Postpositivists are especially curious about the subjective nature of interpretation. Photo Credit: "Partner Showcase | re:publica 2017" by re:publica Campus #rpCampus is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Post-positivists assume that any attempt to ground knowledge outside human consciousness is futile. While post-positivists 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.

Related Concepts: Epistemology

Why Does Post-Positivism Matter?

Post-positivism is an important philosophical perspective that has influenced many disciplines, including the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. It challenges the traditional positivist view that objective truth can be obtained through empirical observation and measurement.

Understanding post-positivism can be particularly important for undergraduate students studying fields such as sociology, psychology, political science, and anthropology, as it can provide them with a critical lens to analyze the limitations and assumptions of scientific inquiry.

Moreover, post-positivism emphasizes the role of subjective interpretation and the influence of social, cultural, and historical context on knowledge production. This perspective encourages students to consider the ways in which their own biases and assumptions may shape their understanding of the world, as well as the ways in which power and privilege can affect knowledge production and dissemination.

Overall, understanding post-positivism can help undergraduate students to develop a more nuanced and critical approach to knowledge and research, which can be valuable both academically and in their future careers.

Post-Positivism vs. Positivism and Structuralism

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, post-positivistic methods.

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

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

Their focus on difference leads post-positivists into areas unexplored by positivists. Instead of searching for broad patterns and general principles, post-positivistic 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. Post-positivists reject positivism’s preoccupation with general principles and paradigm building. Instead, post-positivists argue that patterns suppress the differences that characterize the human condition and define our existence. In fact, post-positivists 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. Post-positivism assumes that any attempt to ground knowledge outside human consciousness is futile. While post-positivists 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, post-positivists 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. Post-positivists 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. Post-positivists 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. Post-positivistic research, then, is not a search for some objective knowledge waiting “out there” to be discovered. For the post-positivist, 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, post-positivism 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, post-positivist researchers are likely to be self-conscious about their role in the research process. Post-positivists consider what affects the researcher’s presence may have on the subjects being studied and how research subjects are changed by the research project. Post-positivistic 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.