Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa

Postmodern Positivisms

Vaughan M. Dutton

School of Psychology, University of Natal - Pietermaritzburg

Linguistic turns, epistemological revolutions, the world of text and discourse. Post-structuralism has, of late, become the 'home ground' of several critical voices within the academy. This paper explores the extent to which positivism reproduces itself in the post-structuralist text via prescriptions imposed, by the academy, upon the production of knowledge. By identifying a number of important tenets of positivism within the construction of the academic text, the claim is made that post structuralists' (and especially 'critical' post structuralists') political zealousness is merely the academy's latest trompe-l'oeil. The questions thus raised have definite relevance to the role of the academic in South Africa.

Place two piles of text in front of you.

The first pile - positivist, scientific, writings

The second pile - social constructionist, discourse analytic, writings

The two piles are in opposition to one another. Both paint a 'reality' which the other abhors. Authors of these writings are, generally, opposed to one another. If a 'social constructionist' were accidentally slipped into the first pile the insult would be, to say the least, extensive (and of course the opposite is just as true). Authors of the first pile label authors of the second as (amongst other things) irrelevant and abstract; while authors of the second maintain that authors of the first are the producers and guardians of 'all that is bad in society'. Often, authors of either pile are not sure about what it is that they are criticising about the other. 'Social constructionism' is misunderstood by authors of the first pile; while 'Positivism' is often misunderstood by authors of the second. So positivism and social constructionism are in a dramatic standoff. I refrain from continuing this introduction because I am sure that we all understand the tension of which I speak ...

By closer investigation of the methodologies and style of each pile, the distinction between social constructionist and positivist becomes less clearly defined. Admittedly, this paper compares a certain kind of postmodernism (social constructionism) with a certain kind of positivism (i.e., the French tradition as exemplified in the writings of Comte, Saint-Simon and Durkheim). This selection was not arbitrary, however, since both epistemologies were produced by the same - French - academic system. An interrogation of methodologies (perhaps, even, epistemologies in practice) leaves the distance between the two insignificant enough to overlook. This abandoning of the distance between the two allows the investigator to begin asking, after what it is that has produced both piles and what function an illusory distance serves. Also, critical academics are afforded an insight into the powers which govern their discretionary ability. From this position it is possible to begin to understand the origin of the 'natural separation' which occurs between the two. We will embark on this voyage of confusion and discovery in the first pile - the pile of positivism....

We begin to read. Having ploughed our way through enough of this pile, certain patterns start emerging in the methodological logic. This logic draws on the associated epistemology but is interesting because it converts epistemology into practice (as you see the piles of text before you). We choose to label these patterns as 'tenets' of positivism.

Let us consider a few of these tenets. The first tenet to emerge is: The rule of phenomenalism : which states that "...we are entitled to record only that which is actually manifested in experience." (Kolakowski, 1972, p.11). Positivists do not object to enquiry into the immediately invisible causes of any observed phenomenon, they object only to any accounting for it in terms of occult entities that are by definition inaccessible to human knowledge. Positivism asserts the claims of experience as the ultimate foundation of human knowledge and denies the possibility of meaningful discourse concerning suprasensible objects.

Now we leave the first pile and approach the second pile - the pile of social constructionism. To do so we will have to suck a bitter pill. This pill provides an antidote to the Aristotelean series. The Aristotelean series is that logic which sets up a continuum of priority from 'the thing'; through 'the idea'; into 'the spoken word'; and finally to 'the written word'. By sucking this pill, we are liberated from this series - from the positivist tenet that...

