Pauline Couper

Positivism refers to a philosophy of science/social science that emphasizes observable phenomena as the basis for knowledge and prioritizes quantitative analysis.

Pauline Couper is a geographer at York St John University, U.K. Her research and teaching have spanned the physical sciences and social sciences/humanities traditions within geography. Through her teaching she aims to enable students to think about the world with multiple perspectives.

One in Ten: Society by Numbers

Before you start reading, listen to the song “One in Ten” by UB40.

“One in Ten” is by British reggae and pop band UB40, from their 1981 album, Present Arms. When the band formed in the late 1970s, all members were unemployed, and the name UB40 derives from the form for claiming Unemployment Benefits (social security payments). At that time, the U.K. unemployment rate was between five and six percent (around 1 in 20) of the working-age population. By August 1981, it had risen to 10 percent. The band members were no longer unemployed, but they knew what it meant to be part of that statistic.

I am a one in ten, a number on a list.[1]

A key principle of positivism is that knowledge is based on observable phenomena (this is its epistemology). The term ‘positivism’ was popularised by Auguste Comte, a young French scholar based in Paris in the 1820s. Amidst the social and political upheaval arising from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), Comte aimed to develop a philosophical and political system that would lead to a more stable, harmonious society—a “positive philosophy.” He noted that the most advanced sciences progressed via observation, classification, and reason, identifying constant relations between phenomena to understand how the world works. In Comte’s view, this emphasis on observation removes subjectivity, as any prior assumptions must give way to the facts of empirical evidence.

Comte applied that approach of observation, classification, and reason to understand relations between fields of knowledge. His resulting classification is hierarchical. At the base of the hierarchy, mathematics is the simplest, most generally applicable form of knowledge. The hierarchy then moves upwards, through more complicated, less generally applicable forms, with each level being dependent upon those below. “Celestial physics” (his term for astronomy) is based upon mathematics; physics is dependent on astronomy; chemistry is dependent on physics; and “physiology” (his term for the study of life) is dependent on physics and chemistry. Comte then proposed that a science of society would be possible, naming it “social physics.” Sociology was thus conceived as a science based on observation, classification, and mathematics (quantitative analysis). In Comte’s view, such a science would provide knowledge of how society actually works, and a politics aligned with how society actually works would achieve a more stable society.

This kind of quantitative scientific approach to studying society has its uses. It enables us to identify large-scale patterns that may not be readily apparent through everyday individual experience. This was illustrated as the COVID pandemic was developing in 2020. Large-scale analysis of data revealed that, in the U.K., Black and Minority Ethnic groups were disproportionately affected. Knowing that fact then enabled investigation of the causal factors at work; ethnicity intersecting in various ways with lower incomes, poorer housing, and prevalence of employment in occupations at higher risk of exposure to the virus. Government communications had also not been effectively tailored for different cultures. The pandemic laid bare pre-existing structural inequalities in society.

“I am a one in ten, even though I don’t exist.”[2]

The UB40 song’s lyrics give us some insight into the problems that can arise in and with positivist social science. Treating people as observable, quantifiable objects dehumanizes them. With its focus on observable phenomena, positivism cannot recognize the non-material dimensions of being human: the thoughts, emotions (fears, hopes, frustrations, and so on), connections, and friendships that are as much part of our life as the material world. Treating humans as objects negates our humanity: the living, feeling person does not exist in a positivist ontology.

“Nobody knows me, but I’m always there; a statistic, a reminder, of a world that doesn’t care.”[3]

The verses of the song remind us of the traumas behind the statistics: poverty; hunger and malnutrition; crime; disease; loneliness; and other forms of marginalization. Positivist social science can reveal that such marginalization exists (if we choose to look for it), identifying those large-scale patterns, but it does nothing to tackle the problems. If anything, knowledge based on positivist methods tends to reproduce existing conditions. Categorizing households by the male adult’s occupation reinforces patriarchy. Positivist, quantitative analysis of crime is fed into predictive algorithms that are used to determine who is at risk of crime, or what parts of a city need the most policing. These algorithms render people and places into ‘types’, and those people and places are then treated as that type, reproducing negative stereotypes. Katherine McKitterick (2021) traces the ways this perpetuates structural racism and the logic of White supremacy, meaning political and social disadvantages remain embedded in society.

This is an appropriate point to return to Comte’s original conception of positivism. Alongside his hierarchy of subjects, Comte ‘observed’ a developmental progression of societies: beginning with societies explaining the world through reference to multiple gods; progressing through monotheistic societies; to White, Western European societies explaining the world through science. From its inception, positivism reproduced and legitimated ideas of racial hierarchy that enabled colonialism. An important lesson here is that observation and categorization is always shaped by the preconceptions of those doing the observing and categorizing (see: positionality). While large-scale quantitative analyses can be of value, we must always ask ourselves: whose interests are embedded in the underlying assumptions, whose are excluded, and what will the data gathered be used for?


Discussion Questions

  • This vignette opened with a statistic referring to a proportion of adults who were unemployed. What other quantitative measures of society have you seen being used? Select one example. What classification or categorization of people does it rely on? What differences or nuances are lost in that quantitative measure?
  • In many Western societies such as the U.S. and U.K., ‘hard science’ has a prominent place, valued above other forms of knowledge. Why do you think this is? Think of as many possible reasons as you can. What other ways of thinking about social issues might be side-lined by this focus on ‘hard science’? Can you think of specific examples?

Additional Resources

Bourdeau, M. (undated[4]) Auguste Comte. In Zalta, EN (ed), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/comte/

Comte, A. (1830) Course de Philosophie Positive. Reproduced in S. Andreski (1974) The Essential Comte. London: Croom Helm.

Gorton, W. (undated) Philosophy of Social Science. In Fieser, J & Dowden, B (eds), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ISSN 2161-0002 https://iep.utm.edu/soc-sci/

McKitterick, K. (2021) Dear Science and Other Stories. Duke University Press.

  1. "One in Ten" lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group
  2. “One in Ten” lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group
  3. “One in Ten” lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group
  4. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy are continually updated, and links provided here are to the ‘live’ entries.


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