Positivism and Interpretivism

While we're at school, we often have two types of friends: those who are really good at writing essays, and those who are really good at maths. That we can only be one or the other is an idea that many people believe, and to some extent, so do sociologists. Some researchers prefer to use numbers, while others prefer to use words to understand and convey the realities of our social lives. In simple terms, it can be said that those who like numbers are positivists, and those who like words are interpretivists. 

Positivism and Interpretivism Positivism and Interpretivism

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Table of contents

    But what exactly does that mean for sociology?

    • We will be introducing the concepts and definitions of positivism and interpretivism.
    • Furthermore, we'll discuss what adopting a positivist or interpretivist paradigm means for sociologists and their research.
    • Next, we'll dive into the respective advantages and disadvantages of positivism and interpretivism in sociological research.
    • Finally, we'll compare and contrast positivism with interpretivism to gauge their similarities and differences.

    What are the definitions of positivism and interpretivism?

    Simply put, positivism and interpretivism are two very different perspectives on how we can obtain knowledge about the world.

    Positivism and interpretivism, black camera videotaping woman doing an interview, sociology, StudySmarterPositivism and interpretivism are evaluated both in terms of the theories themselves, and the research methods that they favour.


    The positivist approach was heavily endorsed by early sociologists such as Auguste Comte and Émile Durkheim.

    Positivism is the perspective that the only way to obtain information about the world is through systematic, scientific methods. Knowledge is most valuable when it is observable and presented as statistics.

    The underlying premise of positivism is that we should learn about the world in the same way that the natural sciences (such as biologists, chemists and physicists) do so. This involves following a scientific method, the key components of which are:

    • to develop hypotheses (or 'predictions') about the nature of things,

    • to use systematic methods to either prove or disprove those predictions, and

    • to focus on studying phenomena that can be directly observed, as well as statistically measured.

    For positivists, the main aim of research is to discover objective facts.

    Objectivity vs. Subjectivity

    When something is objective, this means it has not been influenced by someone's views or opinions - it is undoubtedly a fact which can't be disputed by somebody's thoughts or feelings.

    An example of an objective statement is that bananas are fruits. This statement cannot be disputed because it has been discovered and established as 'true' through scientific research methods. To say that a banana is a vegetable, for example, is simply incorrect!

    The opposite of objectivity is subjectivity.

    An example of a subjective statement is that bananas are tasty. This is not an objective statement because it relies on the thoughts and feelings of an individual to be established as 'true' or 'false'. Some people think bananas are very tasty, and others don't!


    Interpretivism is a theoretical approach which directly opposes the positivist approach by stating that knowledge about society and human beings cannot be objectively known.

    Interpretivists believe that the correct way to obtain knowledge about the world is to explore the meanings that people attach to it. Knowledge is most valuable when it is in-depth, and when it incorporates people's individual points of view.

    As opposed to positivism, the underlying premise of interpretivism is that we cannot use scientific methods to obtain knowledge about the world.

    The main aim of interpretivism is not to discover object facts, but to understand the meanings that people attach to certain behaviours and experiences. They recognise that these insights are subjective, but see more value in them when it comes to obtaining knowledge about the world.

    How are positivism and interpretivism implemented in sociology?

    Alongside other practical concerns, sociologists base their research aims and methods on their personal positivist or interpretivist perspectives. Thus, in the context of sociology, positivism and interpretivism are the theoretical factors which affect a researcher's choice of methods.

    The debate about the value and 'correctness' of positivism and interpretivism is one that dates back to the early days of sociology.

    Positivism in sociology

    Positivists seek out numerical, objective facts as their main source of knowledge.

    Positivistic sociological research

    Positivists tend to prefer quantitative research methods. Examples of preferred research methods include:

    The relationship between society and the individual

    In the context of the relationship between society and the individual, positivists argue that society shapes the individual. People adopt their respective norms, values and behaviour based on how they've been socialised by external forces (such as the family, the education system, religion and more).

    Émile Durkheim used quantitative data from official statistics to conclude that suicide is not an individual act, but that it is often motivated by social factors (such as our ties to wider society).

