laws is empirically justified (Mill, [1843] 1961). This laid the ground for later developments in both the positivist philosophy of science and the statistical analysis of data.

Although for many the positivist church was an aberration at odds with the tenets of Comte’s own positive science, it was popular with others. It had a troubled history but its adherents played an active role in keeping positivist ideas in the public eye. Its influence extended to early twentieth-century British sociologists such as Geddes and Hobhouse, and the first issues of Sociological Review (which began publication in 1908) contained sympathetic articles, including one that argued that positivism had permeated prevailing currents of thought so thoroughly that its continuation as a distinctive faith and separatist organization was redundant (Oliphant, 1909).

Even though he rejected other aspects of Comte’s work, Durkheim subscribed to the unity of science thesis, and together with Spencer he is often identified as one of the more important sources of twentieth-century positivist sociology. To naturalism, Durkheim added the idea that society is sui generis, a causal force independent of its component individuals, resulting in a sociology with no place for human agency (Benoit-Smullyan, 1948). This sociologism, according to which social forces precede and constitute the human psyche, is often identified as another strand of the positivist legacy to the twentieth century, alongside its empiricism, whereby human sensory experience is the arbiter of factual knowledge, scientism, which maintains that the growth of knowledge is for the benefit of humankind, naturalism, which argues that there is no essential difference between the social and natural sciences, and progressivism, according to which the goal of steadily improving society while maintaining social order is to be achieved by adjusting human desires to the scientifically established laws of society.

This rather loosely woven perspective was not the only intellectual bequest of the nineteenth century. Positivist ideas were in competition with many others as the social sciences crystallized and became institutionalized in university curricula at the beginning of the new century. However, the positivist view of science was revitalized in the 1920s and 1930s by a group of philosophers, scientists and mathematicians which became known as the Vienna Circle.

The Positivist Model of Science

The members of the Vienna Circle, the logical positivists, gave new impetus to the nineteenth-century social theorists’ modernist programme (Feigl, 1969a; Kolakowski, 1972). Committed to scientism, they were optimistic that if all disciplines could be made truly scientific, they would provide the basis for rational social reforms and avoid disastrous social dislocations—such as recently experienced in the First World War (Wartofsky, 1982). In their manifesto, entitled ‘The Scientific Conception of the World,’ they expressed high hopes that, through advances in the natural sciences and by extending science into the social arena and into the heart of philosophy too, the modernist project would accelerate towards its goal of universal enlightenment (Neurath et al., [1929] 1973).

Crucial to the logical positivists was the demarcation of knowledge that was properly scientific from opinion and superstition, and from metaphysics more generally. This they believed could be achieved by refining earlier empiricist accounts of science and merging them with new ideas from logic and mathematics. Empiricism can be specified in several different ways and the logical positivists adopted a radical, phenomenalist version, according to which the foundational experiences of science are elements of scientists’ own perceptions, such as sounds and colours. This phenomenalism is anti-realist, because experiences of sensations do not justify claims that lying beyond them are real objects that they reflect or represent or which cause them. Particular groupings of sensory elements may be referred to as physical or mental objects but this is a mere convenience. Concepts of purported real objects inaccessibly beyond experience are complex ideas, and they must be exhaustively analysable in terms of simple sensations if they are to be admitted to science. Although phenomenalism avoided some of the characteristic problems of less radical forms of empiricism, such as the relation between an independent reality and human experiences of it, it posed problems of its own which later became insurmountable barriers to the further development of the logical positivist programme.

The second central component of the Vienna Circle’s programme was logic which, in general terms, is the study of argument and sound reasoning. Following Frege’s and Russell’s and Whitehead’s work on the foundations of mathematics, the Vienna Circle took the narrow view that logic is concerned with the formal analysis of implication relations, rather than the older, broad view that it involves the study of the human activity of inferring—which leads in the direction of empirical psychology. Logic in the narrow sense is an ideal language in which the meanings of logical connectives are precisely defined, just as in mathematics the algebraic operators +, -, x and—f- have a precise meaning. By adopting the narrow view, the logical positivists could relinquish the empiricist interpretation of logic and mathematics, according to which they comprise empirical generalizations liable to refutation by countervailing evidence, which seems too weak a basis on which to build the certainties of logic and mathematics. At the same time they could avoid what previously had appeared to be the only alternative, the rationalist interpretation which captures the inviolability of logic and mathematics, but at the expense of rendering them beyond experience and therefore unacceptably metaphysical. Instead, for the logical positivists mathematics and logic comprise analytic a priori statements, necessarily true or false solely by virtue of the definitions of the operators they contain, independent of their factual content. For example, 4 + 3 = 7 is true and 4-3 = 7 is false irrespective of whether they refer to humans or horses or hairbrushes.

Logical analysis became a central resource for the Vienna Circle (Carnap, [1932] 1959). They used it to overcome previous philosophical paradoxes. Issues were investigated by reconstructing them in a formal language, which cleared away conceptual confusions by setting out the issues in simple propositions linked by precisely defined relations. Philosophy, the logical positivists maintained, should concern itself solely with clarifying the logic of scientific enquiry. By deploying phenomenalism and logical analysis, they argued that the whole of the language of scientific theories could be analysed into or constructed out of sets of atomic propositions that describe immediate experience, linked by the rules of logic.

