Response to "Positivism and Qualitative Nursing Research"

By Suppe, Frederick PhD | Scholarly Inquiry for Nursing Practice, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Response to "Positivism and Qualitative Nursing Research"

Suppe, Frederick PhD, Scholarly Inquiry for Nursing Practice

John Paley argues that "most qualitative research (in nursing, as in many other disciplines) is classically positivist. . . . The main aim of this article . . . is to convince them [qualitative researchers] that they really are positivists, and persuade them that they should strive to be better positivists." There is something correct about this claim and yet it is terribly wrong.

What is correct is that there is no inherent conflict between positivism and qualitative research traditions and methods. Logical positivism developed a fundamentally qualitative approach to scientific methodology and devoted considerable effort to show how quantitative research methods could be grounded in qualitative observation.

What is terribly wrong is the author's portrayal of positivistic philosophy as "pro-observation, pro-induction, pro-plausibility, and pro-subjectivity . . . also anti-cause, anti-realist, anti-explanation, anti-correspondence, anti-truth." It is unclear whether any logical positivist ever held all of those positions. While what Paley champions possibly is a coherent "positivistic" philosophy, it is idiosyncratic and certainly marginal to main threads and developments in logical positivism.

The author's portrait of positivism is synthesized from diverse claims made by various persons in the positivist tradition and other post-positivists such as van Fraassen. Methodologically, its flaw is to assume that positivism is a single monolithic philosophy where all positivists agree methodologically, epistemologically, and metaphysically. That decidedly is not the case for logical positivism-the movement that, judging from citations, Paley largely concerns himself with.

In this response I will try to give an accurate portrait of the diversity of positivistic views impacting on qualitative vs. quantitative issues, carefully set out the core positivistic views that ground quantitative research methods in qualitative observation, and show how the compatibility of qualitative research methods and positivism does not require such objectionable and suspect positions as being "anti-cause, anti-realist, anti-explanation, anti-correspondence, anti-truth."


Logical positivism is a 20th-century philosophical movement concerned with meaningful scientific discourse and appropriate methods for keeping scientific claims meaningful. The connections between earlier 19th century positivisms such as Auguste Comte's are tenuous and somewhat obscure. Comte's positivism was an evolutionary perspective on human thought that was tied to a rejection of the French Revolution, the founding of sociology, and the attempt to establish a new secular religion with scientists as a new order of priests (Comte, 1830/1987). Most of this has little to do with the issues with which logical positivism concerned itself. The only significant and relevant overlaps are the ideas that scientific knowledge is grounded in the observable and that the methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the social sciences.

The positivist who most influenced logical positivism was Ernst Mach. According to Mach (1886/1959) science should only describe regularities in the sensations scientists experience when observing. Those descriptions should be resolutely antimetaphysical in the sense that no appeal should be made to what cannot be observed. For Mach this excluded even appeal to physical objects. Mach's views strongly influenced Einstein in his development of relativity theory and many viewed relativity as largely vindicating Mach's brand of positivism. There was a serious problem, however: Part of the substantive empirical content of relativity was the Lorenz group of transformations (roughly describing how to translate observations from one frame of reference or perspective into another) and that empirical part of relativity went beyond what could be experienced in sensations.

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