Positivism in Depth

Positivism in Depth

A Methodological approach to understanding phenomenon based on:

  • Scientific Method
  • Empiricism
  • Objectivity (vs. ideology/politics)
  • See also, wikipedia on positivism

Positivistic Assumptions surrounding deviance

  • Deviance is real
  • Deviants possess certain traits, commonalities.
  • Understanding these traits gives us an understanding of the “causes” of deviance

Positivistic Approaches:

  • Are characterized by Essentialism
  • Seek understanding of Cause and Effect (forces, determinism)
  • Have “objective” explanation as their goal

Theory of Action-Reaction

  • Action is rational and non-problematic
  • Deviants deviate and are labeled as such. Enforcement is directed at maintaining Order.
  • Norms: protect the group, They are enacted for the common good.
  • Deviance/deviants harm society.
  • Social control is rational, and directed towards restoring societal integration
  • Central question for positivist approaches: Why do they do it? Discover cause; control individual (group); restore order.


  • Positivist approaches tend to ignore the subjective experience of the deviant and the meaning the behavior has for the actor.
  • They blindly accepts the “wrongness” of deviance (ideology supports the status quo)
  • Issue of relativity and constructionism and definition of the situation is glossed over
  • Problem of determinism–final/absolute causes?
  • The question of objectivity is not addressed, but assumed
Constructionism Critiques Positivism
1. Positivism Ignores Subjective Experience, or the meaning to the participants
  • By only studying the objective features of an act; meaning is ignored. For the Constructionist, meaning is the heart of the social process.
  • Two actions that are superficially and mechanically similar may mean very different things to the participants as opposed to the individuals who react to the participants and what they are doing. i.e. homosexuality. So, what something is, is entirely dependent on how it is interpreted by the relevant audience, including the actor.
  • “Meaning is not inherent in the act; it must be constructed”. Thus, an act “is” nothing until it is categorized,    conceptualized and interpreted.
  • It is this subjective process that locates the act as a specific instance of a general type of behavior.

2. Positivists should be skeptical toward Determinism
  • Causality, or to say that one factor caused or causes another, cannot be determined with any real degree of precision.

3. Positivists are overly naive toward objectivity
  • True objectivity is impossible.
  • Every observer is to a degree contaminated by personal, political and ideological sympathies. We cannot avoid taking sides. So,  pursuing and reporting the facts is always enmeshed in ideological and political choices.

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