B. The Impact of Positivism
In the early 1800s, following the advancement of arguments, proposals, and theories related to the biological sciences, and during the discussions of Malthus’s revolutionary “struggle for existence,” groundbreaking ideas also were being propagated about the place and function of man within social groups. These developments were instrumental to the application of biological perspectives to human behavior within social groups.
Auguste Comte (1798–1857)
Known as the “Father of Sociology,” Comte was a French scholar who published Plan de Travaux Scientifiques Necessaries Pour Reorganizer la Societe (Plan of Scientific Studies Necessary for the Reorganization of Society) in 1822. In this work, he argued for a universal law of three phases: (1) theological, (2) metaphysical, and (3) scientific, through which all societies have, or will, progress.
The theological stage is the most primitive stage, characterized by supernatural, religious, or animistic explanations for events, situations, and behaviors and a lack of interest in the origins of causes. The metaphysical stage is slightly more advanced and identifies abstract forces (fate, accident) as the origin of causes. The most advanced stage, the scientific stage, is what Comte called the positive stage. At this point, there is little concern for the origin of actions, but a focus on the outcomes, which man can control.
Positive stages are characterized by observation, experimentation, and logic and attempt to understand the relationships among components. Comte’s positivism attempted to apply scientific principles (i.e., the scientific method) to the behavior of societies and to the behavior of groups within societies and emphasized the connectedness of all the elements involved in behavior. Positivism is one of the first theories of social evolution, attempting to explain how societies progress. Comte claimed that the only real knowledge is knowledge gained through actual sense experience (i.e., observation).
Comte’s scientific stage also is exemplified by the use of quantitative, statistical procedures to make logical, rational decisions based on evidence. Statistical procedures had been used for some time in the hard sciences (e.g., math, physics), but a positivist perspective required that the use of such measurement techniques be applied to the social sciences, as well.