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  Positivism, in the philosophy of science, is a school of thought which asserts that science can only deal with observable entities which can be directly experienced. The aim of positivism is to construct general laws and theories which describe and express relationships between observable phenomena.

In sociology, positivism refers to the belief, held by a number of the founding fathers of sociology, that it could be scientific in the same way as the natural sciences. Positivist sociologists argued that the behaviour of people could be objectively measured. Just as systems of measurement could be applied to matter, temperature, weight, pressure, etc., so too it was thought that objective systems of measurement could be devised for human behaviour. Positivists considered the measurement of human behaviour to be necessary for its explanation. According to this school of thought, observations based on objective measurement would make it possible to produce statements about the cause and effect of human behaviour. Theories might then be devised to explain social phenomena.

This approach to sociology placed particular emphasis on observable behaviour. Factors that cannot be directly observed, such as meanings, motivations and purposes, are not important. This emphasis within positivism on observable ‘facts’ is largely due to the belief that human behaviour could be explained in the same way as the behaviour of matter is explained in the natural sciences. Natural scientists do not inquire into the meanings of a given experiment; their purpose is to observe, measure and explain the outcome. Similarly, positivist sociologists assumed that human behaviour is a response to external forces and their job was to explain this.

Émile Durkheim (1858 - 1917) was a positivist sociologist and his study of suicide has now become a classic work of positivist sociology. Durkheim asserted that all social behaviour was the result of observable forces external to the individual members of a given society, even suicide, the ultimate individual act, could be explained scientifically in terms of external social forces. He made a study of the suicide statistics for a number of different societies which he observed varied between different societies but for the same society was remarkably constant over the years. Individual societal members may thus come and go but the suicide rate remains stable. Durkheim concluded that the cause of suicide must therefore lie in social factors external to the individual.

In recent times, positivism has come to be seen as naive. Like other ‘sciences’ sociology is a scientific discipline in that it involves systematic methods of investigation and data analysis, but the study of human beings has some important differences compared with the study of the natural world. Unlike natural objects human beings are self-aware and confer a sense and purpose to what they do. Many sociologists now believe that it is impossible to describe social life without first understanding the meanings which people apply to their behaviour. DA

See also ethnomethodology; individualism; naturalism; phenomenological sociology; social fact; social realism; symbolic interactionism; understanding.Further reading T. Benton, Philosophical Foundations of the Three Sociologies; , A. Giddens, Positivism and Sociology; , R. Keat, , J. Urry, Social Theory as Science.



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