Practice Question:  “Non-positivistic methodology is essential for understanding human behaviour.” Discuss. (20 Marks) (UPSC 2015)

Approach: Introduction; Briefly mention the genesis of non-positivism, how is it different from positivism, explain how positivist methodology tries to understand human behaviour, give criticisms; Conclusion.


Science has not only shaped our mode of living in the world but also our ways of thinking about the world. It is for this reason it has acquired a central place in the intellectual life of our times. Because of its central place in the modern culture, three disciplines have emerged which has made science itself their object of inquiry. These three disciplines are: History of Science, Sociology of Science and Philosophy of Science. The enquiry we call Philosophy of Science addresses questions like “What is the aim of Science?”, “What is the method of Science?” In what sense, if any, is Science objective, rational and progressive?” 


Positivism (which is also called “logical positivism”) is a movement in Philosophy of the first half of the 20th century. Positivists debunked the whole of traditional
Philosophy by attacking Metaphysics which was the most important branch of Philosophy. 

Positivists worked out a well-knit philosophy of science. Here are some of the
Central tenets of the Positivist Philosophy of Science:
1) Science is qualitatively distinct from, superior to and ideal for all other
areas of human endeavor (Scientism).
2) The distinction, superiority and idealhood that Science enjoys is traceable
to its possession of method (Methodologism).
3) There is only one method common to all sciences, irrespective of their subject
matter (Methodological monism).
4) That method which is common to all sciences, natural or human, is the
method of Induction (Inductivism).
5) The hallmark of science consists in the fact that its statements are
systematically verifiable.
6) Scientific observations are or can be shown to be “pure” in the sense that
they are theory-free.
7) The theories are winnowed from facts or observations.
8) The relation between observation and theory is unilateral in the sense theories
are dependent on observations whereas observations are theory-independent.
9) To a given set of observation based statements, there corresponds uniquely
only one theory (just as from a given set of premises in an argument, only
one conclusion follows).
10) Our factual judgments are value-neutral and our value judgments have no
factual content (Fact-Value Dichotomy thesis); hence, science being the
foremost instance of factual inquiry, does not have value commitments.


The method of science, broadly, is of two types: Induction and Deduction. All science must proceed from “What is” given to us in particular observations to “what must be” as shown by the demonstrations. The path of science is an arch whose two end points are observation and demonstration. Positivists tried to justify the principle of Induction by invoking the concept of pure observation. According to them, theories are arrived at on the basis of the Principle of Induction. If we can show that theories are very closely related to pure observations, the Principle of Induction stands rationally justified. They tried to work out a whole project to demonstrate rational justification of the Principle of Induction on these lines.


  • 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.


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.


Social phenomenology is an approach within the field of sociology that aims to reveal what role human awareness plays in the production of social action, social situations and social worlds. In essence, phenomenology is the belief that society is a human construction. The central task in social phenomenology is to explain the reciprocal interactions that take place during human action, situational structuring, and reality construction. That it, phenomenologists seek to make sense of the relationships between action, situation, and reality that take place in society. Phenomenology does not view any aspect as causal, but rather views all dimensions as fundamental to all others.


Ethnomethodology is concerned with taken for granted aspects of the social world. It concentrates on how people make sense of the everyday aspects of their world and how they make their social environment accountable to themselves. Social actors adopt different roles and different frameworks of meaning in different situations and in so doing construct a variety of rationalities for different situations. Ethnomethodologists argue that in order to understand the actor’s conception of objects and events, the sociologist must examine the routine, practical activities of everyday life.

Bogdan and Taylor (1975) thus state that ethnomethodology is about the process by which people make sense out of the situations in which they find themselves. For ethnomethodologists the meanings of actions are always ambiguous and problematic for people in specific situations. Ethnomethodologists examine the ways people apply abstract rules and commonsense understandings in situations in order to make actions appear routine, explicable and ambiguous. Meanings are then practical accomplishements on the part of members of a society.

Ethnomethodology is a development from symbolic interactionism, particularly Goffman. It attempts to bring together the phenomenology of Schutz and the sociology of Talcott Parsons. Garfinkel introduced the term ethnomethodology and published his first book ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’ in 1967. Ethnomethodology can be located very specifically. It started in the 1960s in Berkeley through a series of seminars. Growing out of ‘late’ symbolic interactionism it was more influenced by Goffman than the ageing and less influential Blumer.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interaction theory analyzes society by addressing the subjective meanings that people impose on objects, events, and behaviors. Subjective meanings are given primacy because it is believed that people behave based on what they believe and not just on what is objectively true. Thus, society is thought to be socially constructed through human interpretation. People interpret one another’s behavior, and it is these interpretations that form the social bond. These interpretations are called the “definition of the situation.” For example, why would young people smoke cigarettes even when all objective medical evidence points to the dangers of doing so?  The answer is in the definition of the situation that people create. Studies find that teenagers are well informed about the risks of tobacco, but they also think that smoking is cool, that they will be safe from harm, and that smoking projects a positive image to their peers. So, the symbolic meaning of smoking overrides the facts regarding smoking and risk.


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. 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.

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