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

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3.2 Features of positivism

Here are ten things you might find helpful to know about positivism.

  1. Positivists have a strong tendency to use forms of experimental method, and/or the forms of statistical analysis modelled on it to engage in the careful measurement of phenomena.
  2. Positivists favour quantitative data.
  3. Positivists seek causal or statistical relationships among variables.
  4. Because of this, ontologically, people and their behaviours are considered variables.
  5. Positivists treat individuals as separate units, as the objects or subjects of a study.
  6. Positivists aim for what is known as ‘procedural objectivity’. This means explicit or transparent procedures or methods are required to produce sound knowledge.
  7. Because of this transparency and objectivity, positivists believe that research can and should be replicated to test whether the knowledge produced is sound, or whether it has been distorted by error or bias on the part of the researcher.
  8. Epistemologically, positivists believe that there is an external, objective reality and what you see, and experience is stable across contexts and people. Items in a questionnaire, for example, are assumed to be understood in the same way by all the respondents.
  9. The assumptions of positivism have been challenged within science as misrepresenting the way that scientific thinking and knowledge develops (Kuhn, 1970). Kuhn emphasised the social character of science research, within the scientific research community, and challenged positivists to acknowledge this.
  10. Kuhn (1970) also proposed that sometimes you need to be prepared to shift from one way of seeing the world (paradigmatic position) to another and challenged positivists to be prepared to do so. He gives examples of such ‘scientific revolutions’ which were caused by finding alternative ways of resolving the puzzles existing within one way of thinking – for example, the move from Newtonian to twentieth-century physics or accepting Darwin’s views of evolution. These needed new ways of rationalising the world.

Activity 9 Taking a positivist perspective

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Go back to the idea of making a cup of tea introduced in Activity 5, but this time adopt a positivistic perspective to focus on the image of a cup of tea in Figure 6.

A cup of tea on a table next to a book.
Figure 6 An alternative look at the cup of tea, from a positivist’s perspective

Make notes in response to the following questions.

  1. What might a positivist assume about the cup of tea?
  2. What might they want to know?
  3. How might they go about finding out about it?


You may have thought about how a positivist might be interested in the structural features of the cup of tea (the nature of the cup, the size of cup, how full it was, the type of tea, perhaps even how hot it was or its colour) as these could be measured and compared across different contexts.

Positivists might also be interested in features of the process of making the tea and of drinking it. All these aspects of tea-drinking could be easily recorded, especially if captured through observation or, as a secondary option, through self-reporting by the tea drinker. Positivists may also be interested in knowing about the situation for the tea drinking, such as the time of day, the location, whether individuals were alone or drinking the tea with others.

In the next section you will look at some critiques of the positivistic approach and how alternatives ways of thinking fuelled paradigmatic debates.