Written by Dr. Hannes Nel, MBL; D. Com; D. Phil
According to the positivist paradigm, true knowledge is based on experience of the senses and can be obtained by observation, and by conducting experiments, control, measurement, to achieve reliability and validity. Positivism, therefore, strives for objectivity, measurability, predictability, controllability, patterning, the construction of laws and rules of behaviour, and the ascription of causality.
The positivist paradigm of exploring social reality is based on the idea that you can best gain an understanding of human behaviour through observation and reason. Stated differently, only objective, observable facts can be the basis for science.
A positivist approach to knowledge is based on a real and objective interpretation of the data at our disposal. Such knowledge can be transmitted in tangible form – knowledge is often derived from observation.
Positivism is a philosophy of knowing (epistemology) which believes that only knowledge gained through direct observation is factual and trustworthy. Factual information collection, for example watching people work, measuring manufactured items, measuring time in athletics, is regarded as objective and therefore also valid.
Observations should be quantifiable so that statistical analysis can be done. Researchers following a positivist approach believe that there is one objective reality that is observable by a researcher who has little, if any, impact on the object being observed.
Positivism implies that there are objective, independent laws of nature to which human life is subjected. It is the purpose of the research to discover and describe these objective laws. This view describes society as being made up of structures, concepts, labels and relationships. Proving the existence and impact of such laws requires discovery through scientific means.
The researcher observes the community from the outside (an ‘etic’ approach). This means that you are seen as being independent of the study and follows a deductive approach. As the researcher, you should concentrate on facts rather than human interests, making this approach a deductive one.
To explain the concept of doing research independently of other people, notably your target group for the research – a researcher following a positivist approach can receive and analyse completed questionnaires from people whom he or she has never met and does not intend meeting either. All they are interested in are the responses from which objective conclusions can be made.
With these assumptions of science, the ultimate goal is to integrate and systematise findings into a meaningful pattern or theory which is regarded as tentative and not the ultimate truth. Theory is subject to revision or modification as new evidence is found.
The positivist paradigm is mostly used with quantitative research. A systems approach is followed to generate knowledge, and quantification is essential to enhance precision in the description of parameters and the discernment of the relationship among them.
An interesting feature of positivism is that it accepts the supernatural and abstract as data for research purposes. However, theological (the supernatural) or metaphysical (the abstract) claims must yield to the positive – that which can be explained in terms of scientific laws.
Positivists believe that knowledge can be “revealed” or “discovered” through the use of the scientific method. The “discovered” knowledge enables us to provide possible explanations of the causes of things that happen in the world.
Positivists argue that the scientific research method produces precise, verifiable, systematic and theoretical answers to the research question or hypothesis. They also suggest that the use of the scientific method provides answers that are neutral and technical and can thus be universalised and generalised to all historical and cultural contexts.
The advantage of a positivist approach to research is that you can cover a wide range of situations in a short period of time. However, the following disadvantages of positivism should also be borne in mind:
- 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.
- Positivism assumes that all types of processes can be perceived as a certain variation of actions of individuals or relationships between individuals. We know that this is not always the case.
- Adoption of positivism can be criticised for reliance on the status quo. In other words, research findings are only descriptive, thus they lack insight into in-depth issues.
Positivist thinkers lean strongly on determinism, empiricism, parsimony and generality. ‘Determinism’ means that events are caused by other circumstances; and hence, understanding such causal links is necessary for prediction and control. ‘Empiricism’ means the collection of verifiable empirical evidence in support of theories or hypotheses and knowledge stems from human experience. Knowledge stems from human experience. The approach is deductive in nature because you are seen as being independent of the study while concentrating on facts rather than human interests. Parsimony means that phenomena are explained in the most efficient way possible. Generality is the process of generalising the observation of the particular phenomenon to the world at large.
Although some researchers feel that positivism is also associated with rationalism, others disagree, claiming that the two actually challenge one another. Constructivism and Post-positivism reject positivism.
Not all natural scientists and certainly not many social scientists support the positivist paradigm. Furthermore, natural scientists do not always reveal their research practices accurately in their research reports. Thirdly, the term “positivist” is not always interpreted as meaning a quantitative approach to research.
 L. Cohen, L. Manion and K. Morisson, 2007: 26.
 A. Bryman, E. Bell, P. Hirschsohn, A. dos Santos, J. du Toit, A. Masenge, I. van Aard, C. Wagner, 2017: 57.