Chapter 3. Post-Positivist Perspectives on Theory Development

Chapter 3

Post-Positivist Perspectives on Theory Development


Scholars who have dedicated themselves to studying human and social behavior have found that the natural science influence the social sciences. Occasionally, social researchers take concepts from the physical sciences using them as a basis for social research. Evolutionary theories, for example have been used as a guide in psychology and group behavior research. Metatheoretical assumptions such as realist ontology and an objective epistemology have guided scholars on social and communicative behaviors. We conclude that post-positivist theoritizing is exemplified within the communication discipline. Post-positivism has been labeled by terms such as functionalism, empiricism, naturalism and positivism. The term post-positivism is used to emphasize that although communication theorists today can trace their roots to the important movement of positivism, they have also moved beyond those roots in important and substantive roots.





The term positivism is widely used today as a term of derision in the fields of social research. However, positivism has been set up as a weak term that can easily be bated down by those who prefer an alternative philosophy of science. Phillips (1992) argued that positivism has ceased to have any useful function and that social scientists who have used this term are confused about its definition that “while the word is full of sound and fury, it signifies nothing”.

A brief look is taken to the history of the positivist movement.  First, we will distinguish between the two “brands” of positivism –classical and logical positivism- and then we will discuss the reasons for the decline of the positivist school in the middle of the 20th century.


Classical Positivism


The classical positivist position was developed by Auguste Comte (1970), a French philosopher who argued that branches of knowledge must pass through three intellectual stages, “the theological or fictitious state, the metaphysical or abstract state and the scientific or positive state. This progression states that theological and metaphysical explanations are less acceptable than those based on scientific evidence and that, as a result, fields such as physics are at a higher level than fields that do not comport with scientific ideals. In classical positivism, the foundation of knowledge was to be found in empirical or observable phenomena and understood through formal logic embodied in scientific laws. It is a “well combined use of reasoning and observation”.


Logical Positivism: The Vienna Circle


The logical positivist movement was embodied by the Vienna Circle, a group of scholars who met during the 1920’s and 1930’s near Vienna, Austria. This group included Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnaap, Otto Neurath, Herbert Feigl, Friederich Waismann, Kurt Gödel and Victor Kraft. Logical positivists began by making a critical distinction between science and metaphysics through the verifiability principle of meaning. This principle state that “a statement is held to be literally meaningful if and only if it is either analytic or empirically verifiable”. Analytical statements are mathematical or logical statements that can be seen through the force of reasoning. The only other statements that considered meaningful by logical positivists are those that can be verified by the senses. Phillips (1992) stated that ”If it can’t be seen or measured, it is not meaningful to talk about”. Scientific statements are analytical of empirically verifiable and all other statements and metaphysical statements are meaningless.

Science is meaningful. Metaphysics is not. After making this clear distinction, logical positivists turned their attention to explaining the syntax and semantics of scientific language. A great deal of attention was spent on constructing an ideal language for science, in describing various kinds of scientific statements. For example, observation statements, theoretical statements, and correspondence rules. The question of what counts as confirmation and disconfirmation of scientific statements and theories was also considered. If we consider the statement “All leopards have spots”, it is clear that it cannot be proved since one cannot observe all the leopards in the world. This led some theorists, such as Popper (1959) to argue that the goal of science should be falsification rather than verification.

The logical positivist movement was one of accounting for an ideal of science, science as logical positivists believed it was meant to.

Theory is defined first as a fully axiomatized structure of axioms, postulates, definitions and theorems.


The Demise of Positivism


The work of positivists flourished in the early decades of the 20th century. The terms of philosophy of science and positivism were synonymous. By the 1960’s, positivism was almost dead and new views of the philosophy of science ascended.

The logic of logical positivists was first questioned. The notion of logical positivists that all statements were empirically verifiable, analytic and metaphysical was objected. If one takes a reflexive look at the verifiability principle, it is clear that this statement is not analytically true (not true by the force of logic). The only alternative is that statements should be empirically verifiable. The verifiability principle, however, clearly is not object to verification, creating a real problem for logical positivists. If the position that all observations are influenced by the theoretical stance of the observer is accepted, it is impossible to maintain the clean distinction between observational and theoretical statements that was so important to logical positivism. It is no longer possible to allow sensory experience to be the final arbiter of meaningfulness.

Once the two languages, theoretical and observational had been distinguished, it was difficult to keep them apart. Some philosophers argued that most scientific observations today are made through instruments. Consequently, there would be no pure and direct observation language.

Finally, the logical positivist movement was seen as more and more detached from the workings of science. Logical positivists concentrated on the syntax and semantics of science, not its pragmatics. Logical positivists had little to say about what scientists actually did or what theories actually looked like. Other scientific philosophers Agassi (1975), Feyeraband and Kuhn (1962), and Lakatos (1970) started addressing how science proceeds proposing and testing hypothesis, building and modifying theories, thriving and degenerating research programs. Their investigations were considered far more relevant than the quibbling over syntax that occupied the attention of most logical positivists. This move from prescribing what science should be like to describing what scientists do marked an important shift in the philosophy of science.




