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THE VARIETIES OF POSITIVISM

These days, positivism is often linked to support for whatever power relations happen to be in place. It’s an astonishing turnabout, because historically, positivism was linked to social activism. In The Subjection of Women (1869), John Stuart Mill advocated full equality for women, and Adolphe Quetelet, the Belgian astronomer whose study of demography and criminology carried the audacious title Social Physics (1969 [1835]), was a committed social reformer.

The legacy of positivism as a vehicle for social activism is clear in Jane Addams’s work with destitute immigrants at Chicago’s Hull House (1926), in Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s attack on the abuses of the British medical system (1910), in Charles Booth’s account of the living conditions of the poor in London (1902), and in Florence Nightingale’s (1871) assessment of death rates in maternity hospitals. (See McDonald [1993] for an extended account of Nightingale’s long-ignored research.)

The central position of positivism is that experience is the foundation of knowledge. We record what we experience—what we see others do, what we hear others say, what we feel others feel. The quality of the recording, then, becomes the key to knowledge. Can we, in fact, record what others do, say, and feel? Yes, of course we can. Are there pitfalls in doing so? Yes, of course there are. To some social researchers, these pitfalls are evidence of natural limits to a science of humanity; to others, like me, they are a challenge to extend the current limits by improving measurement. The fact that knowledge is tentative is something we all learn to live with.

 
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