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Political science studies administration and governance structures and analyzes political processes and behaviors. This science applies various methods to conduct social research (Daigneault & Béland 2015). Among other approaches, three are more significant. These are positivism, interpretivism, and institutionalism. The main goal of this paper is to analyze the positivism theory to determine its strengths and weaknesses.
Positivism is a term relating to the philosophy that underlines scientific approaches and experimentally acquired information. Such a concept presents the world as an object for observation through which a person can gain knowledge (Halfpenny 2014). Researchers have to focus on general ideas rather than specific rules. The main positivism thesis is that the world does not depend on people’s knowledge of it. This thesis is based on a foundationalist ontology (Marsh & Stoker 2010). Positivism is also presented in sociology as one of the methods to study social phenomena.
One of the first scientists who applied this principle was Galileo Galilei. He suggested a new system that described the Moon, stars, and moons of Jupiter (Csunderlik 2016). The methods he used contradicted contemporaries and went against the Church. Around the same time, Francis Bacon presented a combination of inferences and empirical data. He refused to apply deductive techniques in scientific research. Afterward, John Locke and David Hume created the main principles of the modern positivism theory that was based on the works of Francis Bacon.
The term positivism has changed its meaning over time. However, some major aspects are still the same. One of them is the importance of sensory experience (Campbell 2016). This idea might be found in various ancient works, though positivism is mainly a result of the age of Enlightenment. It was a new alternative for metaphysics that was deeply rooted in epistemology. Scientists strived to achieve knowledge of the real nature of the world. However, metaphysics offered only abstract ideas and implications. Therefore, information that positivists used was obtained via the application of empirical techniques. Also, such methods could be successfully adapted for social studies. Hence, positivism spread from science to humanities. Scholars began to scrutinize correlations among social groups to identify key trends, operating various scientific instruments.
The generalization of the concept of positivism united numerous philosophers, researchers, and scientists. However, this theory underwent several transformations. This process was triggered by the strong necessity of socioeconomic development (Bernstein et al. 2000). Scholars needed to discover methods that would not depend on place and time. Epistemological theories could not assist in overcoming emerging challenges. Hence, techniques like experimentation, comparison, and observation became more widely disseminated. Researchers revealed the real human potential that could be utilized to promote the progress of society.
Afterward, followers of positivism continued developing this system. They applied precise mathematical and philosophic methods and fully eliminated epistemological concepts like metaphysics and aesthetics as they were considered to be redundant for empiric research. It led to the development of logical positivism that was based on the principle of verification. This principle rejected any statements that could not be fully justified. Thus, two types of statements were introduced. The first type is called analytic statements. If a concept is proved to be true by its nature, it is analytic. The second type called synthetic statements. If a concept has to be supported by evidence, it is synthetic. To verify such statements, they had to be experienced by senses.
These days, followers of positivism have changed their minds regarding epistemology’s theories. They doubt the full objectivity of methods that positivism may offer because of a certain degree of probability that has been admitted by scholars. However, this concept still underlines the importance of experiments and inductive techniques.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The main advantage of positivism is its scientific nature. It requires proof that should be acquired through experiments, thus might be demonstrated. To accomplish that, it is necessary to apply quantitative approaches. Positivism is based on quantitative research (Smith, Booth & Zalewski 1996). Most positivists are inclined to think that such a method brings more reliable data in comparison with qualitative techniques. Quantitative research provides scientists with trustworthy information that might be used for further implications. Another profit of the scientific nature of positivism is that it requires data systematization. Therefore, any studies and researches conducted by a positivism theory have a clear structure with strict rules and laws. Abiding by such norms reduces the chances of mistaken conclusions. Also, systematization partially eliminates variance that might take place during research. Hence, a study process becomes more accurate, providing precise empiric information. Also, positivists employ different mathematical tools that are highly objective regarding data collection and analysis.
However, many scientists highlight certain shortcomings of the positivism concept. The main disadvantage is its alleged objectiveness. The constant quest for fairness and impartiality is approved. However, the claim that positivism is completely free from subjective aspects hinders the progress of this theory (Campbell 2016). The development of the quantum theory revealed that not only it was not possible to identify some features of subatomic particles but also the fact of observation changed the results of an experiment. Hence, the statement that empiric research provides accurate data because a researcher has no impact on this process turned out to be false. Thus, the first assumptions of the importance of epistemological components in the positivism concept took place. The quantum theory made scientists think that their very mindset could affect the performance of the experiment.
Another serious drawback of the positivism theory is that it cannot differentiate the natural from social worlds. Positivists believe that all science has a similar foundation. However, there are significant differences between social and natural sciences (Smith, Booth & Zalewski 1996). Social studies focus on societies and their development. Meanwhile, natural sciences scrutinize the details of the natural world. The objects of social studies exist because of processes that form societies. On the other hand, objects of the real world exist independently and are the product of nature.
In conclusion, positivism presents a vision on the proper methodology of natural and social sciences, highlighting the importance of experimentally obtained data. It also emphasizes the fact that objective knowledge should be based on experience through senses. This concept completely contradicts metaphysical theories as to their conclusions impossible to prove empirically. However, the disadvantages of the positivism concept clearly show that it requires a serious transformation. Quantum physics revealed significant shortcomings in this theory. The outcomes of the quantum experiments demonstrated the fallacy of the main principles like the objectiveness of empirical data. Also, the influence of a researcher on the results of a performed test was highlighted by various scholars. Therefore, further activities for the development of the positivism theory should be aimed at resolving the mentioned above obstacles.
Bernstein, S, Lebow, R, Stein, J & Weber, S 2000, ‘God gave physics the easy problems: adapting social science to an unpredictable world’, European Journal of International Relations, vol. 6, no. 1, pp.43-76.
Campbell, T 2016, The legal theory of ethical positivism, Routledge.
Csunderlik, P 2016. The history and reception history of the Galilei Circle (1908-1919) Thesis of doctoral dissertation, Doctoral School of History. Web.
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Daigneault, P & Béland, D 2015. ‘Taking explanation seriously in political science’, Political Studies Review, vol. 13, no. 3, pp.384-392.
Halfpenny, P 2014. Positivism and sociology (RLE social theory): explaining social life, Routledge.
Marsh, D & Stoker, G (eds.) 2010, Theory and methods in political science, Palgrave Macmillan.
Smith, S, Booth, K & Zalewski, M (eds.) 1996. International theory: positivism and beyond. Cambridge University Press.