Positivism in Sociological Practice: 1967-1990

By Gartrell, C. David; Gartrell, John W. | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, May 1996 | Go to article overview

Positivism in Sociological Practice: 1967-1990


Gartrell, C. David, Gartrell, John W., The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


Is positivism in sociology dead? While positivism may be dead in the sense that philosophers have found it to be wanting (Suppe, 1977), its ghost continues to haunt sociology in a variety of guises, ranging from sociological technicians' programs of sophisticated statistical manipulation of carefully quantified data to debates about whether sociology can be scientific without positivism (Halfpenny, 1982: 120-121; Turner, 1992). In theory circles, the term "positivist" has become one of derision (C. Bryant, 1985; J. Bryant, 1992; Gibbs, 1994). With the notable exception of Jonathan Turner, few sociological theorists seem intent on proclaiming their positivism, at least in public.(1) However, the question we ask is: Judging from their published work, do sociologists find positivism persuasive?

It would certainly not be surprising to find evidence that positivism is more in "bad odour" today than twenty years ago. By the late 1960s the "received view" of logical positivism was at its sociological zenith, firmly stamped in the burgeoning, and predominantly North American, sociological literature on theory construction (see, e.g., Zetterberg, 1965; Hage, 1972; Wallace, 1971; Dubin, 1969; Gibbs, 1972; Blalock, 1969; Mullins, 1971; Homans, 1967; Reynolds, 1971; Stinchcombe, 1968; Wilier, 1967). Positivism itself had been no stranger to controversy. Yet critical philosophical commentary about the "received view" (Suppe, 1977) was slower to make its way into the mainstream of sociological thinking, at least in North America. While positivistic sociology there was not without its critics (Blumer, 1969; Garfinkel, 1967; Glaser and Strauss, 1967), sociological skeptics were better established overseas (e.g., Adorno et al., 1976; Horkheimer, 1986; Habermas, 1972).

The last two decades have witnessed the working out in sociology of the philosophical criticisms of positivism (Suppe, 1977), particularly within relativistic approaches (Ritzer, 1975; Horan, 1978; Falk and Zhao, 1989) and realism (Sayer, 1992; Keat and Urry, 1982; Morrow, 1991). New voices have contributed to a growing scepticism about positivism's role in sociology. Feminist sociology has proposed a distinctive epistemology that confronts positivistic sociology on a number of grounds, particularly the difficulty of producing abstracted, impartial accounts given the embeddedness of knowledge within social relations (Acker, 1989; Haraway, 1988; Lengermann and Niebrugge-Brantley, 1992; Smith, 1989). Post-structuralists and post-modernists have challenged positivism for, among other things, its universalizing claims, its rationalism, and for the modern belief that theory mirrors reality (Best and Kellner, 1991). Proponents of historical-comparative methodology point to "intrinsic logical and substantive flaws" in the recent writings of positivist theorists (Bryant, 1992). Remarkably, some critics have even assembled evidence of the self-doubts expressed by leading proponents of positivistic sociology as evidence of "positivism's twilight" (Baldus, 1990).

Faced with this litany of criticism, the proponents of positivism in sociology have not remained silent. The assaults on positivism have clearly had an effect on this group. While some continue to be defiant (Lenski, 1988; Turner, 1992; Gibbs, 1994), others have advocated compromise (Collins, 1989) or reflection on failure with the hope of renewal (Hage, 1994). To what degree anti-positivist sentiments have diffused beyond theory circles remains an open question (Hage, 1994: 13; Collins and Waller, 1994: 29). For his part, Turner voices his suspicion that ". . . within the larger sociological community, my position is still in the majority. But social theorists have become decidedly anti-science" (1991: 590). Our research has been prompted by a similar suspicion, or curiosity, about what sociologists involved in the everyday (and every-night) activity of writing papers for academic journals find to be persuasive. …

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