Some social researchers argue that flaws in the positivist foundation require a radically different philosophy , one in which the realist ontology, objective epistemology and value free axiology of positivism are vehemently rejected and replaced with forms of inquiry that honor nominalism, subjectivism and omnipresent values. However, some scholars believe that a rejection of positivism does not require a total rejection of realism, objectivity and the scientific goal of value free inquiry. These scholars reject the unassailable foundation of observation, and reject the assumption of an always steady and upward accumulation of knowledge. They have now forged a new philosophy of science that D.C. Phillips (1967, 1990, and 1992) called post-positivism.


Metatheoretical Commitments


Ontology. A realist believes in a hard and solid reality of physical and social objects. A nominalist proposes that the reality of social entities exists only in the names and labels we provide for them and a social constructionist emphasizes the ways in which social meanings are created through historical and contemporary interaction. Both the realist and the social constructionist positions make contributions to the ontology of post-positive reactioners in the communication discipline. Researchers in the post-positive can be seen as realists since they support the position that phenomena exist independent of the perception and theories about them (Phillips, 1987). An ontology with realist foundations provides a basis for progress in the accommodation of knowledge in the post-positivist tradition. However, for post-positivism, this realism is typically tempered by the segment that humans cannot fully apprehend that reality and that the driving mechanisms in the social and physical world cannot be fully understood. It could be further argued that post-positivism is consistent with social constructionist views in two important ways. First, many post-positivists would argue that the process of social construction in relatively patterned ways that are amenable to the type of social scientific investigation undertaken by post-positivists. Individuals have free will and creativity but they exercise that creativity in ways that are often patterned and predictable. Second, many post-positivists would argue that social constructions are regularly reified and treated as objective by actors in the social world. Thus, a social constructionist ontology is consistent with the post-positivist position that emphasizes both the patterned nature of the social construction process and the regular predictable effects that reified social constructions have on social action. Further, a post-positivist ontology entails a belief in regularity and partners in our interactions with others.


Epistemology and Axiology. Post-positivist assumptions include the three interlinked notions that: a) knowledge can best be gained through a search for regularities and causal relationships among components of the social world. b) regularities and causal relationships can best be discovered if there is a complete separation between the investigator and the subject of investigation, and c) this separation can be guaranteed through the use of the scientific method.

The search for knowledge remains centered on causal explanations for regularities observed in the social world.

Post-positivists have largely rejected the assumption that it is possible and necessary to have a complete distinction between the researcher conducting the investigation (the knower) and the phenomenon being investigated (the known). Objectivity is seen as a regulatory ideal. Thus, though no claims to absolute truth and value-free inquiry are made, the belief exists that progress can be made if researchers exercise care in their theorizing and research and are critical of theoretical assertions and empirical justifications. 


Structure and Function of Post-positivist Theory


Thus, post-positivist scholars attempt to build theory and conduct research in ways that will enhance the objectivity of the research and lead to accurate explanations of the social world. What does theory look like from the post-positivist point of view? And what is the function of post-positivist social theory?


The Structure of Theory. Post-positivist scholars believe that theories must provide general explanations that go beyond the observation of individual events. A post-positivist scholar would also want the general statements in a theory to be logically organized and to have clearly established links to the observable world.

Dubin argues that a theory must start with units –the concept or constructs that make up the subject matter of a theory. After defining the units of interest, the theory must specify the laws of interaction among these units and must specify the conceptual boundaries within which the theory is expected to hold. Dubin (1978) states “Once these basic features of a theoretical model are set forth, the theorist is in a position to derive conclusions that represent logical and true deductions about the model in operation or the propositions of the model”. However, a theorist should also specify how the theory connects with the empirical or observable world. A theory should also include empirical indicators for each theoretical term. These are sometimes known as operational definitions because they define operations through which a theoretical unit is to be measured. Finally, the empirical indicators can be substituted for the theoretical units in the propositions, and this substitution will yield hypothesis that can be empirically tested to provide verification or falsification of the theory.

A theory of empathic communication might start with basic units and definitions of those units. For example, a theory might include the concepts of empathic concern, emotional contagion and communicative responsiveness. All of these terms must be fully defined.

These propositions would be based on an underlying logic that sees parallel emotion (“feeling with”) as a force that counteracts effective communication and nonparallel emotion (“feeling for) as a force that will enhance effective listening and message production. The theorist would also set up the boundaries within which these relationships should hold. Finally, the theorist would propose ways to measure the units (perhaps through self-report measures on a survey or through the observation and coding of natural conversation) and then derive hypothesis that would be tested with empirical research.


The Function of Theory. The three functions of theory that are most typically identified by post-positivist theorists are the interlinked functions of explanation, prediction and control. The function of explanation suggests that theories answer questions of why things occur. That is, in moving from the empirical world to the abstract world, a theory attempts to go beyond observation to illuminate the mechanisms behind the phenomenon. The key pint is that, for post-positivists, theories should provide an explanation for observed behavior, and the explanation typically takes the form of cause-and-effect relationships. 

