The Human Science Debate: Positivist, Anti-Positivist, and Postpositivist Inquiry. By Rebecca Joy Norlander. November 20, 2007

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1 The Human Science Debate: Positivist, Anti-Positivist, and Postpositivist Inquiry By Rebecca Joy Norlander November 20, 2007

2 2 What is knowledge and how is it acquired through the process of inquiry? Is the standard or ( received ) view of science, based on empirical knowledge and embodied in the positivist model, sufficient to conduct work in the human sciences as well as the natural sciences? This paper reconstructs the historical development of the positivist approach to inquiry in both the natural and human sciences, addresses various critiques of this approach (collectively referred to as anti-positivism, although they do not represent a coherent or systematic school of thought), and offers a postpositivist synthesis of the two. As stated by Donald Polkinghorne in Methodology for the Human Sciences (1983), The traditional debate remains essentially this: Should the human sciences emulate the methods of the natural sciences or should they develop their own methods? (p. 15) I suggest that neither the positivist nor the anti-positivist viewpoints are adequate, and instead a postpositivist framework is needed for effective scholarship in the human sciences. As stated in the Saybrook Catalog (2007), The term human science, has, since the mid-seventies, described a non-traditional approach to the study of human beings that focuses critical attention on the nature of theory, methodology, social practices and conditions, and the meaning of being human (p. 25). Human science is about questioning, interpreting, and understanding human experience. Human science (or the human sciences) in this paper will be contrasted with the natural or physical science. These hard sciences use the scientific method as their form of inquiry a process whereby the researcher collects data, performs experiments, formulates hypotheses, and then tests those hypotheses. This method is based on empirical assumptions and often synonymous with what became known as positivism. Empirical science refers to what can be known with certainty via sensory observation; i.e., if a process cannot be observed and tested

3 3 according to the scientific method, then it cannot be counted as knowledge. The Positivists, taking a lead from Auguste Comte in the mid-1800s, believed that the only authentic knowledge available is scientific in nature, that which is tested and proven using the scientific method. Antipositivism, therefore, is a reaction to or rejection of positivist thought, while postpositivism embraces a limited use of positivist methodology while acknowledging the shortcomings unveiled by the anti-positivisits. The standard view of science, based on the ideas of John Stuart Mill, David Hume, and Auguste Comte, is embodied in the positivist school of thought. The distinction is made between epistemological information upon which certainty is established, and doxa, which refers to belief or opinion. The positivists believed that the latter, not fitting the criteria of scientifically approved statements, should be excluded from what counted as knowledge. Teleological, theological, and metaphysical explanations were rejected because they included phenomena that could not be observed. The focus of empirical methodology was to describe and categorize, not offer moral prescriptions. Comte believed that society must undergo three separate phases: theological (in which religion or a divine being dictates what is true), metaphysical (giving priority to innate human rights), and finally positivist (where human potential would culminate in a scientific approach). If the mysteries of nature can be discovered and understood, then the knowledge gained is also applicable to studies in the social arena. Following Comte, many held (and still hold) the view that methods and methodologies used in the natural sciences are relevant to social science, including human science. This is the single science view. If universal, natural laws are discovered through objective observation and evaluation, when applied to social science they will yield similarly objective, fact-based knowledge.

4 4 Comte firmly believed that sociological phenomena were decipherable by using the same laws as in the harder sciences, and scholars who affirm the single science view concur with his opinion, including the influential Carl Hempel (1966). For Hempel, Comte s philosophy was still too metaphysical. Hempel was a proponent of deductive methodology, an if-then reasoning, where outcomes could be assured because they are necessarily linked to an initial premise that guaranteed certain conclusions. Is the single science view adequate for understanding the depth of human experience? Is experience reducible to observable phenomenon or quantitative data? Where do values come from and how do people derive meaning from lived experience? The anti-positivists were unified in their reaction against the assumptions of positivism, but did not offer a consistent alternative to empirical-oriented methodology. A fundamental distinction was made by Johann Gustav Droysen who contrasted comprehension in the human sciences with explanation in the natural sciences. According to Droysen, there are two types of knowledge, related to Kant s distinction between the theoretical and practical. Kant himself did not support the distinction between two different sciences, but his ideas were reformulated by a group of scholars the Neo-Kantians who claimed that natural science methodology was incapable of making prescriptive statements or dealing with moral decisions. Wilhelm Dilthey further criticized the standard view of science, by questioning the assumptions of the positivists and showing the circularity of their thinking. For example, it seems reasonable to conclude that most people are aware of their own mental state at any given time, however, this is not verifiable by science and therefore not trustworthy. What, then, is the basis

