Positivism and social science

There is a strong current of positivism in contemporary sociology –in fact, one might say this is the dominant paradigm. Other paradigms exist — feminism, Marxism, comparative historical sociology, and ethnographic sociology, to name several. But the claim of science is generally couched in terms of a positivist theory of science and inquiry. This is unsurprising, in that several of the founders of sociology (Comte, Mill, and Durkheim in particular) were most emphatic in asserting the necessary connection between the two ideas, and Comte invented both “positivism” and “sociology” as modern terms.

The core assumptions of positivism include these: that social science is identical in its logic to natural science; that science involves the search for general laws about empirical phenomena; and that discovery and explanation depend upon a rigorous empirical scrutiny of the phenomena under question. Positivism is doubtful about the role of theory, preferring instead to make do with empirical observations, classes of empirical phenomena, and generalizations across classes of phenomena. Finally, positivism is dubious about the reality of causal connections between empirical phenomena.

It is true that science requires rigorous empirical inquiry. But much of the rest of the positivist program turns out to be badly suited to social science research and explanation. This is so for several reasons. First, social phenomena do not fall into fixed and distinct “types”, in which the members of the type are homogeneous. We can generalize about “water”, but not about “revolution”, for the simple reason that all samples of pure water have the same structure and observable characteristics; but not so for all “revolutions”. The category of “revolution” is not a “kind”, and we should not imagine that we can arrive at a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in this group.

Second, there are few lawlike generalizations about social entities and processes (if any at all!). Each revolution, for example, proceeds according to a historically specific set of causes and circumstances. And there are no genuinely interesting generalizations across the whole category.

Third, it is important in social science to formulate hypotheses about unobservable mechanisms of causal interconnectedness. So “theory” is an important component of social-science thinking and the sociological imagination.

Finally, explanation in the social sciences requires that we identify the causal mechanisms that connect one kind of social circumstance with another. If we believe that improved transportation causes a change in habitation patterns, then we need to be able to provide a hypothesis and analysis of what the social mechanisms are that create this result.

Positivism is a poor guide for social science inquiry. Instead, we need to approach social science research with a readiness to find contingency, heterogeneity, path-dependence, and particularity among the phenomena that we study–corresponding to the plasticity of human institutions and human agency.

New approaches to social research?

I believe we need to create significantly new approaches to the study of the social. Positivistic sociology, formalistic political science, highly mathematicized economics–these dominant paradigms in several disciplines proceed on the basis of misleading or overly narrow conceptions of science and the social. We need to do a much better job of crafting theories and research methods to the particular features of a social research topic. And we need to be much more open to the innovations and new perspectives that are emerging in various areas of the social sciences (for example comparative historical sociology). This means that there needs to be a freeranging, innovative consideration of the ways in which it is possible to study and explain various social phenomena. (See “The Heterogeneous Social” for more discussion of this critique.)

(Ian Shapiro’s The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences is an interesting contribution.)

International social research?

I find it intriguing to imagine the sociological insights that might come from a discussion of a specific social problem that brings together the perspectives of some of the international visitors to this web site. How would observers from Manila, Lagos, Shanghai, and Detroit be able to contribute different perspectives on the issue of rising income inequality? Or the issue of racial discrimination? Or the issue of corruption? Or the challenge of an aging population?

Is there a place in the task of creating a new discipline of sociology, for the networked intelligence of observers throughout the world?

Does existing sociological theory and practice give us a basis for analyzing the important social problems that surround us — or do we need to seek out new theories, new perspectives, and new methods?

Can the richness that is present within a distributed community of thoughtful observers be the basis for a better science of sociology?