Between Positivism and Idealism

Idealism has three core assumptions. One of idealism’s assumptions is that because there is no social order or external reality within society then laws and universals don’t exist. This assumption extends by saying that because there are no laws or universals to follow or look at we can only understand the meanings of social practices rather than the cause of them. Secondly, another core assumption of idealism states that in order to understand the society we must look towards individual’s beliefs in certain societies or cultures rather than social universals. This assumption of idealism uses the process of how individuals in different cultures use reification to establish social norms. An example that illustrates this assumption of idealism would be “if someone walked into a classroom in North America naked it would be seen as wrong while walking around naked in another country may be normal”.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with being naked – we are all born this way. Different societies see nudity different. North America sees nudity as a reality of being wrong while other places have a different reality concerning nudity. North America reinforces the norm of nudity being wrong through social practices such as laws like indecent exposure or people calling the police for someone being naked. Thirdly, the last core assumption of idealism is that the better we understand the meanings of social practices of other groups the better we can understand other groups. For example, in order to understand Japanese culture, we would have to understand the shared reality that the Japanese people agree on – like whether they believe nudity is wrong or right for example. If we understand why Japan sees nudity as right or wrong then it will give us a greater insight on their culture as a whole.

Positivism has many core assumptions. One of the core assumptions positivism has is that society has universal social laws. This assumption says that society is limited by social laws so humans have limits over what they can shape society into. For example ‘society will never turn into a society that would kill its children’. Society, because of the view that it is governed by social universals, ‘would never start killing all of its children especially due to the need of societies to reproduce in order to stay alive’. Another assumption of positivism is that society is self-generating. This assumption argues that no one individual can start or change a social force. For example, positivism would argue with this assumption that homophobia is a social force that no one individual created. Homophobia originated from the relationships between thousands of individuals over thousands of years. Positivists would say that anti-Semitism would still exist whether Hitler was ever born or not. Thirdly, an assumption of positivism is that there are multiple outcomes for inequalities within society. An example of this assumption would be that greed among the elite masses isn’t the mere cause of poverty. It is simply a contributing factor among multiple other causes of poverty.

There are problems with using both positivism and idealism to understand social reality. One of the main problems with using idealism is that any research into the symbolic requires an interpretation that is valid. This plagues idealism because we never know if we are interpreting the same thing. For example, we cannot know that we are actually ‘in a certain culture or that we are seeing the same shade of the color blue’. This incapability of knowing that we are interpreting the same exact thing prevents our interpretations from being valid which is crucial for us to understand the symbols in society. For example, we can’t use our interpretations to understand anyone but ourselves limiting the scope of their meanings. Our interpretations can not only be different but they can and do have different meanings for us. With everyone having different meanings for everything knowledge is derived from our individual experiences and cannot be applied to others. This makes knowledge individualized rather than standardized. Due to knowledge becoming individualized we can’t create a real truth because our individual experiences only pertain to us. An example that illustrates this problem with idealism would be if one person used marijuana and made the claim that because they didn’t suffer poor health consequences and that it is safe and used that claim to justify legalization for society as a whole. This gained knowledge could only be applied to them rather than society as a whole.

One of the main problems with positivism is that it argues for value-freedom research. The issue with value-freedom is that it would require people to remove their beliefs and views from their research. This is impossible because all human beings have feelings and emotions. An example that illustrates how this is unrealistic is that value-freedom research would require individuals to research whether white people are superior due to their race, or that homosexuality is immoral or that men are more capable than women. This would require gays, African Americans, and women to be open to the idea that who they are is immoral, less capable and inferior. Also, presenting research that for example stated whites were intellectually better than blacks would get researchers thrown out of the social science community on the notion of them being racist. Although it isn’t the major issue with using value-freedom research to explain social reality. If we were to use value-freedom research to explain the social reality we would remove the researcher’s passion from their research.

By removing passion from their work how would we know what to research or what social problems to research? Social problems are problems in society because they are inherently personal and by removing passion from research we would dehumanize the issues – making them less likely to be taken on for social research. For example, if social problems aren’t personal and they are dehumanized then what is the point in researching them to create a better society – part of the goal of social science in the first place. Another problem with positivism is that it argues that the individual has no great role in society. Anyone can die and society would still continue. The idea that individuals have no great role in society also extends to the idea that society makes choices for individuals rather than individuals giving society choices. This is a problem when it comes to explaining social reality because it discounts the role that certain individuals have played in creating movements that have altered the path of society or altered social forces like racism.