    Interpretivism in sociology

    Interpretivists seek out subjective meanings and interpretations as their main source of knowledge.

    Interpretivist sociological research

    They believe that the social domain cannot be studied using scientific methods because human beings (the subject matter of sociology) behave completely differently to objects and non-human animals (the subject matter of the natural sciences).

    The fact that interpretivists value the meanings behind human experiences means that they tend to prefer qualitative research methods. Examples of preferred research methods include:

    The relationship between society and the individual

    In the context of the relationship between society and the individual, interpretivists argue that the individual has the power to reject external forces. People do not unthinkingly absorb the information and instructions of the wider society. Rather, they can think critically about the messages that they are receiving and respond to those messages in terms of their own, individual, subjective interpretations.

    Max Weber used the observational method to study behaviours and interactions that characterised the Protestant work ethic. He pioneered the concept of verstehen (the German word for "understanding"), which involves empathetically and reflexively getting to know others.

    What are the advantages and disadvantages of positivism and interpretivism?

    Positivism and interpretivism, person's hand on top of Macbook, sociology, StudySmarterPositivism and interpretivism are theoretical viewpoints that shape our research designs. Pexels.com

    As is the case with all theoretical approaches in sociology, there are significant advantages and disadvantages that we need to consider when it comes to positivism and interpretivism.

    The strengths and limitations of positivism and interpretivism can be both:

    • internal (the inherent issues with the approach itself), and
    • external (criticisms of the approach that are raised by other approaches).

    Evaluation of positivism

    Let's take a look at the strengths and limitations of positivism as a basis for research design in sociology.

    Advantages of positivism

    There are several practical advantages of the positivist approach, which mostly arise from its link with quantitative research methods.

    • Quantitative methods tend to be quicker and easier to implement. For instance, sending out an online questionnaire is significantly more time-consuming than conducting in-depth interviews.

    • Quantitative methods are also cheaper to carry out. In line with the above example, in-depth interviews often require training researchers to both conduct the interviews and to analyse responses (such as establishing a coding frame). This requires extra funding.

    • Positivists endorse the collection of numerical data, so the research methods which they use are often standardised and replicable, and their findings are reliable. This means that an identical research project can be conducted multiple times to draw comparisons between different places and times.

    • Finally, quantitative methods often have the benefit of generalisability because they can be conducted with much bigger samples. For instance, it is much more practical to send out closed-question social surveys to 1000 people than it is to conduct in-depth interviews with 1000 people. In most instances, the latter is not only impractical - it's actually impossible! In this sense, using quantitative methods means researchers can conduct their research on much bigger and more representative samples.

    Disadvantages of positivism

    Interpretivists critique positivism believe that we cannot study human beings in the same way that we study the phenomena of the natural sciences. This is because human beings are very different and much more complex than inanimate objects or non-human animals.

    For instance, we can discern from studying world history that humanity is constantly changing. Whether this is the result of new political regimes, technological or social developments, the ever-changing nature of human beings is based on an important idea which positivism fails to consider: that the interactions and subjective meanings that we attach to our experiences are what shape our society.

    Evaluation of interpretivism

    Now, let's evaluate the interpretivist approach for its strengths and limitations in terms of its application in sociological research.

    Advantages of interpretivism

    By using qualitative research methods, interpretivists can ensure a high level of validity in their research findings. This is because they can clarify certain concepts with the respondent, and seek out information that they might have missed out on if they were asking closed-questions.

    In sociology, validity is the extent to which the research methods are measuring what they are actually setting out to measure.

    Furthermore, the interpretivist approach considers the social context of the phenomena they are studying, which is particularly relevant in sociology.

    Another key benefit of interpretivist research methods is that they allow the researcher to find out, in depth, the meanings and interpretations which people attach to the world around them.

    Disadvantages of interpretivism

    Just as interpretivists critique the positivist approach, there are several criticisms of interpretivism put across by positivists as well. As such, you might notice that many of the external critiques of interpretivism are the same as the strengths of positivism.

