Sociology Positivism
Seth B. Abrutyn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0142


Positivism is a philosophy of science that assumes a specific epistemological, ontological, and methodological perspective. Auguste Comte was the first to lay out the positivist position for sociology arguing that (1) social phenomena—or social facts, as Durkheim would call them—external and observable to individuals were amenable to empirical, scientific analysis and, thus, the goal for a positivist social science would be (2) to discern the abstract, social laws that undergirded these observable facts; (3) to not focus on causes, especially ultimate causes, but rather the natural relations between phenomena; and (4) to produce a body of cumulative knowledge that could guide social engineers, analogous to physics or chemistry guiding mechanical or electrical engineers. Since Comte, positivism has evolved. Contemporary positivists, as well as their critics, assign different meanings and emphases to a relatively wide range of practices and philosophical positions, which has produced some confusion as to what positivism is or is not. Given the negative connotation that positivism tends to have in many contemporary sociological circles, especially outside the United States, each section of this bibliography will include one or two critical pieces linked to the section’s theme. Additionally, a later section, Commentary and Critique, will provide seminal works that underscore the diversity in critiques of positivist sociology. Perhaps the most important charge leveled against positivism is that it dominates the discipline and especially the most prestigious journals, in spite of the fact that positivism has many different contemporary methodological and epistemological meanings. Nevertheless, a few core elements can be isolated that underscore all positivisms. First, sociology is and should be a science, in that only those social facts external and observable by scientific methods and instruments are to be studied. Second, and closely related, sociological inquiry should be objective, value-neutral inquiry distinguishable from religious, moral, political, or philosophical inquiry. Third, the methods and instruments should be reliable, verifiable, and precise; though there is not a distinct set of methods to which positivists adhere, many positivists (often called methodological positivists) subscribe to quantitative analyses. Fourth, theories should be abstract, generalizable statements with clearly defined concepts linked by their relationship. Though few positivists speak of “laws,” most believe the goal of theory is to explain a class of phenomena. Fifth, the ultimate goal is cumulative, objective knowledge of the social world, its properties, and its dynamics.

General Overviews of Classical Positivism

No clear bifurcation between classical or contemporary positivism can be delineated. Perhaps arbitrary, positivist thought from Comte (Comte 1968) through Logical Positivism (Carnap 1934, Ayers 1959) may be termed “classical,” as elements continue to inform positivism today, yet these scholars are generally not referred to or employed in contemporary defenses of or writings on positivism. Comte’s philosophy was central to the sociological work of both Spencer (Spencer 1897) and Durkheim (Durkheim 1982). Both social scientists accepted the belief that there was an empirical world and that scientific methods should be employed to observe it; both wrote a text specifically on methods, with Spencer 1961 focused on the use of historical-comparative methods to generate first principles. Durkheim 1982 did not prescribe a particular method, but cogently argued that social facts were distinct phenomena apart from psychological facts and established the logic behind scientific inquiry. During the classical phase of sociology, in Europe and the United States, most social scientists took for granted sociology as a science. For instance, Sorokin 1959 contains a general theory of stratification and mobility that tacitly assumes these phenomena have some unchanging identifiable qualities. Or, consider Sumner and Keller 1927, a herculean effort to compile data on every known society so that all sociologists would draw from the same place and cumulative knowledge could be established. Comte’s vision, which explicitly or implicitly informed sociology, was eventually abandoned with the rise of Logical Positivism (Carnap 1934, Ayers 1959). In essence, Logical Positivists emphasized methodology over theory, logic over abstraction, and verification. In many ways, Logical Positivism shaped what is called methodological positivism today in that they conflated empirical generalizations with theoretical statements. Max Weber’s statement on sociological methods (Weber 1946) provides a critique of positivism, while at the same time laying the foundations for modern interpretivism in sociology. On the other hand, Popper 2002 offers one of the more cogent and respected philosophy of science critiques of positivism.

  • Ayers, A. J., ed. 1959. Logical Positivism. New York: Dover.

    An edited book of essays by the most relevant Logical Positivists.

  • Carnap, Rudolf. 1934. The unity of science. London: Kegan Paul.

    A typical example of a Logical Positivist argument. In particular, Carnap focuses on what is often called the unity of science or the epistemological, ontological, and methodological position that all external, observable phenomena are amenable to scientific measurement. Found in Comte’s so-called Hierarchy of the Sciences, the unity of science position has undergirded the argument that sociology is a science.

  • Comte, Auguste. 1968. System of positive polity. 4 vols. New York: Burt Franklin.

    Comte’s complete and ultimate statement on positivism and the social sciences. Though all four volumes inform the reader, of special importance to his philosophy are the first one hundred pages or so. Originally published 1851–1854.

  • Durkheim, Emile. 1982. The rules of sociological method, and selected texts on sociology and its method. New York: Free Press.

    Originally published in 1895. Durkheim’s text on methods, focused principally on the epistemological and ontological foundations of a positivist social science.

  • Popper, Karl. 2002. The logic of scientific discovery. London: Routledge.

    Originally published in 1934. A classic philosophy of science work that questions the tenets of Logical Positivism, while offering a critical examination of the assumptions of scientific inquiry.

  • Sorokin, Pitirim. 1959. Social and cultural mobility. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

    Originally published in 1927. An example of a formal theoretical work with ubiquitous, abstract propositions regarding stratification and inequality in human societies. Though often a forgotten text, numerous general contemporary theories of stratification and empirical studies appear to verify many of Sorokin’s propositions.

  • Spencer, Herbert. 1897. The principles of sociology. New York: Appleton.

    As was typical of positivists, the search for the most basic elements or principles of a science was an important step in building a cumulative body of knowledge. Spencer’s efforts have slowly become recognized in some corners of contemporary sociology, but they are exemplary of 19th-century positivism.

  • Spencer, Herbert. 1961. The study of sociology. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    Originally published in 1873. Spencer’s positivist text on sociological methods.

  • Sumner, William Graham, and Albert G. Keller. 1927. The science of society. 4 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    A qualitative data set that is cross-cultural with the intention of giving social scientists a common body of data to draw from and speak to each other through.

  • Weber, Max. 1946. Methods of the social science. In From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. Edited by H. Gerth and C. W. Mills, 55–61. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Weber’s methodological statement highlighting the concept Verstehen and the interpretivist approach.

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