The second function of theory, prediction, follows from the notion of explanation. That is, if the theory provides an abstract explanation of a particular phenomenon, we should be able to use the abstract explanation to predict what will happen in a similar situation.

Finally, the third function of theory in the post-positivist tradition is control. Again, the function is a natural offshoot of explanation and prediction. That is, one can explain and predict phenomena, it is also sometimes possible to use the information to control future events.


Criteria for Evaluating and Comparing Theories.

Thomas Kuhn (1977) has presented one set of criteria that would probably be widely endorsed by post-positivist social theorists and researchers.

A theory should be accurate.

A theory should be consistent.

A theory should have broad scope.

A theory should be simple.

A theory should be fruitful.


The Process of Theory Development.


If theory development is successful, we will gain new and broadened understandings of the social world. The development of a theory includes the following:


Use of the Scientific Method. Post-positivists develop theory and accumulate knowledge about the world through the process of empirically testing theories. According to post-positivists those empirical observations must be of a special kind. Specifically, in order to test and develop theories, we must make observations through the use of the scientific method. Scientific observation requires clear definitions of constructs at both the abstract (conceptual) and the empirical (observational) levels. In our naïve theories we often base our conclusions on casual -and uncontrolled- observation. Scientific testing requires the scrutiny of a community of scholars to check on our theories and conclusions. Post-positivists still see bias-free inquiry as a goal and the scientific method as a crucial tool for eliminating the influence of bias from observation to the extent possible. The scientific method imposes standards of control that reduce the influence of the researcher’s values and biases on the process of observation and interpretation enhancing the objectivity of the research.

We have noted that post-positivists seek to explain social phenomena through their theories, and those explanations often take a causal form. In conducting a scientific experiment, the research controls the time-ordering of relevant variables and controls for alternative explanations through procedures such as randomization and control over study procedures. The use of the scientific method enhances the exercise of control and increases the ability to assess causality, a critical feature of post positivist explanation. 


Theory Verification. The scientific method is crucial in the testing of a theory. Scholars have highly rejected the notion of the total confirmation of a theory because we are always observing only a small part of the world and hence can never know if the theory holds in every observable instance. This has come to be known as the problem of induction.

Ken Popper proposed the notion of falsification, in which instead of searching for instances of support or verification, a theorist should actively look for facts that are inconsistent with the proposed theory. If no falsifying instances are found, the scholar can conclude that the theory is corroborated (not confirmed) and should be retained for the same being. Popper advocates a balance between giving up a theory too readily and holding on to it too tightly. Scholars tend to look for confirmation of their theories, not falsification. In poppers ideal scientific community (1967), scholars will have a variety of opinions and a willingness to be refuted.


The Evolution or Revolution of Research Programs. Scholars in the scientific disciplines will steadily accumulate knowledge in a topic area. This evolutionary growth of theory has been rejected or greatly modified by current philosophers of science and many post-positivists. Lakatos (1970) argues that progress in science occurs as scientists work on long-term research programs that are build on the foundation of strongly held assumptions about the nature of the world. Programs that produce occasional verifications are progressive research programs. Programs that receive no empirical support are degenerative. But both kinds of research programs –progressive and degenerative- can survive for a long time as researchers within a program work on specific theories and hypothesis while protecting the hard core of assumptions that undergird the research program as a whole.

Kuhn argues that when a discipline begins its research, it is the “protoscientific” or “preparadigmatic” state. Eventually, as data are gathered and theories are disputed, one theory or set of theories will come to dominate heralding the arrival of a paradigm. When a discipline is working within a paradigm, scientists proceed in a normal science mode to solve specific puzzles by the paradigm and write textbooks that codify the teachings of the paradigm. Eventually, however, observations will be made that do not fit nearly into the reigning paradigm’s theories. Such observations are called anomalies. These anomalies will produce new and widely divergent theories and will begin a period of crisis within the discipline.

Each new theory, each new methodology, each new point of view is seen as a new paradigm that will change the way we approach social and communication research. Kuhn states that science and research occur in fits and starts. He also emphasizes the huge effect that our theoretical assumptions –our pragmatic ways of thinking- have on the way we view the world and the way we do research.

For post-positivists, the impact of paradigms highlights the importance of understanding, the metatheoretical framework in which research occurs, the attempt to make research as objective as possible, and the need to work within a scientific community so that the critical scrutiny of other scholars can be brought to bear on the work being accomplished.




One of the most important debates arose in the early and mid 1970’s as scholars debated the proper logic to be used in theory building. The theoretical approaches of laws, systems and rules were pitted against each other. These perspectives largely agreed on issues of axiology (the goal of value-free axiology), ontology (a largely realist perspective) and epistemology (the search for regularities through the scientific method). There is still room for debate about precisely how theories should be developed and tested.


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