In philosophy and models of scientific inquiry, postpositivism (also called postempiricism) is a metatheoretical stance that critiques and amends positivism. While positivists emphasize independence between the researcher and the researched person (or object), postpositivists accept that theories, background, knowledge and values of the researcher can influence what is observed. Postpositivists pursue objectivity by recognizing the possible effects of biases. While positivists emphasize quantitative methods, postpositivists consider both quantitative and qualitative methods to be valid approaches.
One of the thinkers who founded post-positivism was Sir Karl Popper . His attack on falsification is a critique of the verifiability of logical positivism. Counterfeiting declares that it is impossible to verify whether a belief is true, although it is possible to reject false beliefs if they are objectively proven false by putting into practice the proposed idea of falsification. Thomas Kuhn ‘s idea of the paradigm shift offers a stronger critique of positivism, arguing that not just individual theories, but the whole world view must change in response to the evidence.
Post-positivism is an enhancement of positivism that recognizes these and other critiques against logical positivism. It is not a rejection of the scientific method, but a reformation to respond to these criticisms. It preserves the bases of positivism: ontological realism, possibility and desire for objective truth, and the use of experimental methodology. Post-positivism of this kind is common in the social sciences (especially in sociology) for practical and conceptual reasons.
Reforms to positivism
The main additions postivism to Positivism can be summarized in three sentences:
that the relative separability of knowledgeable and known is presupposed.
that a single shared reality, which never excludes all others, is postulated.
that the law must be guided by practical reason and not by decisionism.
These sentences may have different meanings for post-positivists, some of which advocate a fundamental transformation to scientific practice, while others simply call for a different interpretation of results.
Postpositivists believe that human knowledge is based not on a priori assessments from an objective individual, but rather upon human conjectures. As human knowledge is thus unavoidably conjectural, the assertion of these conjectures are warranted, or more specifically, justified by a set of warrants, which can be modified or withdrawn in the light of further investigation. However, postpositivism is not a form of relativism, and generally retains the idea of objective truth.
Postpositivists believe that a reality exists, but, unlike positivists, they believe reality can be known only imperfectly and probabilistically. Postpositivists also draw from social constructionism in forming their understanding and definition of reality.
While positivists believe that research is or can be value-free or value-neutral, postpositivists take the position that bias is undesired but inevitable, and therefore the investigator must work to detect and try to correct it. Postpositivists work to understand how their axiology (i.e. values and beliefs) may have influenced their research, including through their choice of measures, populations, questions, and definitions, as well as through their interpretation and analysis of their work.
Historians identify two types of positivism: classical positivism, an empirical tradition first described by Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, and logical positivism, which is most strongly associated with the Vienna Circle, which met near Vienna, Austria, in the 1920s and 1930s. Postpositivism is the name D.C. Phillips gave to a group of critiques and amendments which apply to both forms of positivism.
One of the first thinkers to criticize logical positivism was Sir Karl Popper. He advanced falsification in lieu of the logical positivist idea of verificationism.. Falsificationism argues that it is impossible to verify that beliefs about universals or unobservables are true, though it is possible to reject false beliefs if they are phrased in a way amenable to falsification. Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shifts offers a broader critique of logical positivism, arguing that it is not simply individual theories but whole worldviews that must occasionally shift in response to evidence.
Postpositivism is not a rejection of the scientific method, but rather a reformation of positivism to meet these critiques. It reintroduces the basic assumptions of positivism: the possibility and desirability of objective truth, and the use of experimental methodology. The work of philosophers Nancy Cartwright and Ian Hacking are representative of these ideas. Postpositivism of this type is described in social science guides to research methods.
The Structure and Nature of a Postpositivist Theory
Robert Dubin describes the basic components of a postpositivist theory as being composed of basic “units” or ideas and topics of interest, “laws of interactions” among the units, and a description of the “boundaries” for the theory. A postpositivist theory also includes “empirical indicators” to connect the theory to observable phenomena, and hypotheses that are testable using the scientific method.
According to Thomas Kuhn, a postpositivist theory can be assessed on the basis of whether it is “accurate,” “consistent,” “has broad scope,” “parsimonious,” and “fruitful.”
Karl Popper (1934) Logik der Forschung, rewritten in English as The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959)
Thomas Kuhn (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Karl Popper (1963) Conjectures and Refutations
Ian Hacking (1983) Representing and Intervening
Andrew Pickering (1984) Constructing Quarks
Peter Galison (1987) How Experiments End
Nancy Cartwright (1989) Nature’s Capacities and Their Measurement
Post-positivism in law theory
The jurists in some countries, notably in Spain and Brazil, call as post-positivism a theoretical option that considers that law depends on morality, both when recognizing its validity and at the moment of its application. In this view, constitutional principles, such as human dignity, the welfare of all, or equality, would influence the application of laws and other concrete norms. This view of law is inspired by works of law philosophers like Robert Alexy and Ronald Dworkin (though they do not use the term post-positivism). Some prefer to call this view of law “moralism” or neo-constitutionalism .
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