Practice Question: Is non-positivistic methodology scientific? Illustrate. (20 marks) (UPSC 2018)

Approach: Introduction; What is non-positivist ideology, Its central tenets, Arguments to and against it being scientific; Conclusion


The positive paradigm is based on the philosophical ideas of the French philosopher August Comte. Emphasized observation and reason are means of understanding human behavior. True knowledge is based on experience of senses and can be obtained by observation and experiment. Verified data (positive facts) received from the senses are known as empirical evidence. Thus positivism is based on empiricism. Positive knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their properties and relations, interpreted through reasons and logical observation. Positivist thinkers adopt scientific method as a means of knowledge generation. Hence it has to be understood within the frame work of the principles and assumptions of science. Positivism holds that valid knowledge is found only in derived knowledge or exclusive source/authoritative knowledge. 


Five principles make up the theory of positivism. It asserts that the logic of inquiry is identical across all branches of science; the goal of inquiry is to explain, predict, and discover; and research should be observed empirically with human senses. Positivism also maintains that science is not the same as common sense, and it should be judged by logic and remain free of values.


1. Positivists believe that sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world.

2. By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies and social behaviour just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.

3. Positivists believe that good, scientific research should reveal objective truths about the causes of social action – science tells us that water boils at 100 degrees and this is true irrespective of what the researcher thinks – good social research should tell us similar things about social action

4. Because positivists want to uncover the general laws that shape human behaviour, they are interested in looking at society as a whole. They are interested in explaining patterns of human behaviour or general social trends. In other words, they are interested in getting to the ‘bigger picture’.

5. To do this, positivists use quantitative methods such as official statistics, structured questionnaires and social surveys. Statistical, numerical data is crucial to Positivist research. Positivists need to collect statistical information in order to make comparisons. And in order to uncover general social trends. It is much more difficult to make comparisons and uncover social trends with qualitative data.

6. These methods also allow the researcher to remain relatively detached from the research process – this way, the values of the researcher should not interfere with the results of the research and knowledge should be objective.


  • Treats individuals as if they passive and unthinking – Human beings are less predictable than Positivists suggest
  • Interpretivists argue that people’s subjective realities are complex and this demands in-depth qualitative methods.
  • The statistics Positivists use to find their ‘laws of society’ might themselves be invalid, because of bias in the way they are collected.
  • By remaining detached we actually get a very shallow understanding of human behaviour.

Positivism has had relatively little influence on contemporary sociology because it is said to encourage a misleading emphasis on superficial facts without any attention to underlying mechanisms that cannot be observed. Instead, sociologists understand that the study of culture is complex and requires many complex methods necessary for research. For example, by using fieldwork, researchers immerse themselves in another culture to learn about it. Modern sociologists don’t embrace the version of one “true” vision of society as a goal for sociology like Comte did.


Exponent of Non Positivism is Max Weber. Non positivists emphasized that social reality is viewed and interpreted by the individual himself/herself according to the ideological positions he/she possess. There for knowledge is personally experienced rather than acquired from or imposed from outside. The non positivist believes that reality is multi layered and complex and a single phenomenon is having multiple interpretations. They emphasize that the verification of a phenomenon is adopted when the level of understanding of a phenomenon is such that the concern is to probe into the various unexplored dimensions of a phenomenon rather than establishing specific relationship among the components, as it happens in the case of positivism. Non positivism is marked by three schools of thought. They are phenomenology, ethno methodology and symbolic interactionism.


Max Weber was one of the pioneers of the Non-Positivist approach. Other important scholars were Mead, Herbert Blumer, Schutz etc. Weber laid the foundation of interpretivist methodology and Mead pioneered symbolic interactionism. Various other non-positivist methods emerged included symbolic interactionism, ideal types and verstehan of Weber, Phenomenology by Alfred Schutz in 1930s and Ethnomethodology by Harold Garfinkel in 1940s. Some common features of Non positivist methodologies are:

  1. They study the internal processes represented through emotions, motives, aspirations and the individual’s interpretation of social reality.
  2. Non-positivists emphasized upon using qualitative methods and not the scientific methods similar to the ones used in natural sciences. Earlier Weber and Mead emphasized upon the use of scientific methods but later Alfred Schutz and Garfinkel rejected their use.
  3. They also suggested the understanding of social reality and not prediction of events. They refrained from formulation of generalized universal theories. While Weber and Mead stressed upon the cause and effect relations, Schutz eliminated such a possibility. They also highlighted impossibility of total objectivity and hence were accommodative of subjectivity in research.


Postpositivism or postempiricism is a metatheoretical stance that critiques and amends positivism and has impacted theories and practices across philosophy, social sciences, and various models of scientific inquiry. While positivists emphasize independence between the researcher and the researched person (or object), postpositivists argue that theories, hypotheses, background knowledge and values of the researcher can influence what is observed. Postpositivists pursue objectivity by recognizing the possible effects of biases. While positivists emphasize quantitative methods, postpositivists consider both quantitative and qualitative methods to be valid approaches.


Postpositivists believe that human knowledge is based not on a priori assessments from an objective individual but rather upon human conjectures. As human knowledge is thus unavoidably conjectural, the assertion of these conjectures are warranted, or more specifically, justified by a set of warrants, which can be modified or withdrawn in the light of further investigation. However, postpositivism is not a form of relativism, and generally retains the idea of objective truth.


Postpositivists believe that a reality exists, but, unlike positivists, they believe reality can be known only imperfectly and probabilistically. Postpositivists also draw from social constructionism in forming their understanding and definition of reality. 


While positivists believe that research is or can be value-free or value-neutral, postpositivists take the position that bias is undesired but inevitable, and therefore the investigator must work to detect and try to correct it. Postpositivists work to understand how their axiology (i.e. values and beliefs) may have influenced their research, including through their choice of measures, populations, questions, and definitions, as well as through their interpretation and analysis of their work.


Post-positivists reject the idea that any individual can see the world perfectly as it really is. We are all biased and all of our observations are affected (theory-laden). Our best hope for achieving objectivity is to triangulate across multiple fallible perspectives! Thus, objectivity is not the characteristic of an individual, it is inherently a social phenomenon. It is what multiple individuals are trying to achieve when they criticize each other’s work. We never achieve objectivity perfectly, but we can approach it. The best way for us to improve the objectivity of what we do is to do it within the context of a broader contentious community of truth-seekers (including other scientists) who criticize each other’s work.

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