This combination of phenomenalism and logical analysis is captured in the principle of verifiability, which is often identified as the defining characteristic of logical positivism. It is this principle which provides the criterion for demarcating between scientific language and metaphysical chatter. To have descriptive meaning, a proposition must be verifiable—at least in principle—by experience. If it is unverifiable, either because it is ill-formed, violating the syntactical rules of logic, or because it is ungrounded, employing concepts beyond the hold of experience, then it is neither true nor false, but meaningless. Propositions that are properly scientific are factual or logical, and all other expressions are without sense, that is, nonsensical. Non-scientific, nonsensical expressions might have some non-descriptive function, such as the display of emotion, but they are not cognitively significant. Since they are meaningless, arguments for and against them are undecidable and therefore pointless. They must be purged from positive science. In this way, moral discourse was expunged, since statements about what ought to be cannot be logically derived from empirically grounded statements about what is. Moral theory is metaphysical nonsense because it is impossible to deduce what is morally desirable from scientific knowledge of the facts. This argument forms another strand of positivism: science is value-free. Scientific study can reveal possibilities and identify limits, but it does not provide an evaluation of alternatives.

Logical positivism was far more rigorous and narrowly focused than any earlier form of positivism, and it had enormous influence because it set the agenda for the philosophy of science for a large part of the twentieth century, not least because most of the Vienna Circle’s members fled Nazism and settled in other European countries and the United States, where they continued to develop and promulgate their ideas (Ayer, 1959; Feigl, 1969b). Although further articulation of their programme to purge science of metaphysics, by both sympathizers and critics, increasingly revealed problems, the general tenor of their approach became established as the’ received view’ of the methodology of the natural sciences by the middle of the twentieth century (Putnam, 1962). So entrenched did their model of science become that it was often forgotten that it was a theory of science and taken instead to be a description of scientific practice. Accordingly, it was commonly argued that if sociology were to be a science, it would have to conform to the positivist image of scientific enquiry.

One of the Vienna Circle, Neurath, addressed the question of how such conformity might be achieved. He suggested that sociology, like other sciences, aims to establish regularities between observables, the ultimate aim being a unified science connecting together all logically compatible laws. Marx’s materialism comes close, he thought, to the required form for sociology. However, if the sciences were to be unified, all would need to deploy the same lexicon to describe experience, that is, all the non-logical primitive concepts of the sciences must be interpreted in the same observational vocabulary. Members of the Vienna Circle had different views as to what this vocabulary should be; Neurath (1931a) favoured the language of physics. His view of positivist sociology was then a reductionist one (in stark contrast to the sociologism of Durkheim), limited to the study of social behaviour. Not only were ephemeral social forces excluded from sociology but so too were all references to apparently mental events; both banished as metaphysical unless they could be replaced by behaviours describable spatiotemporally in the language of physics. Although Neurath’s writings had little direct influence on twentieth-century sociology, they did reinforce the general view that in order for ‘backward’ disciplines to enjoy the success and prestige of the natural sciences they had only to articulate their problems in precise terms, preferably physicalist (or behaviourist) and mathematical, and pursue their enquiries along strictly empiricist lines (Taylor, 1920).

The logical positivist image of science was codified in the 1940s by Hempel (1942), whose deductive-nomological schema sought to capture the essence of explanation and prediction common to all the sciences: past events were explained and future events predicted by deduction from universal laws and antecedent conditions. The idea of unifying all the sciences around this schema was accepted by some sociologists, most notably Homans ([1961] 1974), who offered an extended analysis of several empirical sociological studies in an attempt to show that their findings could be explained by subsumption under five general laws of human behaviour, which he took from behavioural psychology and utilitarian economics. The schema also featured widely as a characterization of science in philosophy of social science and social research methods textbooks, and several authors gathered together lists of putative sociological laws (Berelson and Steiner, 1964; Joynt and Rescher, 1959: 386-7; Popper, [1944-5] 1961: 62-3).

Hempel’s schema focused attention on universal laws as the vital ingredient of scientific explanation. By what procedures were they to be produced? Older empiricist accounts had relied on induction: the accumulation of single instances of co-occurrence was thought to justify the truth of the universal generalization. Mill’s methods ([1843] 1961) summarized the rules of inference used in scientific enquiries to inductively discover laws and prove their truth. However, the problem of induction obtrudes: although observations of Al co-occurring (or co-varying) with Bl, A2 with B2, and so on, license the inference that all observed As are Bs, it is not self-evident that the accumulation of singular observations of co-occurrence (or covariation) directly justifies accepting the truth of the unrestricted universal law that all As are Bs. Yet it is just such unrestricted universals that are required if the deductive-nomological schema is to carry explanatory force: given A, B must follow in all cases. Despite intense philosophical efforts, including an ingenious attempt by Carnap (1950), one of the original members of the Vienna Circle, to construct a logic of induction comprising precise rules for calculating the degree of confirmation that a particular set of evidence propositions give a particular conclusion, no empiricist solution to the problem of induction has gained widespread support. Instead, the inductivist conception of scientific method has largely been abandoned in favour of the hypothetico-deductivist account, popularized by Popper. Test implications are deduced from conjectured laws and compared with experience. If the evidence conflicts, the hypothesized law is rejected or modified; if experience accords with the test implications, the hypothesized universal is corroborated and accepted for the present, though it remains open to falsification by subsequent evidence (Popper, [1963] 1969). Induction, argues Popper, plays no part in the logic of science. The source of conjectured laws is a psychological or sociological matter and of no interest to the philosophy of science, which restricts itself to analysing the justification for rejecting or retaining hypotheses, however scientists come by these.

