Positivism Research Philosophy

It has to be acknowledged that the positivism research philosophy is difficult to be explained in a precise and succinct manner. This is 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 the only way to learn about the truth. The text below explains positivism with the focus on business studies in particular.

 Positivism:  Introduction 

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  in an objective way. In these types of studies research findings are usually observable and quantifiable.

Positivism depends on quantifiable observations that lead to statistical analyses. 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”[1].

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)[2] argue 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.”[3] In other words, studies with positivist paradigm are based purely on facts and consider the world to be external and objective.

The five main principles of positivism research philosophy can be summarized as the following:

  1. There are no differences in the logic of inquiry across sciences.
  2. The research should aim to explain and predict.
  3. Research should be empirically observable via human senses. Inductive reasoning should be used to develop statements (hypotheses) to be tested during the research process.
  4. Science is not the same as the common sense. The common sense should not be allowed to bias the research findings.
  5. Science must be value-free and it should be judged only by logic.

The following are a few examples for studies that adhere to positivism research philosophy:

  • A study into the impact of the global economic crisis of 2007 – 2009 on the brand equity of US-based listed companies
  • An analysis of effects of foreign direct investment on GDP growth in Vietnam
  • A study of relationship between diffusion of innovation of mobile applications and saturation of applications in a country

The following table illustrates ontology, epistemology, axiology and typical research methods associated with positivism research philosophy:

OntologyEpistemologyAxiology Typical methods
Real, external, independent

 

One true reality

(universalism)

 

Granular (things)

 

Ordered

Scientific method

Observable and measurable facts

 

Law-like generalizations

Numbers

 

Causal explanation and prediction as contributon

Value-free research

 

Researcher is detached, neutral and independent of what is researched

 

Researcher maintains objective stance

Typically deductive, highly structured, large samples, measurement, typically quantitative method of analysis, but a range of data can be analysed

Ontology, epistemology, axiology and typical research methods associated with positivism research philosophy

Science as an Underlying Ground for Positivism

Positivism often involves the use of existing theory to develop hypotheses to be tested during the research process. 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 via application of specific research methods. This leads 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.

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.

Differences between Positivism and Interpretivism

The key features of positivism and social constructionism philosophical approaches are presented in the following table by Ramanathan (2008)[4].

PositivismSocial Constructionism
The observerMust be independentIs part of what is being observed
Human interestsShould be irrelevantAre the main drivers of science
ExplanationsMust demonstrate causalityAim to increase general understanding of the situation
Research  progresses throughHypotheses  and  deductionsGather rich data from which ideas are induced
ConceptsNeed to be operationalised so that they can be measuredShould  incorporate stakeholder perspectives
Units of analysisShould be reduced to simplest termsMay include the complexity of ‘whole’ situations
Generalisation throughStatistical probabilityTheoretical  abstraction
Sampling requiresLarge numbers selected randomlySmall numbers of cases chosen for specific reasons

Differences between positivism and social constructionism

Alternatively, the differences between positivist and phenomenology paradigms are best illustrated by Easterby-Smith et al. (2008)[5] in the following manner:

Positivist Paradigm Phenomenology paradigm
 

 

Basic notions

 

The world is perceived as external and objective

Independency of the observer

Value-free approach to science

The world is perceived to be socially constructed and subjective

Observer is considered a part of the object of observation

Human interests drives science

 

 

Responsibilities of researcher

 

Focusing on facts

Causalities and fundamental laws are searched

Phenomenon are reduced to the simplest elements

Hypotheses formulation and testing them

To be focusing on meanings

Aiming to understand the meaning of events

Exploring the totality of each individual case

Ideas are developed by induction from data

Most suitable research methodsConcepts have to be operationalizedUsing several methods in order to different aspects of phenomena
SamplingSamples have to be largeSmall samples are analyzed in a greater depth or over longer period of time

Positivist and phenomenology paradigms

 

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 on status quo. In other words, research findings in positivism studies are only descriptive, thus they lack insight into in-depth issues.

My e-book, The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Dissertation in Business Studies: a step by step assistance contains discussions of theory and application of research philosophy. The e-book also explains all stages of the research process starting from the selection of the research area to writing personal reflection. Important elements of dissertations such as research philosophyresearch approachresearch designmethods of data collection and data analysis are explained in this e-book in simple words.

John Dudovskiy

Positivism Research Philosophy

[1] Collins, H. (2010) “Creative Research: The Theory and Practice of Research for the Creative Industries” AVA Publications, p.38

[2] Crowther, D. & Lancaster, G. (2008) “Research Methods: A Concise Introduction to Research in Management and Business Consultancy” Butterworth-Heinemann

[3] Wilson, J. (2010) “Essentials of Business Research: A Guide to Doing Your Research Project” SAGE Publications

[4] Ramanathan, R. (2008) “The Role of Organisational Change Management in Offshore Outsourcing of Information Technology Services” Universal Publishers

[5] Easterby-Smith, M, Thorpe, R. & Jackson, P. (2008) “Management Research” 3rd ed,SAGE Publications Ltd., London