5 5 for knowing anything externally (since the scientist cannot be sure of anything internally)? The attempt to arrive at knowledge collapses under the weight of circular logic. A pivotal moment that challenged the assumptions of standard science came with the publication of Thomas Kuhn s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in Up to that point, most scientists and philosophers of science thought that knowledge was sequential and linear. Kuhn, on the other hand, developed the idea of mutually exclusive paradigms, or different ways of viewing the scientific world that were incompatible. One paradigm would overtake its predecessor, and thinking would shift. When this shift, or revolution, happened, the knowledge that had been gained according to the methodology of the previous paradigmatic model became unsubstantiated and therefore untrustworthy. If a problem that arises that cannot be solved within the given paradigmatic framework, competing solutions are proposed and eventually one emerges as a new paradigm, rendering the previous one obsolete. The challenge for scholars in human science is integrating these critiques while affirming the strengths of the standard view of science. Is there perhaps a synthesis to be constructed that takes into account both the positivist and anti-positivist schools of thought? Postpositivism represents just such integration. It both acknowledges the advantages of a single- science view, while simultaneously allowing for a more creative research process that could lead to expanded insight. The postpositivist position is best explained by Donald Polkinghorne (1983) and the literature of Saybrook Graduate School and Research Institute (2007). Polikinghorne (1983) states that methods and research design for the human sciences must be able to yield information about being human as we experience it as embodied, historical, and integral.

6 6 [Postpositivism] holds that human science requires a syncretic approach which integrates the results obtained through multischematic and multiparadigmatic systems of inquiry (p. xi). This is contrasted with Kuhn s mutually exclusive paradigmatic approach, in which one paradigm completely replaces its predecessor in a revolution. The Saybrook Catalog (2007) maintains that while using traditional quantitative hypothesis-testing methods (p. 8) is a valuable form of inquiry, human science scholars must go further. Scholarship refers to research to that does necessarily include experimental methods of quantitative data but relies more heavily on historical, archival, interpretive, and/or theoretical information (p. 7). Furthermore, Human science proposes that modes of inquiry other than that of natural science - modes that reflect the nature, complexity and subjectivity of being human - are necessary for psychologists and other behavioral scientists seeking an understanding of the human experience. In today's world, the human science tradition provides an increasingly valuable critique of the predominant positivist paradigm of the natural sciences and an alternative to the narrowly-focused bio-medical perspectives of the human beings. (p. 25) Using the scientific method when applicable to a particular line of inquiry is always an option, but no longer absolutely necessary or exclusive. How do human scientists, having chosen to incorporate non-traditional methodologies, develop rigorous standards for their work and prevent it from becoming overly relativistic? Polkinghorne (1983) illuminates a possible solution to this complication. Postpositivists assert that there is no access to undisputed truth, but that truth can still be determined within a given community. Knowledge is understood to be the best understanding that we have been

7 7 able to produce thus far, not a statement of what is ultimately real. Postpositivism is not a school of thought with an agreed-upon set of propositions. It is an attitude about knowledge (p. 2). I concur with his assessment. In recent years, previously established truths have come into question. This does not necessarily indicate a weakening of truth, but rather an incorporation of ambiguity that deepens the human experience. The methodological flexibility of postpositivism is only sustainable if it is grounded in the context of a specific community. Human scientists can be optimistic about the future of research, as new space is created for alternative methodologies that are increasingly relevant to the specificity and complexity of today s world.

8 8 References Austin,M. (n.d.) Thomas Kuhn and the structure of scientific revolutions: A paradigm shift in the history of science. Retrieved November 2, Hempel, C. (1950). "Problems and changes in the empiricist criterion of meaning" International Review of Philosophy 41, Hempel, C. (1966). Philosophy of natural science. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kuhn, T. (1987). The function of dogma in scientific research. In J. Kourany (Ed.), Scientific knowledge: Basic issues in the philosophy of science (pp ). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. (Reprinted from A. Crombie [Ed.], 1963, Scientific Change [pp ]. New York: Heinemann Educational Books.) Kuhn, T. (1987). The nature and necessity of scientific revolutions. In J. Kourany (Ed.), Scientific knowledge: Basic issues in the philosophy of science (pp ). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. (Reprinted from T. Kuhn, 1970, The structure of scientific revolutions [2nd ed.] [pp ]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press) Merchant, C. (1992). Science and worldviews. In C. Merchant, Radical ecology: The search for a livable world (pp ). New York: Routledge. Morick, H. (Ed.) (1980). Challenges to empiricism. Indianapolis: Hackett. Polkinghorne, D. (1983). Methodology for the human sciences: Systems of inquiry. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

9 9 Rothberg, D. (2000, rev.) Theories of inquiry. (Learning Guide, Course No. 1000) San Francisco: Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center.

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