I introduced the series of articles on Research Paradigms by listing all the different paradigms, also called philosophical perspectives, philosophical epochs or, sometimes also called the “isms”. This articles deals with the third paradigm, namely Positivism.
The positivist paradigm of exploring social reality is based on the idea that one can best gain an understanding of human behaviour through observation and reason. Stated differently, only objective, observable facts can be the basis for science. According to the positivist paradigm true knowledge is based on experience of senses and can be obtained by observation and experiment. Positivist thinkers lean strongly on determinism, empiricism, parsimony and generality.
‘Determinism’ means that events are caused by other circumstances; and hence, understanding such causal links is necessary for prediction and control. ‘Empiricism’ means collection of verifiable empirical evidences in support of theories or hypotheses. Knowledge stems from human experience. Furthermore, the researcher is seen as being independent from the study and follows a deductive approach. The researcher concentrates on facts rather than human interests, making this approach a deductive one. ‘Parsimony’ refers to the explanation of the phenomena in the most efficient way possible. ‘Generality’ is the process of generalising the observation of the particular phenomenon to the world at large.
With these assumptions of science, the ultimate goal is to integrate and systematise findings into a meaningful pattern or theory which is regarded as tentative and not the ultimate truth. Theory is subject to revision or modification as new evidence is found.
Positivist paradigm thus systematises the knowledge generation process with the help of quantification, which is essential to enhance precision in the description of parameters and the discernment of the relationship among them.
An interesting feature of positivism is that it accepts the supernatural and abstract as data for research purposes. However, theological (the supernatural) or metaphysical (the abstract) claims must yield to the positive – that which can be explained in terms of scientific laws.
A positivist approach to knowledge is based on a real and objective interpretation of the data at our disposal. Such knowledge can be transmitted in tangible form – knowledge is often derived from observation. Positivism is a philosophy of knowing, also called epistemology, which believes that only knowledge gained through direct observation is factual and trustworthy. Factual information gathering, for example watching people work, measuring manufactured items, measuring time in athletics, is regarded as objective and therefore also valid.
Observations should be quantifiable so that statistical analysis can be done. Researchers following a positivist approach postulate that there is one objective reality that is observable by a researcher who has little, if any, impact on the object being observed. Positivism implies that there are objective, independent laws of nature to which human life is subjected. It is the purpose of research to discover and describe these objective laws. This view describes society as being made up of structures, concepts, labels and relationships. Proving the existence and impact of such laws require discovery through scientific means.
Positivists believe that knowledge can be “revealed” or “discovered” through the use of the scientific method. The “discovered” knowledge enables us to provide possible explanations of the causes of things that happen in the world. A positivist approach emphasises experimentation, observation, control, measurement, reliability and validity in the processes of research. This implies a quantitative approach.
Positivists argue that the scientific research method produces precise, verifiable, systematic and theoretical answers to the research question or hypothesis. They also suggest that the use of the scientific method provides answers that are neutral and technical and can thus be universalised and generalised to all historical and cultural contexts.
To explain the concept of doing research independent of other people, notably your target group for the research – a researcher following a positivist approach can receive and analyse completed questionnaires from people whom he or she has never met and don’t intend meeting either. All they are interested in are the responses from which objective conclusions can be made.
The advantage of a positivist approach to research is that the researcher can cover a wide range of situations in a short period of time. However, the following disadvantages of positivism should also be borne in mind:
- Positivism relies on experience as a valid source of knowledge. However, a wide range of basic and important concepts such as cause, time and space are not based on experience.
- Positivism assumes that all types of processes can be perceived as a certain variation of actions of individuals or relationships between individuals.
- Adoption of positivism can be criticised for reliance on the status quo. In other words, research findings are only descriptive, thus they lack insight into in-depth issues.
Note: Sources for all the articles on research paradigms will be acknowledged in the book that the writer is writing on Social Science Research. Posted by Dr J.P. Nel