Positivist and Post-positivist: Alternative Ways in Social Science

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The age-old question of what reality truly is and how we come to understand it has been a subject of deep contemplation for philosophers. Two dominant schools of thought have emerged on this topic: the Positivist School and the Post-Positivist School.

Positivist school: Things or Nouns

The positivist school believes that reality is objectively outside, fixed, and independent of the observer. They by their assumption of fixed realties regard realties as ‘Things’ or as ‘Nouns.’ To explain the world’s realties, they adopt empiricism.

Post Positivist school: Process or Verbs

On the other hand, the post-positivist school maintains that reality is internal, changeable, and dependent on the observer’s perception. They by their assumption of evolving realties regard social realties as ‘Process’ or as ‘Verbs.’ To comprehend world realities, they examine the psychological process of actors’ perception, the sociological process of shared understanding, and the discursive process of meaning generations.


When comparing the two schools of thought in the social sciences, it is important to note that there are certainly overlaps and connections between them. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I focus on the difference only.

Positivism has been the dominant approach in the field since the Scientific Revolution, and it is reflected in labeling “Political Studies” as “Political Science.” This approach places a strong emphasis on quantification and the use of numbers to lend academic credibility and authenticity to an enquiry.

However, post-positivist schools like post-structuralism, post-colonialism, constructivism, and critical theory have challenged these assumptions of truth. For instance, Friedrich Nietzsche was not a self-ascribed post-positivist, but his ideas about truth and morality paved the way for this tradition. He referred to science as a dogma and saw truth as a form of power.

Fast forward to the contemporary postpositivist scholarship, we examine different works; Judith Butler sees gender as a performance, and Lene Hanson views security as a construct. Alexander Wendt looks at state interests as shared agreements and unanimities, while Shenila Khoja Moolji studies ideal girlhood from a post-positivist perspective in the Pakistani context.

How do we go about in the social world?

The post positivist school is growing as an alternative way of interpreting world realties. These alternative ways of seeing explicate but also problematize world realties. They may create space for new realities, but they also disrupt the foundations of psychological certainties supplied by the notions of fixed truths.

So how should we go about understanding the social world? Stick to objective realties, quantify, and do empiricism or challenge all these and investigate sociology, discourse, interpretation, or other possible methods of knowledge production. I do not have a conclusion on this, as Michel Foucault claims, “there are no conclusions, only middles.” Perhaps we are in the midst of an epistemic change in the realm of social enquires.

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Asim Zaman is a Research Associate for Decoloniality in Information Systems. He is also an Ex-intern of Friedrich Ebert Stiftung organization.

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