It has to be acknowledged that the doctrine of positivism is difficult to be explained in a precise and succinct manner because there are vast differences between settings in which positivism is used by researchers. The number variations in explaining positivism may be equal to the number of authors who addressed the area of research philosophy. Nevertheless, in its essence, positivism is based on the idea that science is an only way to learn about the truth.
Positivism belongs to epistemology which can be specified as philosophy of knowing, whereas methodology is an approach to knowing. As a philosophy positivism adheres to the view that only “factual” knowledge gained through observation (the senses), including measurement, is trustworthy. In positivism studies the role of the researcher is limited to data collection and interpretation through objective approach and the research findings are usually observable and quantifiable.
According to the principles of positivism, it depends on quantifiable observations that lead themselves to statistical analysis. It has been noted that “as a philosophy, positivism is in accordance with the empiricist view that knowledge stems from human experience. It has an atomistic, ontological view of the world as comprising discrete, observable elements and events that interact in an observable, determined and regular manner” (Collins, 2010, p.38).
Moreover, in positivism studies the researcher is independent form the study and there are no provisions for human interests within the study. Crowther and Lancaster (2008) inform that as a general rule, positivist studies usually adopt deductive approach, whereas inductive research approach is usually associated with a phenomenology philosophy. Moreover, positivism relates to the viewpoint that researcher needs to concentrate on facts, whereas phenomenology concentrates on the meaning and has provision for human interest.
Researchers warn that “if you assume a positivist approach to your study, then it is your belief that you are independent of your research and your research can be purely objective. Independent means that you maintain minimal interaction with your research participants when carrying out your research” (Wilson, 2010, p.10). In other words, studies with positivist paradigm are based purely on facts and consider the world to be external and objective.
It has been noted that “as a philosophy, positivism is in accordance with the empiricist view that knowledge stems from human experience. It has an atomistic, ontological view of the world as comprising discrete, observable elements and events that interact in an observable, determined and regular manner” (Collins, 2010, p.38).
Arguably, positivist paradigm relates to business studies to a greater extent compared to other disciplines. This is because business relationships are justly perceived as aggregation of relationships between individuals within and between firms and positivism is one of the most suitable approaches to study the nature of relationships.
2. Science as an Underlying Ground for Positivism
Science can be specified as a cornerstone in positivism research philosophy. Specifically, positivism is focused on the following set of science:
- Science is deterministic. Scientific approach is based on assumption that X causes Y under certain circumstances. The role of researcher when following the scientific approach is to discover specific nature of cause and effect relationships.
- Science is mechanistic. Mechanical nature of scientific approach can be explained in a way that researchers develop hypotheses to be proved or disproved vi a application of specific research methods. Things brings to the fact that
- Science uses method. Chosen methods are applied mechanically in order to operationalize theory or hypothesis. Application of methodology involves selection of sample, measurements, analysis and reaching conclusions about hypotheses. Therefore,
- Science deals with empiricism. In other words, science only deals with what can be seen or measured. From this perspective, science can be assessed as objective.
3. Differences between Positivism and Interpretivism
The key features of positivism and social constructionism philosophical approaches are presented in the following table by Ramanathan (2008).
|The observer||Must be independent||Is part of what is being observed|
|Human interests||Should be irrelevant||Are the main drivers of science|
|Explanations||Must demonstrate causality||Aim to increase general understanding of the situation|
|Research progresses through||Hypotheses and deductions||Gather rich data from which ideas are induced|
|Concepts||Need to be operationalised so that they can be measured||Should incorporate stakeholder perspectives|
|Units of analysis||Should be reduced to simplest terms||May include the complexity of ‘whole’ situations|
|Generalisation through||Statistical probability||Theoretical abstraction|
|Sampling requires||Large numbers selected randomly||Small numbers of cases chosen for specific reasons|
Alternatively, the differences between positivist and phenomenology paradigms are best illustrated by Easterby-Smith in the following manner:
|Positivist Paradigm||Phenomenology paradigm|
|Basic notions||The world is perceived as external and objectiveIndependency of the observer
Value-free approach to science
|The world is perceived to be socially constructed and subjectiveObserver is considered a part of the object of observation
Human interests drives science
|Responsibilities of researcher||Focusing on factsCausalities and fundamental laws are searched
Phenomenon are reduced to the simplest elements
Hypotheses formulation and testing them
|To be focusing on meaningsAiming to understand the meaning of events
Exploring the totality of each individual case
Ideas are developed by induction from data
|Most suitable research methods||Concepts have to be operationalised||Using several methods in order to different aspects of phenomena|
|Sampling||Samples have to be large||Small samples are analysed in a greater depth or over longer period of time|
4. Shortcomings of Positivism
Positivism as an epistemology is associated with the following set of disadvantages:
Firstly, positivism relies on experience as a valid source of knowledge. However, a wide range of basic and important concepts such as cause, time and space are not based on experience.
Secondly, positivism assumes that all types of processes can be perceived as a certain variation of actions of individuals or relationships between individuals.
Thirdly, adoption of positivism in business studies and other studies can be criticized for reliance to status quo. In other words, research findings in positivism studies are only descriptive, thus they lack insight into in-depth issues.
The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Dissertation in Business Studies: a step by step approach by John Dudovskiy, author of this article and the main author of this blog explains how to apply positivism and other branches of research philosophy and research methodology in simple ways.
Collins, H. (2011) “Creative Research: The Theory and Practice of Research for the Creative Industries” AVA Publications
Crowther, D. & Lancaster, G. (2008) “Research Methods: A Concise Introduction to Research in Management and Business Consultancy” Butterworth-Heinemann
Ramanathan, R. (2008) “The Role of Organisational Change Management in Offshore Outsourcing of Information Technology Services” Universal Publishers