Popper’s account of scientific method is widely known among sociologists, often being identified as the characteristic modus operandi of natural scientists, rather than the theory of scientific method that it is. Sociologists are perhaps less attentive than philosophers of science to the problems with his account, which arise because it is not individual law-like propositions that are subject to empirical test, but whole logically connected systems of hypotheses and additional conditions. It is then not clear which part of the system is in error when falsifying evidence is presented, and which corroborated. Popper himself warned against protecting theoretical systems from falsifying evidence by introducing ad hoc hypotheses or by redefining terms or by any other stratagems. He thought that the mark of science, as opposed to pseudo-science, was its openness to refutation and revision, its willingness to abandon hypotheses in the face of disconfirming evidence. Others have taken the failure of both inductivism and hypotheticodeductivism to provide a satisfactory account of the empirical status of scientific laws as indicating more generally the failure of the logical positivist ambition to demarcate science from metaphysics through the application of logical analysis and radical empiricism (Quine, 1951). Ironically, many sociologists remained committed to extending the Popper-Hempel vision of science to their own discipline long after logical positivism as a philosophical school had become mired in internal difficulties by the mid-century (Black and Champion, 1976; Rudner, 1966).

The Challenge of Critical Theory

As a social movement, the Vienna Circle, though committed to the value neutrality of science, was modernist in the sense of believing that the growth of science could contribute to human progress through social reform. Moreover, some of its original members were sympathetic to the left wing theories prevalent in Vienna at the time. Neurath (1931b), for example, thought that Marx’s materialism was the most credible existing attempt to create a scientific sociology. Yet logical positivist conceptions of social science came under sustained attack by the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School in the 1950s (Marcuse, [1941] 1955). Turning Marxist tools of analysis to cultural products, they insisted that because scientific knowledge is a product of human activity, like all such products it should be subject to critique, to an analysis of how and why it arose and whose interests it serves. Their critique of the positivist theory of scientific knowledge found it one-dimensional, for it reduced everything it investigated, including human beings, to objects to be manipulated and controlled. Positivism is a form of instrumental rationality. Positivist science has an intrinsic interest in technical control and is therefore oppressive, an outgrowth of the class oppression at the heart of capitalism. Supposed value freedom is a value itself, sinisterly hiding behind a faade of neutrality.

Ironically, when these attacks were at their most virulent, logical positivism as a philosophy of science was already losing its force because of the internal contradictions identified as much by its adherents as their critics. Moreover, it was Popper, not a logical positivist, who defended the philosophy of science, most notably in the methodological dispute or positivismusstreit played out in the 1960s, prompted by a debate between Adorno and Popper at a conference organized by the German Sociological Association (Adorno et al., 1977). Popper set out his own view of science, critical rationalism, in twenty-seven theses. Adorno did not respond directly to these, but instead put the case that sociology, as well as analysing its own and other sciences’ theories and methods, must also offer a critique of the sciences’ objects of enquiry which, in the case of sociology, are the social structures within which it is practised. Critical analysis must not be purely formal, limited to the logic of science, but also material, a critique of society.

What the debate highlighted was that more was at stake than identifying an adequate philosophy and methodology for the social sciences. The disputants subscribed to fundamentally opposed orientations towards political activity, progress and scientism. For Popper and most twentieth-century positivists, problems in the social sciences are technical ones, soluble by more careful attention to sciences’ inner workings, and problems in society are to be overcome by piecemeal social reforms, guided by scientific enquiry. For the Frankfurt School and the Hegelian-Marxist tradition, problems in the social sciences are manifestations of the fractured and contradictory nature of the social structures within which they are practised and they are to be overcome by radical transformations in society. This fundamental difference goes back to the rival views of Comte and Marx, the former concerned with orderly progress, the latter with revolutionary social transformation.

Quantitative Research and Statistical Analysis

A unity of science thesis or naturalism has been an enduring strand of positivism and the discussion above has revealed that it has taken a variety of bases, including a common grounding of all sciences in sensory experience, a unified logical structure for the language of science, a common lexicon as in physicalism, a shared model of explanation, and the same method of enquiry, either inductive or hypothetico-deductive. A more prosaic form of naturalism is the claim that scientific enquiry involves the collection and manipulation of quantified facts, a view that has become closely associated with positivism, especially in the social sciences. Nevertheless, the practice of counting features of societies, their citizens and their resources—what we now call descriptive social statistics—goes back to antiquity and followed a trajectory quite separate from the other strands of positivism until the twentieth century (Lazarsfeld, 1961). In particular, the administrators and social reformers who gathered numerical information on a wider and wider range of issues in the nineteenth century, either to administer the state or to document their concerns about the fate of the urbanized industrial workers, largely limited themselves to immediate practical issues and did not construct general social theories about the processes they documented so thoroughly. Conversely, the early sociologists like Comte and Spencer, if they used evidence at all, relied on qualitative comparative material from historical and anthropological sources, which they used to arrange societies in an order of progression. It was Durkheim who merged descriptive statistics and the abstract, philosophical strands of nineteenth-century positivism. His book Suicide ([1897] 1970) is often taken as the exemplar of the positivist study of society, making central the collection of and commentary on quantitative data about society to demonstrate how various social forces encouraged or checked suicides.

