Written By: John Paley, Senior Lecturer, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health, University of Stirling
Read any book on qualitative research methods, and it probably won’t be long before you come across a reference to positivism – and it’s unlikely to be complimentary. Positivists are the living dead of academic writing, the zombies, vampires and werewolves of research texts. When you see one coming, reach for the sharpened stake or equip yourself with silver bullets. The ‘living dead’ metaphor is not as fanciful as it might seem, because one weird thing about positivism is… it’s dead, but it still needs to be killed. Over and over again. People who write about it usually do two things: first, they say that it was demolished and discredited 50 years ago; second, they give it a jolly good drubbing anyway.
So here are some of the things which everyone knows about positivism, and which methodologists are obliged to repeat at every opportunity: (i) positivists believe it is possible to know things with certainty; (ii) they believe in a single, objective reality; (iii) they have a correspondence theory of truth; (iv) they think everything has a cause, including human behaviour; (v) they think the aim of scientific enquiry is to explain, not to understand; (vi) they think it’s possible to be objective; (vii) they think knowledge is quantitative; (viii) they are, or were, political reactionaries.
If you find a writer making these claims, you can be sure of one thing: they haven’t read any positivist authors. What they’ve done instead is read authors-who-are-critical-of-positivism. Because here is the score card: (i) wrong; (ii) wrong; (iii) wrong; (iv) wrong; (v) wrong; (vi) wrong; (vii) sort of right, but misleading; (viii) wrong. The only reason why people think these claims are true is because they are constantly repeated in the literature, recycled by writers who assume that repetition is an indicator of truth. Or possibly ‘truth’.
What, then, is positivism if it isn’t any of these things? Hard to say. Although it’s widely assumed that the positivists stuck obsessively to a rigid set of ideas, they actually changed their minds a lot. Having a scientific outlook, if an idea didn’t work, they rejected it and tried something else. Still, we can say that at the heart of positivist thinking is the idea that all knowledge comes from what we experience – either directly, with our senses, or indirectly through instruments. So positivism is a form of empiricism (that gets a bad press, too).
Logical positivism gives empiricism a very specific twist. It says that there is one (but only one) type of knowledge that is not derived from experience, and that is logic. Hence ‘logical positivism’. Included in logic are other formal systems that can be derived from it, like mathematics. All the other so-called ‘ways of knowing’ (theology, intuition and metaphysics, for example) are ruled out, because they are based on neither experience nor logic. So positivism is sceptical of anything which is not observable, or which cannot be given a logical form.
This is why the claims listed earlier are wrong. Most positivists did not think that ‘certain knowledge’ is possible, precisely because not everything can be observed. They wanted to stick to observable data, and were non-committal about the existence of unobservable items such as electrons, neutrons, values, societies, and cultures (they were ‘anti-realists’). Because they were sceptical about any ‘reality’ which is unobservable, they could hardly have a theory according to which truth is what corresponds to that ‘reality’. Because many alleged ‘causes’ are unobservable, they reserved judgment about the concept of causation. They did not believe that subjectivity can be eradicated, but they did believe that it is possible to adopt procedures which minimise its effect. They believed it was sensible to pursue the possibility of quantification where possible (given the success of mathematics, it would be silly not to) but recognised that not everything is quantifiable. And they were politically on the left, which is why they had to leave Nazi Germany (unlike, say, Heidegger and Gadamer).
The interesting question is why the ritual of positivist-monster-slaying has to be repeated so constantly. My suspicion – this is no more than armchair speculation – is that positivism represents the Shadow (in Jungian terms) or the Scapegoat (in anthropological terms) for the qualitative community. The features attributed to positivism really belong to qualitative researchers themselves; but this cannot, for obvious reasons, be acknowledged. So they are projected on to the ‘Other’ figure of positivism, which is then symbolically killed so that the community can relieve itself of unconscious guilt and celebrate itself as free of epistemological sin. The Scapegoat itself is innocent of the charges. It does not have the features ascribed to it, but it serves as a symbolic figure on to which those features can be offloaded, and which can then be expelled or slaughtered as the bearer of epistemological evil.
For example, qualitative authors often use causal concepts – when they talk of experience and identities being ‘shaped’, ‘influenced’, or ‘determined’ by culture, history, discourse – despite the fact that they officially reject the concept of causation. The dissonance which this tension creates can be alleviated by projecting the commitment to causality outwards onto the positivist Shadow/Scapegoat, where it can be ritually condemned as belonging to the Epistemological Other.
If qualitative researchers could get over their scapegoating reaction to positivism, they might discover ideas which sit comfortably with their own convictions. For example, the ‘multiple realities’ favoured by constructivists are not too distant from the position arrived at by some logical positivists. Carnap’s mature view, for example, was that there are a number of different linguistic frameworks in terms of which the world can be described, and that the choice between them is conventional and pragmatic, a matter of what is suited to a particular purpose. Consequently, all standards of ‘correctness’, ‘validity’ and ‘truth’ are relativised to the rules and principles associated with whichever framework has been adopted. This is not a view which constructivists should find uncongenial.