'Science' in the Social Sciences

6. Positivism in Social Science

Returning to Winch: recall that one of the main targets of his Wittgensteinian critique of positivist theorizing and research was the notion that human conduct – rule-following behavior – could be etiologically explained after the fashion of causal explanations in various natural sciences.


is a philosophy that states that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method.

The Durkheimian proto-multivariate approach to the explanation of variations in the suicide rate was predicated upon the idea that ‘suicide’ cannot be rationally explained (that is, by the reasons given by its perpetrators in pre-suicidal communications such as suicide notes) and that the only true explanation would have to be sought in the analysis of statistical associations. His putative ‘law’ – that suicide rates vary inversely with the level of social integration of social groups of which the individual forms a part – was intended to be a causal generalization, although it clearly falls short of nomological status due to its failure to satisfy the counterfactual conditional (that is, it is not true that, absent a state of anomie, people will not commit suicide).

Some subsequent commentators have argued that, while not lawful, Durkheim’s generalization may point one in the direction of some to-be-discovered etiological connection between lived experiences in society and suicide rates. However, it is ungrammatical in the Wittgensteinian sense to propose that suicides are all caused by something rather than being (sometimes) the result of rational processes of deliberation and decision-making, of choice. If something is a chosen course of action, it is (grammatically) not something about which the agent had no choice, i.e., he or she was simply caused to do it. (Which is, of course, not to deny that some cases of suicide are ones in which one might argue the agent had no alternative, was compelled to commit the act).

Other philosophers of social science, most notably MacIntyre (1962), Louch (1966), Taylor (1967) and Pitkin (1972), took up similar issues to those raised by Winch in his 1958 monograph. Despite some differences in argumentative style and emphasis, all agreed that any project aspiring to adduce explanations of human actions (including, of course, the act of suicide) in terms of causal generalizations is ab initio doomed to logical incoherence. However, as Pawson (1989) rightly observed, positivism in social science may have lost its battles but it won the war with its critics. How did this happen?

MacIntyre, Alasdair (1962). A mistake about causality in social science. In Peter Laslett & W. G. Runciman (Eds.), Philosophy, politics and society. N.Y.: Barnes and Noble. 2nd Edition.
Taylor, Charles (1967). The explanation of behaviour. N.Y.: Humanities Press.
Louch, A. R. (1966). Explanation and human action. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel (1972). Wittgenstein and justice: on the significance of Ludwig Wittgenstein for social and political thought. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Pawson, R. (1989). A measure for measures: a manifesto for empirical sociology. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.