Positivism -- my fourpenneth

I'm interested here not so much in trying to establish an agreed version of 'positivism', but more to identify some other discussion surrounding the term when it is used in a variety of social science contexts. 'Positivism' probably does not mean any one agreed thing any more, and varies according to context.

There were some pure versions of positivism. For example, an influential development in philosophy, which flowered in Europe in the early part of the 20th century became known as  'logical positivism'. To be very swift about this, the argument was that there are only two kinds of statement that make sense. In the first one, statements are true by definition -- as in  'two plus two equals four'. In the second, statements are true as a matter of established empirical fact -- 'the human cell has 23 pairs of chromosomes'. These were the only two positions that were of any value, and all the rest was speculation or metaphysics. It followed that the role of philosophy was to try to collect all of these true statements and to build a proper positive science upon them. Only that approach leads to social progress, compared to the endless speculation of conventional philosophy. When I first went to university, 'positive economics' was all the rage for the saem reasons -- let us stop speculating about why the economy behaves as it does, and just debating the alternatives in common rooms, but try to find out some empirical regularities and laws instead.

A version of this notion had already been influential in the development of sociology as a social science. It is usually associated with the work of Comte, but our own home-grown J S Mill  played a major part as well. The idea again was to try and establish some positive none speculative knowledge about social life. Comte makes several important arguments suggesting that its is time to move beyond speculation, endless critical analysis  (negativism) and the dominant discourses of theology and religion in order to found a science that would guide the practice of social life -- sociology. These arguments have a great deal of appeal today, possibly.

JS Mill was one of the early philosophers who attempted to expand and develop the notion of social science. I have a file which outlines his approach. It was to suggest that human action can be seen as being caused by social events, which had determinate impacts upon human consciousness and will. These events could be studied using a number of techniques including early social statistics, and various kinds of generalizations or laws could be established. The information would be used to develop a much more scientific kind of politics, helping to solve some important emerging problems for the industrial state, such as which policies would bring the greater benefits, and how could social life be transformed for the better.

Again, these ideas had considerable appeal as offering a chance to found a modern science of social policy, and one consequence was to develop the characteristic form of British sociology which studies social patterns and their effects on social life. A major first step was to discover social patterns in the first place, since these are often not immediately apparent. Until some of the pioneering studies took place for example, the true extent and nature of poverty in our major cities remained invisible to everyone except the most dedicated explorer. Studies would also examine the impact of social policies, including the expansion of State education, or attempts to introduce progressive taxation regimes, and see if social patterns had changed. Certain patterns seemed particularly stubborn and resistant to change, including those produced by social class, gender and  'race'. Had this research not been undertaken, it would be extremely difficult to know if these policies had succeeded or not: the choice appeared to be between solid evidence and the endless speculation of politicians and commentators. It is clear that some of the studies evaluating participation in sports follow well in this tradition

I'm sure there are other key steps to the development of positivist social science in this sense, such as Durkheim's famous study of suicide. This inquiry attempted to trace the social factors that seem to predispose people to kill themselves. An early form of statistical inquiry indicated that social bonds of various kinds seem to be crucial -- bonds of kinship, religion, marriage and membership of local communities, for example -- and their absence predisposed people to commit a particular kind of suicide. Other forms were caused by other combinations of social bonds, including excessive commitment to social groups which caused  'altruistic suicide', such as that practised by kamikaze pilots in World War 2.

I hope it is clear from what has been said already, that positivism does have a  'good' side, and we would need to bear this in mind. However, the quest for certainty in social patterns, and the establishment of social facts clearly can be put too much more controversial and oppressive ends. A famous example here is the notorious  'Project Camelot', instigated by the US government, and commissioning a set of scholarly sociological studies in order to establish ways to destabilize undesirable regimes, often in central and southern America. A number of other equally notorious studies of social facts and social patterns were also put to military and colonial uses. Britain was also implicated, of course, and it is common to see the early phases of anthropology as designed to help colonial governments rule more effectively.

The issue that rapidly emerged was whether scientific methods themselves naturally lend themselves to oppressive ends. On the surface, it is possible to make a case fairly directly, since scientific methods try to offer abstract and scientific findings. This provides them with a spurious political neutrality, since the important political background and context is stripped away. Thus it is perfectly possible to assess the revolutionary potential of city-dwellers in Chile, using a scientific scale, and apparently avoiding the issue of whether they are right or wrong to engage in revolution. However, this neutrality is misleading, since the findings are promptly owned and put to use by nonrevolutionary political machines. Sociological methods which attempts to understand the facts by grasping the political social and cultural meaning of those facts for the people involved are not so easily put into practice by oppressive regimes. There is no way of avoiding political issues -- a scientific and neutral stance ends up by siding with dominant political forces.

