What is Antipositivism in the Social Sciences?

By Ivan Pesut on November 8 2019 in Feature

Max Weber was largely responsible for expressing ideas of antipositivism. Editorial credit: Natata / Shutterstock.com.

The Antipositivism Debate is one of the most important concepts introduced to modern social science. It led to a crucial distinction between two ways of viewing and researching the world around us - the positivist and the antipositivist view. A positivist view suggests that we can study social and cultural phenomena using the same empirical-based methods as can be found in exact or natural sciences, like biology or mathematics. On the other hand, antipositivism holds that in order to explain anything that’s going in the world we live in, scientists should rely on methods of understanding and foremost on interpretations of the social phenomena.

Origins and Methodological Differences

Antipositivism is closely connected with the ideas of Max Weber, a German sociologist who was emphasizing the importance of values that exist within a specific society or a subcultural group. Along with Georg Simmel, another prominent German thinker of the time, Weber insisted that any research should be focused on interpretative understanding (ger., Verstehen).

The differences between the positivist and the antipositivist approach to research can also be found in the methods used to conduct the study. A positivist approach would typically include methods of statistical analysis and experiments, while on the other hand, an antipositivist approach would focus on doing field research, ethnography, and (critical) discourse analysis. Antipositivists hold that there is no such thing as real objectivity. Scientists engaged in any study should always be aware of their own cultural beliefs because they will influence the interpretations whether they want it or not. An antipositivist view relies on cultural relativism, and it can be argued that a positivistic look is more of an ethnocentric one.

Subjective vs Objective Approach

Antipositivism's main concern with the positivist view is that it does not include understanding. The main goal of positivist research is to describe, control, and eventually predict certain social phenomena. Antipositivists think of the prediction element as a potentially dangerous one because it could serve as a basis for social control of subcultural groups and different types of engineering on a social level.

In short, in the heart of the debate, a crucial question is being asked: what’s the difference between subjective and objective types of research? Antipositivism holds that scientists can’t distance themselves from the matter of their study and therefore can never be objective. This way of thinking was later further expanded in the work of Georg Simmel. Simmel was interested in describing social phenomena by acknowledging how one’s perception can skew the findings in a specific direction, and wasn’t prone to think this can be explained through statistical data collection.

Rejection of Objectivity

Antipositivsm laid the ground for social theories that would become prominent in the second part of the 20th century: critical theory, discourse analysis, and even post-structuralism all further rode on the epistemological cut that was made with this rejection of objectivity as a possibility.

Antipositivism hugely influenced the critical thinkers of the Frankfurt School like Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and even Jurgen Habermas. Habermas’ main problem with positivism is that it rejects the relationship between history and social sciences and that we can’t get a grasp on reality using the methods of exact sciences. He insisted on hermeneutics, as Weber and Simmel before him, as a way of explaining social phenomena through interpretation and not raw data collection.

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