Positivism and Social Sciences


Does the positivist conception of Social Sciences limit the possibility of understanding reality?


Doctrine initiated by Auguste Comte (French) in the nineteenth century.

Identify 3 phases in the intellectual history of humanity that were changing as they acquired greater scientific knowledge.

  1. Theological: Give simple explanations of natural phenomena such as rain, thunder, fertility or wind creating gods to explain them (God of rain, God of thunder, etc.).
  2. Metaphysics: Everything that happens is due to natural forces or essences and rites are performed so that this or that thing happens (dance of the rain, sacrifice of an animal, religious rites, etc.) thus calling the attention of the gods. Find an answer to how things happen.
  3. Positive: The positive name derives from what the human being does and creates, it is not God. It is when it reaches a scientific structure of the mind looking for the causes of phenomena with reason through experimentation, observation and experience to discover the scientific laws that regulate their relationships. Find an answer to why things happen. The reason is considered as the only source of knowledge of reality and this is expressed in scientific knowledge. With reason and science, it is possible indefinite progress of society but, in order for it to take place, there must be social order. For this it is necessary to avoid all kinds of social conflicts.

Positivism affirms that in reality there exists a unique order that tends to the indefinite progress of society. Everything that happens responds to that natural order that must be discovered, known and accepted. Thus, the human being is not the builder of social reality, proposes a kind of social immobility, social order discarding the problematization.

In the theory of positivist knowledge, knowledge is already given, elaborated and finished, not allowing for problematization; for that reason it denies the intervention of the subject in its construction. It goes from the simple to the complex and thus is wasted methods of study such as dialectics, deduction, problematization, etc.

The subject who learns is passive and learns by memorizing the facts that have already occurred (data). Thus, the method based on memorization was (and still is) the most used.

Positivist-based education pursues an inflexible, closed-minded, individualistic and a-critical individual. It does not allow the formulation of explanations that require a critical examination and generalizations based on critical judgments.

Social studies, from a positivist perspective …

  • They describe the totality of past actions of human beings based on the observation and enumeration of all documents and facts in a linear and chronological way.
  • They do not analyze the whole or the everyday.
  • There are no proposals to select information since all the facts are singular and individual, it does not seek to understand, only to describe what happened in an unalterable order and without connection or relationship between the facts of politics, economy, society and cultural manifestations.
  • Everything appears atomized, disconnected. Knowledge is absolutized and does not allow for interdisciplinarity when presenting reality as an exhaustive enunciation of facts and things.
  • They do not take into account the simultaneity in the evolution of different societies.
  • Everything is described based on a determinism of causal or culturalist type, derived from approaches centered on cultural legacies.

From the positivism, 2 psychological theories applied to education emerged:



Theory of behavior

Theory of Gestalt


Subject of biological behaviorActs in the middle, receives a stimulus and responds with behavior that is observable. Subject of consciousness or perceptionIn its interaction with the medium, it is oriented according to what it observes / perceives of the total situation and of the relationships it discovers between the parts and the whole.
THE PSYCHIC APPARATUS It is a black box which can not be observed. It is conceived as a total cognitive / significant field organized and permanently restructured by perception (Gestalt) or as a vital space constituted by goal-regions (which the person wants to achieve or avoid). The behavior is the result of tensions and conflicts caused by the attempt to reach certain regions and move away from others.
LEARNING It is given by discarding of the erroneous behaviors and the conditioning of the answers that are wanted to obtain from the students. For this the didactic methodology is based on repetition or memorization.The methods of traditional education are based on this theory. It is produced from problematic situations that stress and motivate the subject to act to solve them. The perception of the situation as a whole allows us to discover the relationships between the different parts and the whole, which leads to the restructuring of the perceptive / cognitive field, to the understanding of the problem and to the path that leads to the goal (to solve the situation as objective).For this, it proposes an active teaching in which the student must be his own constructor of learning, since he can pose hypotheses and questions to inquire about the possible answers.

Take into account only the current situation perceived and not the previous experiences of the subject.

TEACHER'S ROLE Manipulation of the subject that learns. Orient behavior based on relationships that motivate the student to solve problematic situations.



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