In the following assignment I will firstly look at the sociologist who put forward the idea of Positivism, Auguste Comte. I will briefly look at his contributions to sociology, and the social changes and developments that surrounded him, leading him to develop such a theory as positivism. I will also take a look at Comte’s Laws of 3 Stages, which is the cornerstone in Comte’s development of positivism, and then discuss positivisms relevance as a sociological theory and its usefulness to today’s society.
As a result of the Industrial Revolution in the 1820’s, old feudal estates began to give way to a free labour moving into industry in urban areas and as new forms of government began to break the hold of monarchies, the foundations of society – employment and income, living arrangements, community, family, and religion – were being altered forever. In other words, inequality began to develop. As might be expected, people were worried about the new order that was starting to emerge, and they began to think more systematically about what all the changes meant for their future.
The resulting intellectual movement is sometimes referred to as ‘The Enlightenment’ because the hold of religion, tradition, and dogma on intellectual thinking was finally broken. Science could now emerge fully as a way of thinking about the world, and physics and, later, biology was able to overcome persecution by religious elites and establish them as a path of knowledge.
Along with growing influences of science came a burst of thinking about the social universe. Much of this thought was speculative, assessing the nature of humans and the first societies unfiltered by the difficulties of the modern world. Some of this thought was moralistic, but not in a religious sense. Rather, the proper type of society and the fundamental relationship of individuals to one another and to the society were re-evaluated in ways consistent with the economic and political changes shaped by the spread of commerce and then industrialisation.
Another force behind the emergence of sociology and Comtes development of positivism was the French Revolution of 1789 which accelerated systematic thinking. With this new distribution of knowledge came new thinkers who became known as ‘Social Philosophers’. Due to this change in society, these social philosophers tried to look at society in a critical way, and explain the lack of structure in society. The crucial point for sociology is that there was a great awareness of the level of social change, brought about by the political drama and disorder of the time.
The long French legacy of the Enlightenment and the shock waves of the French Revolution led Auguste Comte (1798-1857), also known as the ‘Godfather of Sociology’, in his five-volume Course of Positive Philosophy (1830-1842) to sound the call for an order devoted to the scientific study of society. Comte wanted to name this discipline “social physics” to emphasize that it would study the basic nature of the social universe. He was eventually forced to settle on the Latin-Greek hybrid term, Sociology. This word combined the Latin word Socius, meaning Society, and the Greek word Logus, meaning knowledge
The central problem for sociology was the one that had been expressed by earlier thinkers in the Enlightenment: How is society to be held together as it becomes larger, more complex, more varied, more differentiated, more specialized, and more partitioned? Comte’s answer was that common ideas and beliefs – a consensus universalis, in his terms – needed to be developed to give society a “universal” morality. Influenced by counterrevolutionary Catholics, he developed a much more sophisticated theoretical system than his predecessors, adequate enough to shape a good portion of early
In his view, disorder and negative philosophies were spreading through French society and he developed sociology as means of combating this. He believed that by applying the same methods and assumptions of natural sciences would produce a ‘positive’ science of society, and this would reveal that the evolution of society followed ‘invariable laws’. It would show that the behaviour of humans was governed by principals of cause and effect that were just as invariable as the behaviour of matter – the subject of natural sciences. In simpler terms, positivism is a way to understand the social world in a scientific way. Therefore, positivism would make us look at the world in a very structured way, and help us understand our social world in a scientific
Comte did not push for revolutionary change, as he felt that the natural evolution of this positive sociology would make things better. Reforms were needed only to assist the process a bit. This leads to the earlier mentioned cornerstone of Comte’s approach of his evolutionary theory, or ‘The Law of 3 Stages.’ This theory proposes that there are three intellectual stages through which the world has gone throughout its
These stages occur as follows
This stage characterized the world prior to 1300 A.D. During this period, the major idea system emphasized was the belief that supernatural powers and religious figures, modelled after human kind, are at the root of everything. In particular, the social and physical world is seen as produced by god.
This stage occurred approximately between 1300 A.D. and 1800 A.D. It was characterized by the belief that abstract forces like ‘nature’, rather than personalized gods, explain virtually
At around 1800 A.D., the world entered the Positivistic stage, characterized by the belief in science. People now tended to give up the search for absolute causes (God or nature) and concentrated instead on observation of the social and physical world in the search for laws governing them.
