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Post Positivism

by Arjuna Fournier 6 months ago in psychology
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Stepping out of the cave


To play a game there need be rules. The study of international relations being the search for the rules of state interaction. Positivism in that regard has shaped the questions that have been asked in IR. It created boundaries as to what was acceptable research. Post positivism then is the critique of that narrative and it asks us to reconsider fundamental assumptions about a casual international world. First, we will briefly define positivism and post-positivism highlighting each approaches significance. Following, will be a discussion on how post-positivism and positivism may not be as distinct as imagined. Lest we forget that the curse of modernity is to forget that we are like the rest who have come before us. Indeed, that to regard the newest ideas as fundamentally different from those of the past is the most common human expression of ego.

Positivism vs post positivism

Positivism is quite simply the general term used for research that is done with a casual relationship in mind. It seeks to study and interpret the world through inputs and outputs where a mechanical function is in play. Meaning that the world can be explained through variables which when acted upon in specific conditions will have predictable outcomes. Positivism uses methods taken from the natural sciences to develop the social sciences. It searches for laws and regularities. Positivism, ignoring the fact that, the focus on a natural scientific approach has actually determined the type of questions that can be asked. In other words positivism has implicitly informed what can be talked about. Only accepting explanations that can be quantified, observed, and/or tested. “Defining common sense is therefore the ultimate act of political power” (Smith 13).

Post positivism on the other hand rejects the importation of a natural factual approach in the study of social beings. Post positivism having many branches with one thing in common. They all are anti-naturalist. By that it is meant that they reject that idea that there exists a natural law that is obvious to all, crosses ideologies, faiths and personal thought. Smith lays out five different post positive perspectives (Scientific Realism, Critical Theory, Hermeneutics, Feminist, and Post Modern) all which depart from a united empirical way of gaining knowledge about the world (Smith 14). Instead post positive perspectives ask how does the way we talk about the world (perceive of it), inform the questions we ask, the problems we try to solve, and the solutions we have at hand.

Post positivism contrasts positivism just like idealism contrasts realism. Smith even calls this the third argument in the discipline. Yet, idealism and realism can be argued to be two ideologies working within the same positivist framework. Post positivism playing the one up game to show how in modern times there has come to be a new understanding of the world which now places the two old competing concepts in the same bucket. A bucket which sees the world in a status quo which is in some sense based on building up causal relationships which support causal explanations.

Post positivism challenges us to think outside “the box” but, how is it not itself creating its own theoretical box with assumptions of a world built up upon ideas which themselves inform what is “rational”? Does post positivism not need to assume then that the world is void of material and naturalistic patterns. That it assumes that mankind is indeed creator and destroyer of perspectives, world views, and interpretations. It assumes a world where mankind has the almost absolute ability to manipulate its reality by manipulating what questions are valid and what is seen as affecting our interpretation of the validity of said questions. Is realizing that there is this freedom to build up our world itself not a natural pattern? If we are always doing it then does it not become mechanical in some way? Predictable? Or have we in the modern times finally broken the box of predictability with a self-awareness never recorded before. The post positive perspective once and for all breaking the box of perception and cultural control of interests by finally accurately identifying them. Smith inadvertently voices this contradiction perfectly when he says:

“Weaknesses of positivism are so fundamental that it cannot be resurrected. yet its dominance has been and continues to be so great that it is taken as common sense (Smith 38).”

How can positivism both be so fundamentally weak that it cannot be resurrected but somehow it continues its dominate and inform common sense? If positivism is fundamentally dead to the point which it cannot come back how does it continue to be the de-facto common sense? It is both dead and dominate. To me, this makes no sense. Common sense in the world (even IR) definitely takes into account that idea that mechanisms are flawed and built up on assumptions that work but may not be indicative of a true relationship but of one necessary for the current functioning of human interaction. Ever human being I encounter certainly has built inside them the idea that we function in a causal way for efficiency and cohesion but, that we are always trying to introduce new ways of thinking to break the normative barriers obvious to all living in the era. In this way I do not see how post positivism brings anything that has not been already baked into all political thought. In fact post positivism assumes a world where human beings can function void of positivist thought processes. Where there exists a world where once we overcome positivism there isn't another form of it around the corner. Of course we must ask questions about who sets the rules, who interprets them, and how are they interpreted. But are these not considerations we have always had?

