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The Paradox of Positivism - Sociology-biological positivism theory

Dylan Riley
The Paradox of Positivism
The essays in The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences contribute to a
historical and comparative sociology of social science by systematically com-
paring the rises, falls, and absences of ``methodological positivism'' across
the human sciences. Although all of the essays are of extremely high quality,
three contributions develop the argument most fully: George Steinmetz's
introduction and William H. Sewell Jr.'s and Steinmetz's contributions to
the volume. My remarks focus on these three pieces, drawing on the other
contributions to illustrate aspects of the argument or to suggest tensions that
need exploration.
What Is Positivism?
What are the authors trying to explain? The term positivism has at least three
meanings. It can be a commitment to social evolution in the sense of Auguste
Comte and Emile Durkheim. It can refer to an articulated philosophical tra-
dition: logical positivism. Or it can refer to a set of scientific research prac-
tices: methodological positivism. It is the last meaning that is most relevant
for Steinmetz (2005c: 109).
Methodological positivism refers to a concept of knowledge, a concept
of social reality, and a concept of science. First, it is an epistemology that
identifies scientific knowledge with covering laws--that is, statements of the
type ``if A occurs, then B will follow.'' Second, it is an ontology that equates
existence with objects that are observable. Third, it is associated with a self-
understanding of scientific activity in which social science is independent of
the reality it describes (Steinmetz 2005a: 32; 2005b: 281-83).
Social Science History 31:1 (Spring 2007)
DOI 10.1215/01455532-2006-017
? 2007 by Social Science History Association
116 Social Science History
Establishing the Phenomenon
If this is methodological positivism, the second question is: In what disci-
plines and during what period were this conception of knowledge, this ontol-
ogy, and this self-understanding of social science dominant? A central claim,
running through both Steinmetz's and Sewell's articles, is that positivism
had a period of dominance from 1945 up until the early 1970s in history
and sociology but not, as Webb Keane (2005) shows, in anthropology. From
about 1970 this domination has slowly receded. Still, positivism in some form
retains a surprising resilience in the face of sustained attacks in many disci-
plines. Indeed, for Steinmetz (2005a: 17) positivism in sociology has had an
``unnaturally'' long life.
What is the evidence for this periodization? Steinmetz examines journal
articles and major works of sociology from the 1930s and draws two conclu-
sions. First, the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological
Review were more cosmopolitan in the geographic scope of their topics, and
much more methodologically eclectic, than they were after the 1960s. Sec-
ond, at the end of the 1930s ``nonpositivists,'' above all Talcott Parsons him-
self, ``had an important place in U.S. sociology'' (Steinmetz 2005b: 293). By
the 1960s, Steinmetz (ibid.) argues, this situation had changed dramatically
(see also Steinmetz 2005c: 113-17). It was not that positivism eliminated non-
positivist alternatives. Rather, a positivist conception of science became the
dominant pole of the social scientific field in sociology (ibid.: 112-13). Sewell
(2005: 176-82) documents a similar but slightly later shift in which socio-
logical techniques were imported systematically into history in the 1960s.
By the mid-1970s, however, the situation seems to have changed. Sewell
documents this turn most completely. Postpositivism had two manifestations
in history: one was the cultural turn, and the other was the emergence of neo-
positivist rational choice theory, network models, and so on (ibid.: 198-99).
In sociology and other disciplines positivism had a longer afterlife, however.
Indeed, Margaret R. Somers (2005: 241-42) argues that the rise of social
capital theory represents a retreat from the programmatically antipositivist
stance of classical sociology.
The volume also documents disciplines in which positivism did not win
out in the 1960s and 1970s. The most striking case is anthropology, where, as
Keane points out, methodological positivism has never been dominant. The
brief high positivist moment in the 1950s was swamped in a wave of criticism
in the 1960s and 1970s (Keane 2005: 67-69). Instead, this intellectual field has
The Paradox of Positivism 117
been polarized around a debate between ``particularistic'' and ``theoretical''
accounts that does not fit neatly into the issue of positivism at all.
This produces three empirical problems. First, what explains the rise of
positivism in sociology and history in the postwar United States? Second,
what explains the rise of nonpositivist forms of explanation, together with
the survival of certain forms of positivism, after about 1975? Third, why was
positivism stronger in some disciplines, such as sociology and history, than
in others, such as anthropology? The remainder of my remarks focus on the
first of these questions, because it seems to me that the argument is most
developed here.
Explaining the Shift from Prepositivism
to High Positivism
Steinmetz's article, developing previous work, is key. He considers four
explanations, two internalist and two externalist, for the rise of methodologi-
cal positivism in the postwar period. Finding none of these explanations sat-
isfactory, he develops an alternative Gramscian account based on the idea of
Fordism.
Internalist explanations account for the development of social science in
terms of the `` `immanent' development within the body of social theory and
knowledge of empirical fact itself '' (Parsons 1949: 5). The first of these kinds
of explanations suggests that sociology tried to imitate the most advanced
science in the field; in the case of the postwar United States, this field was
physics. But the problem here is that there were important disciplinary dif-
ferences in the degree to which disciplines pursued positivism. Further, the
science considered most advanced is in any case sociohistorically determined.
So this cannot explain why some disciplines became positivist and others
did not.
The second ``internalist'' explanation, drawn from Pierre Bourdieu, is
that positivism is a strategy of distinction, defined as a way of displaying ``dis-
tance from necessity.'' But it is not obvious that positivism is ``more'' disdain-
ful of necessity than other nonpositivist stances (Steinmetz 2005b: 290). As
Steinmetz (ibid.) argues, ``Bourdieu cannot explain why certain definitions
of distinction will be more successful than others.'' Thus, concludes Stein-
metz, neither internalist account can explain the rise of positivism in postwar
U.S. sociology.

What is the difference between positivism and naturalism? “Logical positivism encountered difficulties with: The verificationist theory of meaning—see Hempel (1950). Troubles with the analytic-synthetic distinction—see Quine (1950). The theory-ladenness of observation—see Hanson (1958) Kuhn (1970) and Quine (1960). Difficulties moving from the observationality of terms to observationality of sentences—see Putnam (1962). More items...