Durkheim appears to have been innocent of the rapid developments occurring at this time in a second branch of statistics: relational statistics. At the turn of the century, Pearson, building on the work of the British eugenicists, especially Galton, formalized procedures for establishing the strength of relationship between variables, that is, assessing how much of the variation in one factor could be accounted for by variations in the others (Pearson, 1938). Pearson argued that causality was only the limit of the broader notion of correlation. He introduced numerous formal techniques for testing empirically hypotheses about the relationships between variables, adding a degree of precision to the informal analyses of earlier descriptive statisticians, exemplified by Durkheim’s Suicide.

The third branch of statistics—probability or inductive statistics—also has a history separate from that of other strands of positivism (Hacking, 1975). Probability theory has its roots in the analysis of games of chance—cards and dice—in the eighteenth century. It became relevant to eugenicists and biologists at the turn of the century because their empirical work involved samples of plants and animals, whereas they wanted empirical justification for their claims about whole populations or species. They used relational statistics to formulate and test substantive hypotheses about the relations between different characteristics of their samples, but they also needed to test hypotheses about the likelihood that their findings for samples were true for the populations from which the samples were drawn and were not merely specific to the particular sample they had selected. These statistical hypotheses about the generalizability of sample findings could be formulated and tested once the sampling distributions for the sample measures had been mathematically derived from assumptions about the population and the sampling procedure used. Rapid advances were made in the first third of the century, including the extension of statistical inference from large samples collected from naturally occurring populations to small samples used in controlled experiments. These experiments were initially on plant breeding, but subsequently came to dominate psychology.

Although the developments in relational and inductive statistics provided the tools to make radical changes in the organization and analysis of social surveys, which were well-established as a tool of social enquiry by the beginning of the twentieth century, they were slow to make an impact on survey practice (Selvin, 1976). In Britain, the newly developed statistical methods were tainted by their association with the eugenics movement, which was opposed by early academic sociologists like Hobhouse because eugenics seemed to reduce social science to biology (Collini, 1979). The large-scale surveys addressing social problems organized by the German Association for Social Policy (of which Weber was a member) were unsystematic and indifferently analysed by today’s standards (Lazarsfeld and Oberschall, 1965). The combination of statistics and social theory pioneered by Durkheim gradually dissipated in France after his death. But a similar synthesis, in a Spencerian individualistic guise as opposed to Durkheim’s sociologistic one, became firmly established in America. There the men who headed the new sociology departments founded during the rapid expansion of universities at the end of the nineteenth century believed that academic acceptability relied on demonstrating that their discipline was scientific (Walker, 1929). This was particularly the case with Franklin Giddings at Columbia, who believed that statistical analysis of precisely measured social facts was central to science. Giddings and his students were instrumental in professionalizing American sociology around survey research and statistical analysis (Oberschall, 1972). A major demonstration of the power of this approach was the extensive study of the American army undertaken during the Second World War under the direction of Stouffer. Lazarsfeld also played a prominent part in establishing what he called the empirical social research tradition. He was trained as a mathematician in Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s, and although he had virtually no direct contact with the Vienna Circle, he described himself as a European positivist and recorded that he was influenced by the Circle’s convenor, Mach (Lazarsfeld, 1969). Lazarsfeld established the Bureau of Applied Social Research at Columbia University in 1937. He was committed to using statistical techniques to separate causal relationships from spurious covariation, where two variables co-vary not because one causes the other but because both are caused by a third variable.

The explanatory survey became a standard part of sociology from the middle of the twentieth century, forming a core element of the curriculum in many sociology departments around the world, serviced by an endless stream of research methods textbooks which gave advice on how to select random samples, how to collect quantitative data systematically through questionnaires and structured interviews, and how to deploy statistics to analyse the data, with the emphasis on the statistical significance of results. Over the past half century, there have been further technical developments in statistics, particularly relevant to the nominal and ordinal measures that are more common in sociology than interval and ratio measures. Important too has been the very rapid growth in computing power and the development of wide-ranging statistical analysis packages, which allow complex analyses of very large dataseis to be undertaken with relative ease.

This ‘professional practice’ positivism has not been without criticism. For example, the descriptive adequacy of social statistics, especially official statistics gathered by government agencies, has been found wanting because of definitional inadequacies and measurement errors (Levitas and Guy, 1996) or—echoing the critical theorists—because they inherently serve political interests (Dorling and Simpson, 1999). Adherents counter that the statistics can be improved by proper attention to estimating the reliability and validity of the measures used and that the statistics themselves are neutral tools even though they can be deployed to serve political ends. Inductive statistics and especially statistical significance testing have been subject to a battery of criticisms: confusing a statistically significant result (where there is a high probability that the correct decision has been made in generalizing the sample finding to the population) with a substantively significant one (that is theoretically tenable or has important practical implications), confusing the level of significance with the strength of relationship, distorting results by focusing only on statistically significant ones, failing to take account of the power of statistical tests, failing to note that there are important and often substantial sources of error other than sampling error, and employing statistical tests when the data are about non-random samples or whole populations (Morrison and Henkel, 1970). Supporters counter that such problems can be overcome by more careful and informed use of inductive statistics. They argue that problems involved in extending all three branches of statistics to social research are merely technical ones and that advances have been made, and will continue to be made, in resolving them. For critical theorists, as already noted, such technical advances miss the point, for what is needed is not improvements in the technology of instrumental control, but a critique of that form of knowledge. For other critics, the problems raised about statistics are indicators of more fundamental problems with empiricism, induction and causality in sociology.