"There is but one world and it has an objective existence" (Comte, 1903, p. 62) and enter an 'envelope' of text. Within this envelope (if you will) we realise that "There is but one world and it has a textual existence" a world of text with nothing outside itself. All that we know and are becomes textual. Having sucked the pill we can approach our social constructionist pile once more. We notice that the structure of the text resembles that prescribed by our first tenet of positivism. Thanks to the demise of the Aristotelian series, however, our experience is textual. We notice, in this pile, rather than being entitled to investigate only that which manifests in experience we are now entitled to record only that which is actually manifested in text . Also, we notice that social constructionists do not object to inquiry into the immediately invisible causes of any textually observed phenomenon, they object only to any accounting for it in terms of occult entities that are inaccessible to social constructionist knowledge. Also, as with positivism, it denies the possibility of meaningful discourse concerning suprasensible objects or, at least, those which are to be read 'beyond the text'. Of course, as with the positivists, it becomes "...difficult to be sure just what is in principle accessible to observation, and what is not."(Bryant, 1985). Interesting .... Back to the first pile ... The next tenet to emerge is...The rule of nominalism; which states that "We may not assume that any insight formulated in general terms can have any real referents other than individual facts" (Kolakowski, 1972). Every abstract science is a method of abridging the recording of experience and gives us no extra, independent knowledge in the sense that, via its abstractions, it opens access to empirically inaccessible domains of reality. Thus, there is a rejection of metaphysics in the positivist pile. This tenet is noticeable in the social constructionist pile in two ways. Firstly, all abstract comments made in this pile rely on their referring to extracts of text. In the post-structural pile, these snippets fulfil the same function as 'facts' in the positivist pile. Which brings to mind another tenet which states that, in positivism, "Scientific endeavour depends upon reason and observation duly combined" which, if adhered to with rigour will facilitate the discovery of "social laws which govern the interconnections between different institutional and cultural forms." (Comte, 1903, p.25). Similarly, the production of our second (social constructionist) pile depends upon the scholarly application of reason (about text) and observation (of text - in the form of extracts) in the analysis of text. Via this process it becomes possible to identify "social laws which govern the interconnections between different institutional and cultural forms" although, because proper social constructionist jargon and a changed epistemology prefer to use the term 'meaning' as substitute for 'truth'; the social laws of positivism are transposed into 'themes' which continue to be understood as governing the interconnections between different institutional and cultural forms.

The next tenet to be discussed is the rule that refuses to call value judgements and normative statements knowledge (Kolakowski, 1972, p.17). For positivists, it is unacceptable to assume that beyond the visible world there exists a domain of values "in themselves", with which our evaluations correlate in some mysterious way. Within the 'envelope of text'; and if we accept the assumption of a textual world, it requires no great effort to maintain this belief. Only now, perhaps, our visible world is that of written text and often our objective yearnings are appeased via the quoting (observation) of a textual legend (e.g., Foucault, 19..). Such a practice metamorphoses into an unquestionable upon which general terms are constructed.

A belief in the essential unity of the scientific method is a further tenet of positivism (Kolakowski, 1972). Among positivist intellectual formations, from Comte to Popper, one repeatedly encounters the twin claims that each science must elaborate principles and practices of its own in response to the particular character of its objects of inquiry. This assertion becomes important with regards the second pile when the attendant claim of positivism is considered. This is that " is important that ideas be formed in accordance with positivist knowledge, for only in this way could the controversies of the age be ended and the attendant disorganisation and demoralisation be overcome." (Bryant, 1985).

This common task of scientific methodologies - as social saviour - reproduces itself in the social constructionist pile via the understanding (which is often used as a justification of effort by critical theorists) that the deconstructive effort can have effects over time. Via an accumulation of effect they are understood as developing toward increased unity and demobilisation of an evil modernist society. The work of critical theorists of this persuasion is implicitly understood to be advancing toward a corpus of text which creeps incessantly toward an (ostensibly denied) Utopia. Time constraints (and textual constraints) do not allow for a more adequate exploration of this 'methodological overlap'. So what are we to make of this close proximity of positivism and postmodernism? I would argue that the tenets' reproduction of themselves in the two "epistemological styles", of positivism and social constructionism suggest a common power (if you will) which structures both. This structure is more than a mere academic convention or publication pre-requisite. Rather it is a logic which dictates not only how knowledge is to be recorded and produced, but also what is possible for academic enquiry. This power in practice pervades academic writings such as these before us. As such it exists invisibly throughout academic debates dealing with ontology, epistemology, teleology, power or any other subject you choose. It provides a logical framework - about and within which textual content can cohere. The tenets described previously are examples of this logical framework. They dictate the parameters of content production. Our little adventure, today, has indicated that this framework has remained more or less constant despite the 'epistemological revolution', which has transformed the content of the academic text, but not the methodologies which convert these new visions into practice.

Is our postmodern endeavour really (for want of a better term) working toward the betterment of our condition? Or is it merely creating a new knowledge which continues to be based on exclusion, division and categorisation: a discursive formation which continues to apportion the power of interpretation and prescription to an elite few selected by our academy? Is it possible to make the radical claim that postmodernism is the academy's latest trompe d'oeil which serves to maintain the intelligencia's hold on a conscience-free privilege? Might we be able to say that postmodernism is useful if one's goal is to transform the academic's world; but as yet useless if one seeks to change anybody else's.


Bryant, C.G.A. (1985). Positivism in Social Theory and Research. London: MacMillan

Comte, A. (1903). A Discourse on the Positive Spirit. London : MacMillan-Reeves

Kolakowski, L. (1972). Positivist Philosophy : From Hume to the Vienna Circle. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa
critical methods society - -