What is positivism in sociology?

Positivism is a philosophical theory of studying the society developed by French Philosopher Auguste Comte in the 19th century. The term positivism is derived from the French word Positivisme that is again derived from the term positif that means ‘imposed on the mind by experience’.  Influenced by early enlightenment and rationalism, positivism can be understood as the theory dealing with only that which can be scientifically verified through logical or mathematical proofs.  Using it, Comte emphasized that the social world can be explained by developing abstract laws that can be tested by collecting various data. The abstract laws would indicate the basic generic properties of the social world, specifying their natural relations.

Comte proposed three methods for the generation of these abstract laws. They are observation, experimentation, and comparison. It views that the social universe also operates as per some general laws just like the physical world. It rejects metaphysics and theism along with intuitive knowledge as the claims they make cannot be verified and rather emphasizes that laws are developed from logical facts that validate them rather than from any kind of moral considerations. In simple words, positivism states that natural phenomena and their features are the basis of positive or certain knowledge. So, the information which we gather from our sensory experiences and interpreted through reason and logic leads to the construction of certain knowledge.

Although the theory of positivism remained important in contemporary sociology, it has also been criticized by those who believe that not all data can be verified empirically. The mainstream theory of sociology no longer advocates that there is one true set of natural laws on the basis of which the society functions. Sociologists view society as a much more complex system that requires various methods to be understood. So, the modern sociologists do not view that the prime goal of sociology is to develop only one true perception towards the society as Auguste Comte did. Many theorists view it as that belief which considers all the true knowledge as being scientific.

Positivism is also closely associated with reductionism because of its view that ‘entities of one kind can be reduced to entities of another’. Its use as an approach to studying the society can be seen in Durkheim’s study of suicide. He believed that social facts can be tested and verified through scientific observation, collection of data, and experiments. Social facts can be understood as values, social structures, or structured norms that denote how society functions. Durkheim while studying the occurrence of suicide wanted to know those societal forces that affect the incidence of suicide or the suicide rate. His motive was to study the factors that were in common among the people who committed suicide or what were their mental states. He applied it to know the social fact that was responsible. In this way, it can be seen that positivism laid the foundation for the science of society that tried to understand human behavior on the basis of data, reasoning, and logic.