The Foundations of Social Research

Chapter Two: Positivism The March of Science

The Foundations of Social Research
 Etymology of the Word “positivism”

“positive” not to be used in contrast with “negative,” or confused with value judgments like “right/wrong,” “good/bad”  With positivism we are referring to “something that is posited i.e, something that is given.”  Direct experience, not speculation is the epistemology  What is posited (or given) in direct experience is what is observed…

The Foundations of Social Research
 Auguste Comte  Interested in the development of a

comprehensive social science.  Wanted to apply the scientific method to the study of society and human beings for their benefit  Even though trained in mathematics, recognized the limitations in applying scientific methods to human society

The Foundations of Social Research
 What are the essential features of the “Comte”

scientific method?
 

Human consciousness is determined by the social An attitude of mind towards science and the explanation of man, nature and society; not some predilection for mathematical precision Look to ‘laws’ that can be scientifically established, i.e., to facts that regularly characterise particular types of beings and constant relationships that can be shown to obtain among various phenomena. The direct methods whereby these laws can be established scientifically are observation, experiment and comparison.

The Foundations of Social Research
 “Comte’s Method continued…

No Social fact can have any scientific meaning until it is connected with some other social fact  By experiment, Comte does not mean controlled experimentation of today, but the study of events  Comparison includes cross-cultural and historical comparison

The Foundations of Social Research
 The Vienna Circle

Members included:
       

Social Philosopher Otto Neurath Mathematician Hans Hahn Physicist Phillip Frank Physicist Moritz Schlick (assassinated in 1936) Rudolf Carnap Kurt Godel A J Ayer Many others…

The Foundations of Social Research
 The Vienna Circle  Primary goal: To introduce the methods and exactitude of mathematics to the study of philosophy  Major Influence: Ludwig Wittgenstein  Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)  Logical analysis of propositions  Linking truth to meaning in a way that allows no pathway to genuine knowledge other than through the scientific method  (later reversed position in Philosophical Investigations)  Verification Principle

The Foundations of Social Research
 Verification Principle: No statement is

meaningful unless it is capable of being verified  Two ways to verify:

Must categorize whether analytic statement or synthetic statement

Analytic statement is one whose ascription of a predicate to a subject can be verified, and its meaningfulness thereby established, simply via an analysis of what the subject is

The Foundations of Social Research
 Analytic Statement  “A” is “A” or “not-A” is “not-A”  A doe is a female deer  Verifiable because what is predicated of the

subject is nothing more than something included in the very definition of the subject.  Tautological or contradictory

The Foundations of Social Research
 Synthetic Statements  Non-analytic, incapable of verification  What is predicated of the subject is not included in its definition. Something new is being said about the subject, therefore.  How to verify?  Synthetic statements can only be verified by experience i.e., sense-data  Therefore this exludes meta-physics, religion, ethics, aesthetics, etc. from the purview of genuine philosophy/epistemology  Establishes the distinction between fact and value, cognitivism and emotion/spiritual

The Foundations of Social Research
 Contemporary Positivism  Still strongly linked to empiricism/science  Very progressive with scientific discovery and technology the driving force for progress  Conviction that scientific knowledge is both accurate and certain  Important to maintain distinction between objective, empirically verifiable knowledge and subjective, unverifiable knowledge  What does it mean to say that the scientific world is an abstraction from the everyday world? Isn’t that a contradiction?

The Foundations of Social Research
 Post-Positivism  Without necessarily jettisoning objectivism

inherent in positivism, some scientists have challenged positivism’s claims to objectivity, precision and certitude, qualifying positivism’s claims.  Werner Heisenberg

Founder of quantum theory and “the uncertainty principle”

The Foundations of Social Research
 Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle

It is impossible to determine both the position and momentum of a subatomic particle (i.e., electron) with any real accuracy. Not only does this preclude the ability to predict a future state with any certainty but it suggests that the observed particle is altered in the very act of being observed, thus challenging the notion that observer and observed are independent.

The Foundations of Social Research
 Neils Bohr’s take on Heisenberg:

The limitation in determining subatomic dynamics with accuracy is due to the very nature of subatomic particles themselves and not what we know of them. These particles need to be seen as a kind of reality different from the reality we are used to dealing with. We need a new set of concepts other than “momentum” and “position” to deal with them.