In his theory of the world, Comte focused on intelligence factors, and argued that intellectual disorder was the cause of social disorder. The disorder grew from earlier idea systems (theological and metaphysical), that can’t exist in the positivistic (scientific) age. Only when positivism gained total control would social upheavals cease. Because this was an evolutionary process, there was no need to agitate social upheaval and revolution. Positivism would come eventually in its own time, which was perhaps not as quickly as some would like
Sociology could speed up the arrival of positivism and consequently bring order to the social world. Comte did not want to seem to be promoting revolution, as he felt there was enough disorganisation in the world. Comte’s point of view was that it was intellectual change that was needed, so there was little reason for sociological or political revolution.
Instead, Comte urged sociologists to use observation, experimentation, and comparative historical analysis. He believed that sociologists would be like secular (non religious) priests, bringing a new order to society. They would depend not on divine inspiration, but on scientific knowledge, which would be used to predict in order to control the social order, that was no longer deemed to be God-given, but would be changed and improved on by man on the basis of their understanding. This was the essence of positivism.
So, positivism, rather than examining the way individuals construct the social world around them, assumes that society is an independent system just waiting to be examined, analysed and understood like the natural world, rather like a biologist looking at an ant hill or an astronomer examining the stars. The ultimate aim is to produce a general theory of social action in the same way that physicists are trying to produce a single explanatory theory of the universe. He felt that society should be treated in the same manner as biological organisms. The parts should not be studied individually, but each element should be studied in the light of the whole system, using scientific methods of analysis to produce accurate quantified data.
Positivism has had a great influence on social research, and this is where it is of most use in contemporary society. Before Comte, research was done but lacking science, therefore methods were not uniform, but mainly descriptive, philosophical, speculative, and non-empirical/experimental. Positivism and post-positivism are based on the belief that there is an objective real world which is orderly and predictable. Nature can be understood much as we understand a machine. The aim of research is to discover its cause and effects. These positive methods introduced by Comte and his theory of positivism are very important to social research, in that it made the shift from philosophy to science, but also from speculation to empirical gathering. It also formed the basis for functionalist thought.
The positivistic approach, in terms of research, is used extensively, as it shows that the relationship between a researcher and nature is dualistic. The researcher does not have to be part of nature, but rather, can stand apart from nature and observe it objectively. With positivism, the world is stable, consistent, predictable, and orderly. Things occur in a single-line order of cause and effect: A causes B. Causes in both natural and social worlds can be studied in the same way, through experimental procedure.
In terms of sociology, the positivist approach makes the following assumption: that the behaviour of humans, like the behaviour of matter, can be objectively measured, and one can quantify behaviour just as you can quantify matter, by measures such as: weight, temperature and pressure
The positivist approach in sociology places particular emphasis on behaviour that can be directly observed. It argues that factors that are not directly observable – such as meanings, feelings and purposes – are not particularly important and can be misleading. Atoms and molecules do not act in terms of meanings; they simply react to external stimuli. The positivist approach to human behaviour applies a similar logic – people react to external stimuli and their behaviour can be explained in terms of this reaction.
Positivism however has come to be seen as na?, although it has helped sociology to be seen as a social ‘science’ in the sense that it involves systematic methods of investigation, the analysis of data, and the assessment of theories in the light of evidence and logical argument. It is said, however, that the studying of human beings should be different from observing events in the physical world, and that neither framework, nor the findings of sociology can be adequately understood simply in terms of comparisons with natural science, as feelings, etc. can have a great effect on how we react to things. For example, if somebody feels they are being scrutinized or forced into something in some way, chances are they will react differently to how they normally would.
Although I agree with this and see the logic behind this, I do feel that positivism is extremely useful in that if it did not exist, the world would be a very different and disorganized place to live. People would be simply guessing at reasons for people’s behaviours and other aspects of our social world, with no logical or scientific basis. Everything would be based on pure guessing, and people would still be looking to religion and God for explanations.
Positivism has made society realize that we can take control of our own lives as individuals in society and measure aspects of society in a scientific way in order to predict how we will react to certain situations.
Even though Comte lacked the solid academic base on which to build a school of Comtian sociological theory, he laid the basis for development of a significant stream of sociological theory, as we have seen throughout this assignment. Comte’s main contribution to the development of sociology was not so much the substance of his ideas, but his strong advocacy for the acceptance of sociology as a legitimate field of study. He threatened the old academic disciplines, such as philosophy, ethics, theology, and law and in my opinion has had a great influence on the way in which we as society works together.