For example, positivism discounts the role Martin Luther King Jr played in creating a movement to combat racism. King played a great role in altering the social force of racism by bringing attention to the racial indifferences within society. The social force of racism has been altered due to his legacy. For example since his death the social norms and behaviors within people in the United States towards racism has drastically changed. This is a problem with using positivism to explain social reality because it disregards the role certain extraordinary individuals have played in altering the social norms and behaviors towards social forces such as racism.

Idealism is the best way to gather knowledge of social reality. Idealism is better than positivism at gaining knowledge concerning social reality for many reasons. One of the main reasons why idealism is better at gathering knowledge for social reality is that it attempts to understand the different meanings that varying cultures attach to the same social actions and practices. This differs from positivism as positivism uses social universals to understand social practices. In order to understand the social practices of others we need to look at the different symbols other cultures use because the same exact social practices can and often do mean completely different things from culture to culture. An example of how different cultures have different meanings for the same thing is how greetings in America are used differently than varying cultures. “Hi, how’s it going in North America ” – is simply a comment people make in passing, while when people in other nations use the phrase they use it as a way to seriously ask how people are doing. Without understanding the different meanings that the exact same social practice carries among varying cultures tourists visiting North America may take the comment as rude even though it’s not meant as so. To understand the social actions of others we have to be able to interpret what certain cultures see as moral versus immoral or right versus wrong and so on.

If we follow universal laws like positivism argues for it would lead to us having an inaccurate understanding of the social actions of others – which in affect would make our research inaccurate and pointless. Even if it were accurate, which it wouldn’t be, research into social practices for the sake of understanding them would be pointless as every culture would have the same symbols and meanings limiting the point of looking into the social practices of cultures. Another reason that idealism is better than positivism at gaining knowledge for explaining social reality is that it unlike positivism idealism argues that individuals can change and impact society. The view that individuals determine the change in society helps us better understand social reality because it allows us to understand the meanings behind an individual’s social actions. No matter how macro or micro the social actions of individuals are social actions have meanings and are choices that individuals make rather than society making for them. For example, “when I return a library book on the due date, the meaning of the action is my intention to avoid the fine. When I get up at dawn to drive to the beach early and avoid the traffic, my action is a social action because my intention is oriented toward the actions of others, in this case to avoid the consequences of the actions of other persons” (Little 75).

As Daniel Little, illustrates in the ‘Interpretation Theory’ our actions have an impact in society. Whether it’s leaving earlier to cut down on traffic or whether it’s taking a job that pays less in order to contribute towards making society a better place we are making those decisions rather than society making them for us. This is important towards understanding social reality because it allows us to investigate the meanings of the social actions of people. If society just made us leave on time for the beach then research into the meanings of the social action of leaving on time would be pointless. By understanding that individuals make their own decisions concerning social actions it points us somewhere to research – the meanings behind those actions.

Idealism and positivism cannot be merged in order to better understand social reality. One of the main reasons that the two epistemologies cannot be merged is that positivism states that individuals play no role in altering society while idealism says that individuals determine the direction of society. This would be impossible to merge as there’s no middle ground between the two. For example, if idealists argue that one individual changed the course of history than positivism would outright shun them on the basis that society is self-generating. Another reason why the two aren’t able to be merged is that positivism believes that society follows universal laws while idealism states that the symbols and meanings of the same social actions are different varying culture to culture. There’s no way to combine the two as they contradict each other by idealism saying that all cultures behave differently and have different social norms and positivism saying that all cultures follow the same set of rules, norms or universal social laws.

Thirdly, another main reason why idealism and positivism cannot be merged together to better understand social reality is that idealism uses interpretations to understand symbols and positivism uses perceived universal social laws to understand social actions. In other words, because idealism uses interpretations the gained knowledge can only be applied to the perceiver rather than society as a whole while knowledge gained through positivism is applied to society as a whole. This makes the knowledge idealism gathers individualized and the knowledge positivism gathers standardized which aren’t applicable to each other and contradict each other.


In conclusion, my understanding of positivism and idealism has impacted my approach to studying society. After learning more about how idealism and positivism approach studying society I believe in order to accurately study society we have to use an idealistic approach and attempt to understand the different symbols and meanings that varying cultures attach to the exact same social action. For example, it’s impossible to understand a sentence if the same words in that sentence mean different things at varying times. The new limits that I’m aware of now is that in order to understand the meaning of something we need to understand the culture we are interpreting it from. The new possibility that I’m aware of is how two different cultures can see something as completely different – an example of this would be how I learned (Country A) may see college as important but (Country B) may see it as pointless. The same exact issue can have different realities to it among varying cultures is the possibility I became aware of.

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