Positivism in Sociology: Definition, Theory & Examples Video

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  • 0:02 What Is Positivism?
  • 1:30 Theories
  • 3:36 Examples
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson highlights the theories of positivism and the impact this approach had on the development of a new social science - sociology. You will put yourself in the shoes of positivist thinkers Comte and Durkheim and see society through their eyes.

What Is Positivism?

Positivism is the term used to describe an approach to the study of society that relies specifically on scientific evidence, such as experiments and statistics, to reveal a true nature of how society operates. The term originated in the 19th century, when Auguste Comte described his ideas in his books The Course in Positive Philosophy and A General View of Positivism.

First and foremost, Comte was interested in establishing theories that could be tested with the ultimate goal of improving our world once these theories were clearly laid out. He was eager to discover natural laws that applied to society. He viewed the natural sciences, such as biology and physics, as a necessary step in the development of a social science. Just as gravity is a universal truth we all experience in the physical world, Comte believed sociologists could uncover similar laws operating on the social level of people's lives.

Two influential positivists include Comte, who coined the term 'positivism,' and Emile Durkheim, who established the academic discipline of sociology. These early thinkers laid the groundwork for a social science to develop that they believed would have a unique place among the sciences. This new field would be distinct and have its own set of scientific facts. Comte hoped sociology would become the 'queen science' that held more importance than the other natural sciences that had come before it.

Theories of Positivism

Imagine you are a researcher living in France during Comte's time, in the mid-1800s, interested in studying the choices and structures of your society. European culture around you has dramatically shifted in the past hundred years, with the Enlightenment bringing new focus on the scientific method and logic.

You're convinced that you and your colleagues live in a time of great promise, having departed in many ways from the more superstitious views of the past. You thirst for the search for knowledge and universal truths. You believe a new era is dawning, one in which a logical approach to the study of society can bring dramatic insights never before explored or understood. You believe you have the potential to play a role in changing the course of human history.

If you felt this way, you would share much in common with the views of Comte, who was excited about the possibility of entering what he saw as the third and final of three key cultural stages. Society had already experienced the first two stages. First, the theological-military stage had been dominant, in which a belief in supernatural beings, slavery, and the military were key elements. Secondly, human culture experienced the metaphysical-judicial stage, in which a great focus on political and legal structures developed as society became more scientific. The final stage would be the scientific-industrial society with a positive philosophy of science emerging due to advances in logical ways of thinking and scientific inquiry.

While positivism formed the basis for sociology, the idea that there is one true set of natural laws governing how society operates is no longer part of mainstream theories. Instead, sociologists recognize that the study of culture is complex and a variety of methods can be used to understand it. For instance, using fieldwork, a researcher can spend time in another culture to learn about it. Modern-day sociologists do not see the development of one 'true' vision of society as a goal for sociology as Comte did.

Positivism Examples

Now, back to you as a French sociologist, at this point living at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century. You are a student of Emile Durkheim, a Frenchman and sociologist like Comte, who proposed the idea that social facts are structured rules that explain how society operates. Durkheim believed these facts can be verified by scientific observation and experimentation.

Durkheim wanted to explain the incidence of suicide through positivism. As his student, you want to know what societal forces affect the suicide rate and to know if there are factors in common among those who take their own lives beyond just their personal mental states. As a positivist, you want to know what social facts are at play. Positivism established a social science that valued data in order to understand human behavior.

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