Doty writes on the power of words and how in political science there is a standardization of the writing process which itself informs how one can write, express themselves, and what will be read credibly. To quote:

“Graduate students learn fairly quickly that a dry, soulless voice is pretty much a requirement for an ‘A’ in many of their introductory graduate seminars. We read so much of a particular style of writing that it becomes absorbed into the fabric of our beings. We begin to define the world and humanity in terms such as rational actions and absolute versus relative gains (Doty 380).” How do we lose our humanity when we write for ‘the discipline’ (Doty 383).

In the same vein I would argue that post positivism does not solve the problem of a self defining reality. Adhering too much to the post positivist perspective does not liberate any minds but instead corners them into another ideological corner. A corner where causal relationships and positivist perspectives are invalidated because of their own construction of what is relevant. Those which are post positivists as valid while positivists now as invalid. This never ending process of contrasting to the past to me is what Doty means by losing our humanity to “the discipline”. In trying to liberate the discipline we lost our humanity to it by either trying to restrict it or liberate it by using complex terminology which differ slightly. Neither concepts really existing in the first place, only in relation to each other. Distinctions like positivism and post positivism as an exercise for academics but, not for humanity. The ideological liberation from “the natural scientific method” is itself motivated by an interest which was by its own post positivist logic informed by the scientific method (positivism). If we have been looking at the world through only one positivist lens that dictates the questions we can ask, then how is the post positivist question also not another result of the positivist framework? Does that mean that post positivism itself is only a manifestation of predetermined positivist options. Is the idea of post positivism itself only possible because it is informed as a valid positivist question? In this way just like realism and idealism are seen as two reactions to the same world could post positivism and positivism not be the same mindset of dichotomy. Where if there is a mindset that sets the questions then there must be one that does not.

“...a pragmatic approach to theory building’ is not a new position, but rather represents the reiteration of a position that has formed one of the poles that constitute the limits of contemporary theoretical debate. (Wight 51). Turning the quote on its head, how then is a non-pragmatic approach new? Being instead another perspective within the same approach… quite simply the opposite perspective.


For Stephen Gill there is an...imperial and neo-liberal common sense whose mantras are endlessly repeated and reinforced by the official organs of communication and the practices of normal science in many parts of our educational systems (520). But, following the logic of the above how can there not be a “common sense” which will be endlessly repeated. Even a post positivist common sense would also need to be endlessly repeated therefore itself creating a sort of positivist feedback loop that would inform our “natural” assumptions about the world. My point is that it is impossible to not be living inside of our environment even if it is a “post positivist” one. Using Plato’s cave we can see that regardless of what we see outside, the outside once seen becomes the cave, forming the shadows which inform the questions that underline human experience. That is until we find the next “outside”.

Works Cited

Doty, Roxanne Lynn. “Maladies of Our Souls: Identity and Voice in the Writing of Academic International Relations.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 17, no. 2 (July 2004): 377–92. https://doi.org/10.1080/0955757042000245951.

Gill, Stephen. “Towards a Radical Concept of Praxis: Imperial ‘Common Sense’ Versus the Post-Modern Prince.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 40, no. 3 (June 2012): 505–24. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305829812442465.

Smith, Steve, Ken Booth, Marysia Zalewski, and Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein. 1996. International theory: positivism and beyond.

Wight, Colin. “Inside the Epistemological Cave All Bets Are Off.” Journal of International Relations and Development 10, no. 1 (March 2007): 40–56. https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.jird.1800109.


About the author

Arjuna Fournier

Political Scientist writing research proposals, theory essays, and sometimes your random short story.

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