Influenced by rationalism and science early sociologists attempted yo define the subject matter and the method in scientific and objective terms.
Saint Simon, August Comte, Spencer, and Durkheim laid the foundation of Positivistic theory. They contended that Sociology is governed by certain fixed rules and hence is predictive.
Positivism aims at employing principles similar to the natural science, as Saint Simon in his book Positive Philosophy said “Positivism was rooted in a science of society which is analoguous to the natural science.”
As per this approach behavior of man can be objectively measured and statements based on objective measures of cause and effects can be used to formulate theories. Comte stated that “the search for laws of society uses both reason as well as observation.” He also suggested four methods to study this discipline viz. Observation, Experimentation, Historical and Comparative. He defined scope of new positive social science as Social dynamic (which deals with social change) and social statics (which deals with equilibrium and stability of social system).
– emphasised on behavior that can be directly observed. Factors like feeling which cannot be directly observed are not important.
-gave primacy to cause and effect relationship while studying phenomenon.
-focused upon empericism and rejected commonsensical speculation.
-focused on formulation of theories and universality of laws and principles.
-stressed upon the use of scientific methods similar to those used in natural sciences, based upon the knowledge and theories, it also talked about predictability of social events. For example Comte believed that he has discovered a law of social organization, which can predict future course of evolution of societies.
-also argued that social knowledge should be testable.
Thus Positivism glorified the idea that human behavior and working of Society is predictable and like natural sciences, it can also be quantified in concrete terms. They tried to make Sociology as a scientific discipline.
However, soon it was realised that Sociology dealt with human element with a subjective conscience which cannot be deciphered totally by the objective methods.
Positivist approach failed on the parameters of objectivity, quantifiability, universal testability, and inter-subjective reliability and came under following major criticism-
1) phenomenologist like Peter Berger contended that facts never fall from sky, but develop in a particular context.
2) deductive approach is less fruitfull instead inductive approach found more helpful
3) Positivism also criticised on their over emphasis on universalism which is not possible in Sociology.
4) Positivism was also considered a fundamental misunderstanding of reality. Things like common sense, ethical values, assumptions and preasumptions, feelings were not undertaken.
Hence, in the word of Habermas, “Positivism loses sight of the actors reducing them to passive entities determined by natural forces.” As an actor in society is distinct, the idea of general science can not be applied without taking into account the autonomous human action.
However, one big achievement of Positivist was that, they freed social sciences from the clutches of religion and speculative philosophy and laid a solid foundation of a systematic investigation in society.