In this way, a particular discussion of scientific methods and their political consequences get attached to the more general issue of  'positivism'. Given the great successes of natural science in understanding the natural world and in developing effective technologies, it is tempting to see the need to simply apply the same methods to social problems. Politically this is suspect, as we have argued, and can lead to good and bad practices depending on how dominant interests of the day can get to commission the studies and own the results. Philosophically it is suspect too.

The philosophical issues turn on whether or not human beings have distinctive qualities compared to conventional objects in the natural world -- the usual example turns on whether or not human beings can be understood in exactly the same way as the motion of a snooker ball can be understood, as a combination of different forces acting upon it. The immediate objection is again obvious -- human beings have consciousness, while, as far as we know, snooker balls do not. Human beings therefore think about forces acting on them, try to understand those forces, and try to react to them. The same goes with attempts made by researchers to study human beings. Their subjects are not just passive vaults of data, but can play an active part in the conduct of the research -- trying to please the researcher, trying to give an answer that will help the researcher, trying to puzzle out what the researcher is after, trying to keep information from the researcher, playing with the information in order to give ironic, deliberately false, or misleading answers to questions.

At the very least, social scientists will have to develop techniques to conduct their research which involve full recognition of the ability of humans to act and not just behave. Trying to achieve detached and objective results will require considerable effort to control and manage the subjectivity involved. Researchers will have to try to avoid subjective interaction with those being researched, perhaps by administering special questionnaires or by observing them unobtrusively. They also have to attempt to avoid subjective interpretations of the data that they get, making sure that there is agreed intersubjective coding, or triangulation of different individuals, or assuming that subjective elements can be randomized in their effects by proper experimental design.

The random controlled trial is perhaps the most 'objective' available technique to minimise subjective interaction. Even here, the possibilities of interaction have to be carefully watched, and procedures such as 'double-blind' allocation of subjects to trials must be followed rigorously. Interpretation of data similarly has to be publicly available to scrutiny and to be rigorously tested for the most minor subjective effects, including some recently discussed in a splendid newspaper article. These include a certain publication bias which tends to reward positive results by publishing them in prestigious journals. Even where random control procedures are used,  there are problems, but the worst problem of all is that many interesting social issues cannot lead to a random controlled trial. It would not be possible to allocate children to control groups, and subject one group to violent adult behaviour, to try to pin down the effects. There would be ethical problems.

Turning to an alternative, such as a statistical study which examines violent children and tries to see if there is violent adult behaviour in their recent past, encounters the colossal problems of any real world study. Not only do such studies depend on subjective factors such as memory or interpretations of terms such as  'violent', but they soon realize that there is no way to isolate specific variables such as adult behaviour. Many other variables impact upon children, both in terms of quantity and quality. The researcher must limit their inquiry to particular variables and simply assess the possible impact of the others. Often, such  'residuals' will necessarily explain a large amount of the differences between people. Choosing which variables to examine involves rather 'unscientific' processes such as judging which ones are likely to be of interest to particular audiences, including funders.

Perhaps human beings will require a special methodology, one that allows them full human qualities, to understand and to act exactly as researchers do themselves? This has led to a number of alternative methodologies that do not attempt to imitate the procedures of the natural sciences. Again, these are much discussed, and they also face serious problems, which we cannot explore here.

I would like to end this short discussion with some overall comments. In the first place, it seems to me, that we should not simply take sides for and against  'positivism'. If the alternative is endless speculation. by politicians, media folk, and the military, about what modern society is actually like, give me a standard survey any day. There is an old saying about theory, which we can bend to our purposes to comment upon public opinion -- any gang of ugly facts can successfully confront a beautiful theory.

This leads to my second argument, that perhaps the issue really turns upon the intent of a particular study, and not just upon its particular methods. This leads to a position often known as critical rationalism. What any scientific statement tries to do is to explain what is the case, and be prepared to face some sort of empirical test of that explanation. This is quite different from many other statements and explanations that abound in social life. Other explanations can never be tested, and in particular, can never be proved wrong. If  you have a particular religious or political commitment which leads you to believe that the fundamental impulse of social life is love and goodwill, you can never be proved wrong -- evidence of war, violence and aggression can be successfully denied, marginalized, seen as atypical, or even re interpreted as evidence of a perverse kind of love and goodwill after all. Scientific statements by contrast put themselves to the test, and suggest that, for example, people belonging to a specific social class will develop allegiances for particular political parties, or that specific policies will lead to a definite increase in participation in sport, or that an increase in people with graduate qualifications will have an effect on economic growth. Of course, there is much to define and measure, and a great deal of subjective agreement is required to form specific tests -- but it is the intent that counts.

This leads to my third and final argument, that what critical rationalism really expresses his limited version of a general openness towards experience and critique. This is the substance of critical theory's case against critical rational, and it is argued in other files. Any process that tries to limit this general openness, perhaps by insisting upon a particular methodology, or by insisting that only particular problems count as being worthy of investigation will be liable to some of the major flaws that we have identified above as being 'positivist'.