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Positivism in Sociological Inquiry

Positivism in Sociological Inquiry

Positivism is attributed to August Comte, a French classical sociologist, also known as the father of Sociology. In the 19th century, August Comte conceived the idea of scientific study of human behaviour and society which eventually got much éclat. However, before Comte, the fact of social relations had been mainly explored in the general field of philosophy. Comte’s ability to adopt methods of the natural sciences to inquire into and understand human nature on the macro-social level led to the emergence of Sociology as an independent field of knowledge.

Positivism essentially is the scientific and systematic study of social phenomena including human behaviours, culture and institutions to arrive at valid and objective knowledge. The idea of Positivism anchors on the desirability and possibility of studying, interrogating and understanding human behaviours and the social world as a whole in a way similar to how natural scientists study and understand their subject matters in the natural world.

Perspectives in Positivism

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Methods: First, the social world is to be seen as similar to the natural world in terms of how it can be studied. Therefore, only the scientific method is accepted as valid in the process of Sociological inquiry.

Facts: Knowledge essentially consists of identifying facts and making connections between facts. In other words, a knowledge or theory that explains behaviours must establish a causal relation of facts. Behaviours do not just manifest except they can be linked to observable facts. Human behaviours are determined by rules that are developed within social groups. For example, the need for economic survival leads people to develop economic institution and work groups. And the need to socialize children leads people to develop family groups.

Structuralism: Society is a system consisting of distinct but interconnected parts. Therefore, we experience the social world as a force that is over and above our individual ability to alter it. Just as we cannot escape the force of gravity, we cannot escape the social forces etc.

Empiricism: empirical study is the crux of positivism; in other words, understanding ‘what is’ as against ‘what should’. The researcher is to be personally objective in their work, not directly involved in the behaviour that is being observed. Avoiding biases means the research can be verified and the method used can be replicated.


Sociology and social science cannot outright compare to natural science since they have subject matters that are varied in nature. Therefore, the idea that only the scientific method is valid and should be engaged in sociological inquiry cannot hold as true, at least not in all cases.

The idea that all behaviours are attributable to observable facts has been argued to be a reductionist view which is too crude to understand the complexities of social life.

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