Positivism refers to the core philosophical position that informs the scientific method: positivists (aka Scientists) believe the universe is an orderly place that can be understood and measured via systematic observation and experimentation. This article reviews the tenets of positivism and contrasts this doctrine with other major ways of knowing, such as personal speculation, scholarship and post-positivism.

What is Positivism?

Positivism is a philosophical and scientific approach that emphasizes the use of empirical evidence and observable facts to develop and evaluate knowledge. Positivists assume

  1. the universe is an orderly place
  2. a nonrandom order of the universe exists
  3. events have causes and occur in regular patterns that can be determined through observation

Positivists conduct observational studies to uncover these regular, nonrandom patterns and the relationships among the patterns. Working collaboratively and inductively, positivists sort through a multitude of relationships, seeking to discover the rules or principles that govern the way things work in the natural universe.

Related Concepts: Empirical Research Methods; Epistemology;

Why Does Positivism Matter?

Familiarity with positivism can prepare students for future academic and professional pursuits that require a scientific and analytical mindset.

Comte De Saint-Simon introduced the term “positivism” in the 19th century to describe the set of beliefs that underlies modern scientific inquiry. Early positivists rejected inquiry based on subjective experience or intellectual speculation. Instead, they argued that sense perceptions are the only admissible basis for knowledge. Positivists argue that knowledge developed by carefully controlled observation is more valuable than knowledge that is derived from intuition or logic.

In The Making of Knowledge in Composition, Stephen North (1987) identifies three assumptions that support positivists’ reliance on sensory perception as the best means to knowledge:

  1. A nonrandom order of causes and effects exists.
  2. This nonrandom order exists independent of our experience of it.
  3. Researchers can use objective methods to discover the nonrandom order.

Since they are interested in discovering the laws and general principles that regulate the universe, positivists use the data they collect, not to explain any particular individual or event, but as evidence concerning the universe at large. Ultimately, positivists hope to construct a paradigm—a consistent, general concept or framework—that explains the phenomena they study. Positivists, then, work like puzzle-solvers, solving the puzzle of the universe one piece at a time.

Positivists believe a nonrandom order of the universe exists independently of our experience of it. Positivists assume that, not only is the universe an orderly place governed by laws and principles, but that this order exists whether or not we are aware of it. That is, positivists have faith in the “objective” nature of knowledge. They view knowledge as “external” to human experience and proceed as though knowledge is somewhere “out there” waiting to be discovered.

The natural sciences provide the best examples of the kinds of knowledge generated by positivistic methods. From a positivist’s perspective, the rules of gravity operated efficiently long before we understood them. Likewise, the principles that govern the reproduction of genetic traits in fruit flies or hundreds of other natural phenomena are unaffected by our understanding of them. In positivistic research, the observer’s role is passive, and the researcher discovers rather than creates knowledge about the phenomena under study.

Positivists assume that researchers can employ objective methods to discover the nonrandom order. This third assumption follows logically from the first two. That is, positivists reason that if the universe is governed by nonrandom laws and principles that exist independently of human experience, then these patterns must be accessible to the right kinds of investigation. Exactly what method provides the best access depends upon the specific phenomenon being studied and the circumstances under which it is studied. But while positivists differ in how they seek access to these universal patterns, they share the conviction that the patterns are discoverable and describable.

Positivists have developed a variety of methods for conducting objective observations, for verifying their findings, and for generalizing their observations to the universe at large. Often positivistic research is conducted in laboratory settings where variables can be carefully controlled, but it may also be carried out in more natural settings. But because positivists rely on sensory perception rather than intuition or speculation, careful, objective observation is essential to their methodology regardless of the setting.


North. (1987). The making of knowledge in composition : portrait of an emerging field. Boynton/Cook Publishers.

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