Postpositivism

Postpositivists assume that any attempt to ground knowledge outside human consciousness is futile. While postpositivists do not, of course, deny the existence of a physical world, they argue that all knowledge about that world is constructed by human consciousness through language.

What is Postpositivism?

While positivism dominated research in the 19th century, by the early 20th century knowledge-makers in several academic fields were becoming disillusioned with this approach. The positivistic methods that had been so successful in advancing knowledge in the natural sciences— physics, chemistry, biology—were proving to be much less successful in social science research. Particularly in the fields of anthropology and psychology, researchers were frustrated in their attempts to identify universal patterns and construct paradigms that could adequately account for the complexities of human behavior. In the first half of the 20th century, two intellectual movements swept across Europe and eventually made their way to America, changing the way knowledge is defined and produced.

In the early decades of this century, structuralism—the notion that culture and other subjects could be studied as a system of signs—offered knowledge-makers an attractive alternative to the methods of science. Influenced by the work of French semiotician Ferdinand Saussure, French linguist Claude Lévi-Strauss began applying structural theory to the study of kinship patterns, myths, magic, and culture in general. Soon French structuralists were using structural theory to study cultural anthropology, psychology, mathematics, and biology.

Initially, structuralism was enthusiastically accepted as a “scientific” method that avoided the limitations of positivism. About the time of the 1968 student protests in Paris, however, structuralism’s influence began to wane. During this period of turmoil, French intellectuals recognized the inherent limitations in structural theories and began the shift away from structuralism to poststructuralism. This shift in thought was part of the global movement called postmodernism. In the arena of research methods, this change in thinking provided the theoretical basis for new, postpositivistic methods.

The intellectual movement that resulted from the shift away from positivism and structuralism is difficult to define, partly because postpositivism sought to avoid the kind of rational, orderly, patterned thought that makes tidy conceptual boundaries possible. In general, though, postpositivism represents a reaction against the “certainty” that forms the foundation for positivism. While it is difficult to pin postpositivism to a set of specific assumptions, postpositivists tend to share the following beliefs:

  • Difference should be celebrated not suppressed.
  • Knowledge is subjective and negotiated by people within discourse communities.
  • Making knowledge is an interpretive act

Their focus on difference leads postpositivists into areas unexplored by positivists. Instead of searching for broad patterns and general principles, postpositivistic researchers seek out what is unique. By specifying what is different and individual, they expand our understanding of ourselves as well as the subjects of their studies. They do not try to account for the behavior they observe or to generalize their data to the universe at large, but rather seek to enlarge our experience by exposing us to diversity and complexity.

Difference should be celebrated not suppressed. Postpositivists reject positivism’s preoccupation with general principles and paradigm building. Instead, postpositivists argue that patterns suppress the differences that characterize the human condition and define our existence. In fact, postpositivists see difference as key to all meaning. That is, we can make meaning only by distinguishing one thing from another in an endless cycle of comparisons and contrasts. These distinctions provide the stuff from which we define our selves and our world.

Knowledge is subjective. Postpositivism assumes that any attempt to ground knowledge outside human consciousness is futile. While postpositivists do not, of course, deny the existence of a physical world, they argue that all knowledge about that world is constructed by human consciousness through language. Because we make meaning by naming things, postpositivists understand the power of language to shape and control our understanding of the world. They tend to view knowledge-making as a rhetorical activity and are interested in the social and cultural forces that cause knowledge to be accepted or rejected.

If knowledge is subjectively experienced and socially constructed, then considerations of history and context are essential to knowledge-making activities. Postpositivists recognize that prior experience and current social contexts influence our perceptions and shape our consciousness. They point out, for example, that two witnesses to an event rarely see it in precisely the same way and that what is true in one situation may not be true in another. Postpositivists believe that other researchers are foolhardy when they attempt to “strip meaning from a context”—that is, take results from one community or case study and assume that these results can predict behavior in other communities and case studies.

Making knowledge is an interpretive act. If knowledge is constructed out of individual experience and consciousness, then knowledge-making is an act of interpretation rather than an act of discovery. Postpositivistic research, then, is not a search for some objective knowledge waiting “out there” to be discovered. For the postpositivist, research is a quest for new understandings, and the results of this quest are tentative, provisional, and contingent upon the experience and language of the researcher. 

By casting knowledge-making as an interpretive act, postpositivism acknowledges the researcher’s proactive role in the research project. Decisions about what they will study, how they will study it, what constitutes evidence, and what data mean are all filtered through the researchers’ consciousness. Rather than claiming emotional objectivity, postpositivist researchers are likely to be self-conscious about their role in the research process. Postpositivists consider what affects the researcher’s presence may have on the subjects being studied and how research subjects are changed by the research project. Postpositivistic methods reject statistical measures of validity and reliability and rely instead on rich, detailed descriptions and strongly-voiced writing to persuade readers of the authenticity of their observations.

[ See Epistemology; Information Literacy Research; Writing with Sources ]