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Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth
Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth

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3.1 Scientific theory and the positivist paradigm

Over the course of the twentieth century, the approach to social research, such as educational and childhood and youth enquiry, emerged and treated theory as factual, referring to how things are rather than how they could be. This interpretation of theory derives in large part from the influence of the study of science as a model.

From this point of view, theory tends to be seen as a system of laws that explain the occurrence of particular types of events in particular types of circumstance – for example, by identifying the mechanisms involved. Scientific knowledge, in contrast to everyday knowledge, was viewed as value-free and, therefore, objective. Science looks for relationships between variables to explore and explain natural phenomena. In particular, science, concerned with cause and effect, was seen as capable of showing why a policy or practice might work in some circumstances, or in relation to some people, and not others. This is known as positivism – a research paradigm associated with scientific theories that strongly influences the social sciences.

Those who hold this view of the world might call themselves positivists. Positivists apply scientific methodology as the way of understanding and researching social and psychological phenomena. They believe that the success of natural science in modern times has stemmed from scientists’ refusal to go beyond what can be supported by empirical evidence, especially evidence derived from careful observation of phenomena and/or experimental manipulation of them. Positivists have high hopes that a science of human social life will pave the way for substantial social and political progress, by undermining beliefs and practices that are based solely on superstition or tradition and replacing them wherever possible with ones founded on scientific evidence.