The Challenge of Qualitative Approaches

At no time in its history has positivism been free from challengers adopting alternative perspectives on the nature of sociology. Each strand loosely woven into the positivist tradition has had its opponents—the challenge to value-freedom by critical theorists has already been noted. At the time the discipline of sociology was forming in the nineteenth century there was a strong current of idealism abroad among social theorists, especially in Germany. In the 1890s this prompted a ‘revolt against positivism’ (Hughes, 1958) which swept even Britain, the bastion of empiricism. Vehemently against naturalism and empiricism, it proposed a radical distinction between the natural and cultural (or human or moral) sciences in direct opposition to the unity of science thesis adopted by positivism. The realm of human culture, and in particular the generation and transmission of social meanings, was to be protected from positivists’ reductionist explanations of behaviour, especially if these led ultimately to physical or biological causes. Central to the human sciences is interpretive understanding or the method of verstehen, for it is this that provides access to the shared meanings and interpretive frameworks which pervade the human but not the natural worlds and through which people make sense of their social activities. This idealist tradition had a major impact on nascent sociology through the works of Dilthey and especially Weber, whose stress on human agency was in direct contrast to Durkheim’s sociologism (Outhwaite, 1975).

Skirmishes between positivism and the equally loose bundle of strands that make up the qualitative tradition have been played out in sociology across the twentieth century in a variety of different ways. For example, the idealist philosophy of the beginning of the century was the butt of much of the logical positivists’ antipathy to metaphysics, since they found it obscure, urgently in need of logical analysis and the application of verifiability principle in order to separate out any scientific knowledge it might contain. Similarly, the alliance formed by the critical theorists between idealism and Marxism and their critique of positivist science for its rational instrumentalism have already been noted.

After the Second World War, a new wave of qualitative criticisms of positivism emerged whose source lay in linguistic philosophy. This was inspired by the later work of Wittgenstein and it came to dominate English-language philosophy over the middle decades of the century. It abandoned the empiricist understanding of language, according to which language’s primary function is to capture our experiences, to give names to objects that pre-exist the language. Instead, linguistic philosophy’s starting point was the observation that ordinary language serves a multiplicity of functions; language is a rule-guided social activity and the philosophers’ task is to examine linguistic customs within particular language communities (Austin, 1962). By this means are traditional philosophical puzzles dissolved when the customary uses of the words and sentences in which they are couched are properly understood.

This mode of analysis was extended to the social sciences by Winch (1958). He argued that the notion of a science of social action was based on a misunderstanding of the nature of action because it failed to take into account action’s key feature, which is its meaningfulness among the community of actors where it takes place. He maintained that not just language but all human activities are embedded social practices and their meanings must be understood by careful attention to the local rules that guide the practices. Actors’ conceptions of their own actions are central and the sociologists’ task is to understand and describe those culturally specific conceptions in terms intelligible to the actors under study. In such an interpretivist sociology, contextualized shared meanings are the central focus of enquiry. This has relativist implications: because the meanings of actions sought out by the interpretivist sociologist are tied to the group within which they are constructed and sustained, then there is no fixed point from which to assess the meanings of one group against those of another. Nothing could be further from the positivist image of a value-free social science founded on the bedrock of experience and committed to identifying the universal, law-governed patterns of social interaction.

Positivists responded to the revitalized interpretivist sociology by suggesting that it might be a source of hypotheses about the determinants of action, but these must subsequently be subject to empirical test in the same way as hypotheses generated any other way (Abel, 1948). They attempted to reconstruct verstehen as a method of generating hypotheses about the regularities connecting social events to mental events and, in turn, mental events to behaviours. In other words, in its positivist reformulation, verstehen was a procedure for inserting intervening mental events between social causes and behavioural effects. Nevertheless, more radical empiricists among positivists remained sceptical about ‘hidden’ mental events playing any role in an explanatory science of social action. Philosophical attention focused on whether reasons are antecedent, independent causes of actions, which (leaving aside empiricist arguments about there being no evidence for reasons) might allow them a place in positivist sociology, or whether they are inseparable, logical parts of the actions in the sense of being one way of describing the meaning of the action, as interpretivist sociologists would maintain (Taylor, 1964). While these abstract arguments continued, enthusiasm for interpretivist sociology had a marked impact on substantive areas of enquiry, which turned to documenting actors’ own understandings of their milieux, be that the work place, classroom, religious sect, deviant subgroup or whatever.

