Positivism, Verstehen, Postmodernism


  • Origins in August Comte (1789-1857)
  • History unfolds through stages of social development:
    • Theological
    • Metaphysical
    • Positive (or scientific)
  • The mind also evolves through these stages
  • The sociologist (with a positive scientific mind) is able to use the scientific method to understand this development as existing for everyone
  • Comte's positivism opposes all interpretations, even democratic processes of discussion
  • Science is the key to Truth
    • Pure science exists above the corruptions of economic and political power
    • Therefore science is objective and impartial

  • A purely positivist view is that people respond to social causes at the high sociological level
  • People are objects of social forces
  • This is the case for Marxists and functionalists
    • (Marx and Durkheim respectively)
    • This is a top-down view

  • The sociological imagination here is that private troubles fall into higher social forces that can be uncovered through positivist methods of research.

In Methods terms:

  • All that is required is finding cause and effect at the sociological level, using quantitative scientific means
  • Statistics correlate and show relationships
  • Reliability is everything:
    • This reliable approach assumes necessary validity
  • Sampling should be for the relevant population; representativeness is vital

A significant weakness to positivism came about with the idea of ...


From Max Weber (1864-1920), also a father of sociology
It has become a rejection of positivistic social science
(Not Weber's view, who saw social meaning as capable of being combined with large scale sociological relationships)

  • Verstehen means understanding the meaning of action from the social actor's point of view.
  • This is a bottom-up view

People as individuals or in small groups have meaning by defining a situation, and then they act on those meanings

From an interpretivist view, people are meaning-creating subjects not objects

In Methods terms:

  • This means finding out what people mean and what they then do
  • Or, from what they do, finding out what they mean
  • Validity is important
  • Some representativeness is required too
  • Some reliability is necessary

  • Positivism is weakened by the verhesten influenced feminist approach too
  • Positivism is male based:
    • Rationality is a male competition for Truth, says feminism
    • Patriarchy is pyramidal top-down power, says feminism
    • Feminists want methods to uncover previously hidden voices and expand interpretation


  • A fluidity of intellectual thought forms, where different viewpoints can co-exist or reform as a creative exercise in new understandings
  • It is very plural and recreative regarding thought
  • The old rationality (as in positivism) was full of power assumptions and these need undermining
    • Rational thought was never value-free, objective or disinterested
      • It always had an author, it always served an interest
  • Intellectuals were never themselves privileged in a sociological scientific mind to show objective, uncorrupted knowledge
    • They too were corrupted by meanings, biases interpretations, positions, and money
    • Disagreements were not to be reconciled and overcome to produce one commanding Truth (such as socialism)
  • Social progress to come from pure knowledge is a mirage
  • History is a series of flows of events, in and out of each other, with no overall purpose
    • The past is open to many interpretations and the future is unknown

  • Michel Foucault argued that knowledge and power go together and have not empowered people but constrained them into objects of enquiry
  • Jean Francois Lyotard argued that social theory imposed meaning on historical events rather than let them express their own place in history

  • Postmodernism is highly anti-positivist because it claims there is no one pure Truth and no rational means to test social realities
  • Instead there are many realities all relative to each other
  • Consumer choices all become significant
  • Mass production, labour, media, culture, religion, all fragment
  • Mass ideologies and competitions for the one Truth and political progress are lost
  • Guiding "metanarratives" break down

In Methods terms:

  • The impact is interpretive, in a thoroughgoing way:
    • We are all as if individual stories or novels, our own fictions going through life
  • Research uncovers: there is validity for that moment but no reliability
  • There is no sense to being representative, as groups are always unique to themselves
  • There is social constructionism
    • Developed by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966) The Social Construction of Reality
      • Interpretations produce reality
      • People do this together and a sense of common interpretation is achieved
      • People call it real, but it is constructed
      • Reality becomes a social institution
        • Examples include race, class, gender, sexuality, morality
  • There is ethnomethodology
    • This is an enhanced, essay or even novel-like, approach to participant observation
  • There is labeling theory
    • A reaction of one set of people or an institution to another minority set of people
    • A dominant meaning is placed on the minority set of people
    • They then behave accordingly, acting out the label
      • (Very important in education)


Adrian Worsfold