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.


1. Introduction

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. An example for a positivism study may relate to an assessment of the effects of foreign direct investment on GDP growth in Vietnam with the use of regression and correlation analysis. Advantages of positivism philosophy include fast speed of conducting the research and its coverage of a wide range of situations


2. Science as an Underlying Ground for Positivism

Science can be specified as a cornerstone in positivism research philosophy.  Specifically, positivism relies on the following aspects of the science.

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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,
  4. 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).

Positivism Social Constructionism
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 observerValue-free approach to science The world is perceived to be socially constructed and subjectiveObserver is considered a part of the object of observationHuman interests drives science
Responsibilities of researcher Focusing on factsCausalities and fundamental laws are searchedPhenomenon are reduced to the simplest elements

Hypotheses formulation and testing them

To be focusing on meaningsAiming to understand the meaning of eventsExploring 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.


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


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John Dudovskiy