This interpretivist empirical work drew strength from other sources as well as the ordinary language philosophy of the 1950s. The works of continental thinkers were influential, especially those who drew on the hermeneutic tradition to challenge the extension of the Popper-Hempel vision of science to sociology. Schutz (1954), for example, returned to Husserl’s phenomenology to defend Weber’s verstehendesociology from the positivist misconstrual of it. Also influential in the 1960s was symbolic interactionism, an older anti-positivist tradition of studying groups and communities that had emerged in the 1920s and 1930s out of Chicago School sociology in the United States (Blumer, 1969). This stressed the necessity for first-hand engagement with the people under study, through participant observation, life histories and depth interviews, in order to obtain an intimate understanding of the meanings that they give to their activities, and how these meanings are constructed, negotiated and modified through processes of everyday social interaction.3

Towards the end of the twentieth century, several strands of qualitative sociology coalesced around ‘social constructionism’ (Hacking, 1999). In its more radical, universal form, this maintains that all human activities are contingent practices whose sense is constructed in the ebb and flow of social interaction. All our representations of the natural and social world—all our claims to truth—are arbitrary and could have been different had the historical and social circumstances in which they formed been other than they were. Pushed this far, social constructionism is a variant of idealism—all that exists are ideas—and it quickly falls prey to the many arguments that have been marshalled throughout the history of philosophy against idealism and for the existence of a world independent of our ideas about it. In a less radical form, social constructionism focuses on particular aspects of the world and suggests that our characterizations of these are contingent, the outcomes of social arrangements, rather than inevitable, determined by the nature of things. This has been liberating in debates about gender and ethnicity, where it has been demonstrated that gender and ethnic attributes and relations are not biologically determined but socially constructed. They need not take the form that they currently do; they can be socially constructed in other ways (and political activists insist that they must be). Even this more modest, localized social constructionism discomforts positivists because it rejects several of positivism’s core strands, empiricism and naturalism in particular. When social constructionism is extended to aspects of the natural sciences, and it is argued that particular concepts and theories in, say, physics are the outcome of historically contingent social processes of negotiation between scientific investigators rather than determined by the nature of the real world, then this discomfort becomes heightened and manifests itself in what have become known as the ‘science wars.’ These involve natural scientists heatedly rejecting social constructionist claims because they violate the scientists’ understanding of their science as a broadly positivist enterprise, conducted along Popper-Hempel lines. In particular, the natural scientists usually take the view that their science discovers and reflects an independent reality rather than constructs the things they study, and they deplore social constructionism because it seems to devalue science or, worse, lend support to anti-science movements.

The Challenge of Scientific Realism

Prompted by alarm over the anti-naturalism of the various interpretivist sociologies which were challenging the dominance of positivist approaches in the 1960s, a new argument for a science of society emerged in the 1970s, based on a scientific realist critique of positivism (Bhaskar, [1975] 1978; Harr, 1961). Realists applaud positivism’s naturalism but reject its dependence on empiricism, especially the more radical forms, and the deductive-nomological model of explanation. Adopting a notion of ontological depth, that is, of layers of reality beyond that accessible to sensory experience, for realists the essence of scientific explanation is the discovery of underlying real generative mechanisms and causal powers, which are responsible for producing directly experienced events. This reformulation of the philosophy of science gained support because it seemed to capture, better than the positivist account, some notable episodes in the natural sciences, such as the discovery of atomic structure and its place in the explanation of, for example, the observable behaviour of gases. However, the extension of realism to the social sciences raises problems, in particular about the nature of the postulated generative mechanisms. Some scientific realists appeal to the sorts of structures identified by Marx as having a determinate effect on social relations. Others appeal to structures of the mind, or even the brain. But the issue then arises of how to justify the existence claims for the proposed mechanisms. Any such claims are prone to objections from positivists that the purported explanatory mechanisms are metaphysical and can play no part in science.

There are analogies between scientific realism and French structuralism, another family of anti-positivist attempts to construct a science of society in which explanations of human activities appeal to ‘deep structures’ and not the surface meanings which people give to their actions. These structures, it is argued, play themselves out in human activities, though the actors are unaware of this. Well-known examples are the structures of myths, analysed by Lvi Strauss ([1958] 1968), and Althusser’s re-statement of Marxism ([1966] 1969). However, structuralist studies came under criticism by the late 1970s for their lack of reflexivity, that is, for failing to account for their own scientific status. While emphasizing the unconscious structuring of the activities and beliefs of those they studied, they seemed to exempt their own activities and beliefs from structural analysis. This contributed to the rise of postmodernism, which is considered shortly.

The Challenge of Feminist Approaches

There has been a ferment of feminist writing since the 1960s and this has had a substantial, enlivening impact on academic disciplines, especially sociology. An early strand of feminism, ‘feminist empiricism,’ found fault with traditional sociology on the grounds that it ignored women as a topic of enquiry. An example is the study of work up to the 1960s which focused mainly on men’s jobs; women’s paid employment outside the home barely featured, let alone their domestic labour and care work inside the home. The criticism was that the science of society omitted to investigate half the population and, worse, the experience of men was presented as if it were the whole of human experience. The remedy was to extend the discipline’s scope to include women. This strand of feminism made no challenge to the positivist ambitions of sociology. Instead, it insisted that the positivist programme be more completely embraced: the discipline was to be extended to include scientific knowledge about women’s activities, which was needed in order to guide social reforms. The existing science of society still contained gaps due to androcentric biases which feminists were more likely than sexist men to notice and strive to overcome. Such biases must be eliminated from science by more careful attention to all the evidence, about women as well as men. Only then are the inequalities between men and women revealed, in employment and earnings for example. Once soundly established by the unbiased application of broadly positivist principles, scientific knowledge of such disparities provides the grounds on which to introduce political programmes to overcome them, such as equal opportunities legislation.