    • The qualitative research methods that interpretivists value are expensive and time-consuming to implement. The conducting of in-depth interviews, for example, takes much longer than administrating a simple, closed-question survey online. Research which seeks to use interviews as a main method will also require skilled interviewers, many of whom must be specifically trained.

    • Furthermore, the fact that qualitative research methods are so much more time-consuming and costly means that they can't be conducted on a large scale. Therefore, information that is collected using the interpretivist approach cannot be generalised to the wider population, but only represents a small fraction of it.

    • The lack of a standardised approach means that interpretivist research methods aren't replicable - they can't be repeatedly conducted to confirm the initial results.

    A mixed-methods approach

    A system that social science researchers have come up with to combine the strengths of positivist and interpretivist approaches is to use a mixed-methods approach. Here, the researcher will incorporate both qualitative and quantitative methods into their research design. This is done in order to avoid the limitations of either method interfering with the research findings.

    Using multiple research methods (particularly combining qualitative and quantitative methods) is called triangulation.

    There are significant advantages to triangulating in sociological research:

    • Researchers can cross-check the data that are generated from quantitative research with the information that they have collected in qualitative research.

    • The final body of information is much richer and more well-rounded than it might have been if qualitative or quantitative methods were used on their own.

    • Triangulation helps researchers combine the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative research methods. While they can gain valuable, in-depth insights into people's interpretations and experiences, they can also measure the strength of connection between multiple variables.

    How can we compare and contrast positivism and interpretivism?

    We can summarise the key points of these two theoretical perspectives to help further our understanding of the fundamental differences between them.

    Comparing positivism and interpretivism


    When is knowledge most valuable?

    When it describes observable phenomena, and is presented as statistical, objective facts.

    When it describes people's subjective meanings, and is presented with words.

    How should we go about obtaining knowledge?

    We should use quantitative research methods to obtain knowledge.

    We should use qualitative research methods to obtain knowledge.

    What is the relationship between society and the individual?

    The external forces that make up society control the norms, values and behaviours of humans. We are powerless to reject these forces.

    Human beings aren't dictated by these 'external factors', and are capable of shaping our behaviour through our perceptions.

    Positivism and Interpretivism - Key takeaways

    • Positivism is the perspective that the only way to obtain information about the world is through systematic, scientific methods.
    • Interpretivists seek out subjective meanings and interpretations as their main source of knowledge.
    • Positivists tend to prefer quantitative research methods (such as social surveys), while interpretivists prefer qualitative research methods (such as in-depth interviews).
    • Positivists suggest that external forces shape our values and behaviour, while interpretivists argue that we can interpret and reject these forces as we want to.
    • Quantitative research methods are replicable, cheaper, less time-consuming and more likely to be generalisable. On the other hand, qualitative research methods incorporate people's subjective meanings and social contexts in their methodologies. Sometimes sociologists triangulate to combined qualitative and quantitative methods.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Positivism and Interpretivism

    What is Positivism and Interpretivism?

    Positivism and interpretivism are two very different perspectives on how we can obtain knowledge about the world.

    What is the difference between positivism and interpretivism?

    The main differences between positivism and interpretivism are in:

    • the research methods they use,
    • the type of knowledge they value, and
    • how they see the relationship between society and the individual.

    What is the difference between positivism and post positivism?

    While positivists believe that we can discover facts in a completely objective way, post positivists acknowledge that there are certain inherent biases that interact with and influence our ability to be objective researchers. Instead of attempting to eliminate these biases, they aim to acknowledge and work with them. 

    How does pragmatism differ from post-positivism and interpretivism?

    While positivism and interpretivism are perspectives on how information should be collected and presented, pragmatism is an approach which seeks to understand information in terms of how it can be applied to the real world. 

    What is the difference between post positivism and interpretivism?

    Post positivists believe that, by acknowledging and working with our biases, we can still obtain objective knowledge and facts through research. Interpretivists, on the other hand, argue that objectivity is impossible. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Fill in the blanks:Positivists value _______. Interpretivists value _______.

    Positivism and interpretivism are theoretical factors which affect a researcher's...

    Quantitative research methods are preferred by...

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