The Foundations of Social Research
 Sir Karl Popper

Also exiled during WWII due to the Nazis  The Logic of Scientific Discovery  The Open Society and its Enemies  Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach  The Self and its Brain (with Eccles)  Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge

The Foundations of Social Research
 Popper’s Principle of falsification  An advance in science is not a matter of scientists making a discovery and then proving it to be right. It is a matter of scientists making a guess and then finding themselves unable to prove the guess wrong.  “null hypothesis” Just because the guess cannot be proven wrong does not mean that it is necessarily certain to be right.  Popper is taking issue with induction in science

The Foundations of Social Research
 We may boil water a thousand times and find that it

boils at 100 degrees Celsius, but that doesn’t mean that it always will…  Popper advocates substituting falsification for verification. No matter how many examples we muster in support of a general principle, we are unable, logically, to prove it true in absolute terms; yet it takes only one example at variance with a general law to prove, logically, and in absolute terms, that it is false. So Popper believes that, in engaging in observation and experiment, scientists are called upon not to prove a theory (they can never do that) but to try to prove it wrong.

The Foundations of Social Research
 Thomas Kuhn  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions  Kuhn challenges the notion of cumulative and

progressive knowledge in positivism.  While examining Newtonian Physics and Aristotelian physics, he realizes that Newtonian physics could not have come from Aristotle. There had to have been a revolution in scientific thinking.

The Foundations of Social Research
 Kuhn continued…

Scientists do their work in and out of a background of theory. This theory comprises a unitary package of beliefs about science and scientific knowledge. It is this set of beliefs that Kuhn calls a paradigm. A paradigm is an overarching conceptual construct, a particular way in which scientists make sense of the world or some segment of the world.

The Foundations of Social Research
 Kuhn continued…  For scientists in general, the prevailing

paradigm is the matrix that shapes the reality to be studies and legitimates the methodology and the methods whereby it can be studied. The prevailing paradigm is quite simply taken for granted within the contemporary scientific ethos. In normalized science, novelties are dismissed because they are subversive to the basic commitments of the paradigm

The Foundations of Social Research
 Kuhn continued…  The paradigm establishes the parameters

and sets the boundaries for scientific research and, in the ordinary course of events, scientific inquiry is carried out strictly in line with it.  Eventually a paradigm will become inadequate to deal with the number of findings that challenge the basic assumptions of the paradigm. It is a time of crisis, time for a paradigm shift.

The Foundations of Social Research
 Kuhn continued…  Paradigm Shifts characterized by

Willingness to try anything  Expression of explicit discontent  Recourse to philosophy  Debate over fundamentals  Normal science turned on its head, extraordinary science ushered it  Scientific revolution

The Foundations of Social Research
 Kuhn Continued…  Scientific revolutions are not mere changes

within science but changes of science.  What are the implications of Kuhn’s theory for how we view science and those who “do science”?

The Foundations of Social Research
 Feyerabend’s ‘Farewell to Reason.’  Science is an essentially anarchic enterprise  An anarchism helps to achieve progress in

any one of the senses one cares to choose  Popper’s student  Accused of being an enemy of science, the enfant terrible of late 20th century philosophy of science  Read quotation on p. 37-38. What do you think?

The Foundations of Social Research
 While Feyerabend (in Killing Time) writes that

he is not denigrating reason as such but only attacking petrified and tyrannical versions of it.  Since science cannot be grounded philosophically in any compelling way, scientific findings are no more than beliefs and we should not privilege them over other kinds of belief—like Voodoo.

The Foundations of Social Research
 Feyerabend continued…  The scientific anarchist is like an undercover

agent who plays the game of reason in order to undercut reason’s authority.  Influenced by dadaism and nihilism, stressing the absurd and unpredictable in artistic creation i.e., the absurd and unpredictable in scientific knowledge.

The Foundations of Social Research
 Feyerabend continued…  Despite his anarchic stance, he does issue

some basic norms for scientific research  Test out your perceptions: Adopting a certain point of view means a starting point for research, not some kind of conclusion

Utilize counterinduction: calling commonly used concepts into question by developing something with which they can be compared, an external standard of criticism

The Foundations of Social Research
 Where on the spectrum do you find yourself?  What do positivism and post-positivism

contribute to understanding the research process and what do they emphasize in presenting your research?  What does Crotty mean when he says: “It is a matter of positivism v. non-positivism, not a matter of quantitative v. qualitative.”

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