However, other feminists mounted challenges to the positivist science of sociology. The liberation strand of feminism, for example, promoted an approach similar to critical theory: sociology is not a value-free, self-certifying science but a cultural product, a socially constructed institution. Given male dominance of most areas of society, sociology like other cultural products is mostly by men for men, it serves their interests. Men wield power in the social institution of sociology (and other sciences) to their own advantage. This disciplinary ‘malestream’ should be subject to critique in order to reveal how its sexist biases contribute to or collude in women’s oppression. Such a critique serves the practical purpose of increasing the self-understanding of its female practitioners and therefore enhancing their potential to empower and emancipate themselves and their sisters. ‘Feminist standpoint epistemology’ maintains that, by virtue of their collective experience of subjugation, women are in a privileged position to engage in this critique of the sciences’ intrinsic androcentrism (Harding, 1987). Through feminists’ struggles against male domination, they gain a more empirically adequate understanding of patriarchal society (or more generally of the social and even the natural world) than is available through the social experience of men, just as Marxists argue that it is through class struggle that the proletariat gains a privileged understanding of the workings of capitalist society. Feminist standpoint theorists nevertheless retain commitment to the modernist project—the application of science to achieve a better future—even if they are critical of the androcentric biases that have, historically, distorted the practice of sociology and limited its utility to support progress.

Other feminists have been drawn to the qualitative challenges to positivist sociology. It is not that the technical, instrumental, patriarchal science of society must be subject to critique and then corrected. Instead it must be abandoned and replaced by the sort of sociology that recognizes the fundamental divide that separates the natural and social worlds because of the meaningfulness that pervades the latter. It is argued that women’s distinctive qualities, cognitive capacities, personality traits, upbringing, education or social roles make them particularly sensitive to the necessity of constructing an interpretivist sociology which is engaged, subjective, committed and passionate. In contrast, it is masculinst values of detachment, objectivity, impartiality and rationality that encourage men to mistakenly believe that a positivist science of society incorporating these qualities is possible (Smith, 1989). Similarly, it is argued at the level of research practice that women, by virtue of their familiarity with sharing experiences through women’s everyday talk, are particularly adept at qualitative data collection techniques like informal interviewing, and that women’s everyday lived experiences, which are the foundation of a feminist sociology, are more adequately represented in qualitative than quantitative terms. All these various arguments emphasize the meaningfulness of social action and maintain that qualitative sociology is more fitted to feminism than quantitative, positivist sociology. Sociology’s goal should be a participatory, anti-sexist understanding of the interpretive frameworks through which the women whose activities are of interest make sense of their lives. In other words, the positivist science of society should be relinquished in favour of qualitative (or interpretivist) sociology.

As with the more general upsurge in qualitative sociology over the second half of the twentieth century, its feminist version has taken a social constructionist turn. This has been particularly successful in challenging previously taken for granted gender roles, showing how these were the contingent outcome of historical and social processes rather than determined by biological differences between women and men. However, arguments that gender can be completely divorced from biology have contributed to the ‘culture wars,’ analogous to the ‘science wars,’ with proponents of a broadly positivist view of biology insisting that obdurate facts place limitations on gender behaviour, and that cultural variation is thereby constrained.

Also radically opposed to the implicit cultural relativism of social constructionism, and of interpretivist sociology more widely, is the realist strand in feminism, which seeks to establish a scientific feminist sociology, though on realist as opposed to positivist principles. Its central proposal is that underlying patriarchal structures generate gender inequalities and exploitation (Walby, 1990). This strand offers an explanation which parallels the realist Marxist explanation of class inequalities. It is the role of the analyst to discern the mechanisms that alienate people within the exploited group (class, gender) from their own everyday experiences and create false consciousness that hides from them the source of their own oppression. Knowledge about these mechanisms is potentially transformative, enabling the exploited group to combat their oppression.

Even this fleeting review of some of the strands that comprise the broad church of feminism reveals that it embraces most of the responses and challenges to positivism that have emerged since its first formulation in Comte’s writings. These range from feminist empiricists who are effectively professional practice positivists urging that the quantitative science of society be applied more systematically to embrace all human activities, female as well as male; through feminist critical theory-like critique of positivism’s one-sided androcentric instrumental rationality; and through feminist realists’ argument that positivism misconstrues the basis of naturalism, which is not empiricism but the search for underlying generative mechanisms within the structure of patriarchy; to feminist interpretivists’ rejection of naturalism because sociology should be concerned with the distinctive feature of the social world, its meaningfulness, which women are more able to apprehend than men; and to social constructionists’ arguments that apparently determinate facts about women are the upshot of contingent historical and social processes.

These and other variants of feminism have heightened awareness of how people at different intersections of class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality in particular, but also nationality, religion, language and so on, have widely varied lived experiences (feminist standpoints, in the plural) that deny validity to generalizations about social phenomena. Confidence in the modernist programme, of which positivism is a prime component, has ebbed away in the face of the diversity of human lives and the failure of the social sciences to develop uncontested general theories to guide successful social reforms.

The Challenge of Postmodernism

As emphasized throughout this chapter, positivism arose as part of the modernist project, the ambition to replace superstition, religion and metaphysics by science, to ground science indubitably in experience, to extend science to human affairs, and to apply science to achieve progressive control of natural and social forces and to further the emancipation of humankind. At the end of the twentieth century, in dramatically changed social, political, economic and cultural circumstances from when the modernist project initially emerged out of the Enlightenment, and in the face of continuing disasters such as major wars and environmental degradation, which erode our faith in human progress, many commentators have expressed ‘incredulity’ towards such ‘grand narratives’ (Lyotard, 1984), especially foundational theories of knowledge and stories of social progress. No longer in these fractured and fluid postmodern times does it seem that history has an over-arching coherence or direction, or that any theory of knowledge can legitimate itself by appeal to universal standards, or that any particular knowledge claim can be securely substantiated. Similarly, it does not seem that advances in science guarantee progressive emancipation, because science is often deployed as a tool of social control, domination and destruction. Facts and values cannot be separated, knowledge and power are entangled (Foucault, [1972] 1980).

All the various challenges to positivism documented in the preceding pages have contributed to the loss of faith in the ability of science to provide us with truths about reality: the failure of the philosophy of science to provide an uncontested foundation for the authority of science and demarcate it clearly from—and demonstrate its superiority to—metaphysics and other belief systems; the critique of the one-sidedness of instrumental reason; the cultural relativism that seems to follow from embracing the intrinsic meaningfulness of social phenomena; the social constructionists’ unmasking of the contingent nature of many characterizations of the social and natural world previously taken for granted to be inevitable because determined by the nature of things; the many diverse lived experiences of women, and men, depending how gender intersects with ethnicity and class and other individual characteristics; the claims of realism and structuralism that explanations of the surface features of the world are to be found in generative underlying structures. These challenges to positivism are taken up and amplified by postmodernist analysts, who devote themselves to confronting and deconstructing what they claim are misleading appearances of coherence in all of the grand narratives’ attempts to develop and legitimate systematic, scientific representations of the world. The postmodernists’ critical enterprise seeks to show how theory and philosophy are inevitably engaged in exercising power, in attempting to elevate necessarily contingent, context-bound, historically situated beliefs to universal status (Seidman, 1994). Postmodernists reconfigure knowledge so that its uncertainty and incompleteness is acknowledged. Disciplinary boundaries, the separation of science from ideology and the division between power and knowledge are all challenged. In human studies, absolute knowledge, universal categories and grand theories are abandoned in favour of local, historical and pragmatic enquiries that alert us to and encourage tolerance of social differences. The abstracted rational knowing subject is replaced by multiple subjects in multiple local situations with multiple identities and multiple knowledges. This, the postmodernists argue, enables us to recognize and aspire to altered relations between knowledge and power, and provides a critical edge, an opportunity to live our lives differently.

This is, of course, too ephemeral and playful for the positivist, who strikes back with the argument that without sound knowledge, firmly grounded, we lack the basis to make progressive social reforms. Scientific ideas have a social history, but this does not undermine their truth, which is determined by the way the world is. (This does not deny that in some cases investigating its social history might revealsome science to be false.) Once its truth is dispassionately established, science is the neutral tool of progress. These claims draw attention to the issue that has exercised positivism since its inception—how do we demarcate science from ideology?—and to which it has sought a universally applicable answer. Postmodernism insists that it is a question that cannot be answered except partially and provisionally, in a local historical and social context. For postmodernism, the Enlightenment’s science, like God before it, cannot provide us with a definitive route to a better future. The modernist project is a failure.

Positivism’s Prospects

If the postmodernists are correct in their diagnosis that the modernist project faced failure in the closing decades of the twentieth century, what role, if any, does its central doctrine—positivism—have left to play? In sociology, arguments about the rival merits of positivism, interpretivism, realism and feminism in various guises and under various descriptions continue at both the abstract and substantive levels. The debates are complicated because each perspective is a loose bundle of strands, and the perspectives shade into one another. Moreover, within each perspective commitment to one strand does not entail commitment to another; and mixed and muddled positions are proposed and defended. Because of the cacophony, it is impossible to discern any clear trends. Many have pronounced positivism dead, almost from the moment it was born in name in the nineteenth century and in spirit much earlier. Yet for many it lives on, at least in an everyday commitment to science, a belief that reality can by and large be truthfully and systematically represented in reason, and the acceptance that, for all its faults, as a practical enterprise science remains generally successful. This commitment may be less zealous, less self-confident than in an earlier age; after all, the sociology of science has shown science to be as liable to the influence of politics, fashion and whim as any other human enterprise, scientific knowledge has been revealed as oppressive and limiting as well as emancipatory, and there is no uncontested philosophical demonstration that science is epistemically special. Empiricism, scientism, naturalism and progressivism—core strands of positivism—are nowadays hedged with doubts and qualifications. Nevertheless, our daily round largely confirms that, more rather than less, the sciences fulfil the requirements of what we expect of well-founded empirical beliefs: they deliver the goods.

It is this that inspires some sociologists to continue the defence of positivism and search for its distinctive qualities. At the abstract level, this manifests itself in attempts to unpick postmodernist and other critical challenges scientifically, that is, by application of reason and logic and appeal to empirical evidence. Examples are provided by Haack’s (1992) careful appraisal of the claim that science is masculine and Devaney’s (1997) logical analysis of postmodernists’ rhetorical tools. At the substantive end of the discipline, large numbers of investigators continue to produce research that conforms to the positivist image of science, explaining social activities in loosely deductive-nomological terms, and these explanations are used to guide and evaluate a wide variety of social programmes. The current clamour to ensure that professional practice in a wide range of applied fields is evidence-based is an indicator of the attraction of this type of enquiry. And so there is every likelihood that positivism will live on into the twenty-first century, for some the best hope for the future, for others the Beelzebub to be beaten.