Anti-positivism includes a high involvement on the part of the researcher and a low number of respondents. Anti-positivism came about in the 19th century, when scientists Wilhelm Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert began to question sociological positivism and sociological naturalism because they argued that the world of nature is not the same as the world of society, as human societies have unique aspects like meanings, symbols, rules, norms, and values—all that can be described as the culture. This view was further developed by Max Weber, who introduced the term ‘Anti-positivism’ (also known as Humanistic Sociology). According to this view, the sociological research conducted must concentrate on humans and their cultural values. There has been controversy on how a line between subjective and objective research can be drawn.
In 1948, Weber, an ‘Interactionist’, stated that complete value-freedom or scientific objectivity is not possible within sociology.
In 1962, Kuhn, an ‘anti-positivist’, stated that sociology cannot be a science as sociologists do not agree on one accepted paradigm.
In 1971, Gouldner, like Kuhn an ‘anti-positivist, stated that all sociologists commit themselves and are directed by a particular set of ‘domain assumptions’.
Max Weber and Georg Simmel introduced interpretive understanding (Verstehen) into sociology and is a systematic interpretive process in which an outside observer such as a sociologist relates to an indigenous people or sub-cultural group on their own terms and from their own point-of-view, rather than interpreting them in terms of his or her own concepts.
This concept has been both expanded and criticized by later social scientists. Other sociologists have argued that this way only allows a person from one culture to analyse another.
Verstehen was introduced into the practice of sociology in the United States by Talcott Parsons, an American follower of Max Weber. Parsons incorporated this concept into his 1937 work ‘The Structure of Social Action’.
What is ‘Verstehen’: Verstehen can mean either a kind of empathic or participatory understanding of social phenomena. In anthropological terms this is sometimes described as cultural relativism. In sociology it is an aspect of the comparative-historical approach. It relates to how people in life give meaning to the social world around them and how the social scientist accesses and evaluates this “first-person perspective”.
Critics of ‘Verstehen’ argue that there is no methodological unity of science, i.e. that we cannot use the same tools to study natural and social sciences.
Anti-positivists then add that positivism is restricted to phenomena i.e., that it is impossible to study freedom, irrationality and various unpredictable actions that are common in individual human behaviour. They also argue that knowledge can never be neutral, as it directly translates into power and that positivists attempt to draw an artificial line between observer and the subject.
Finally, anti-positivists argue that positivism’s three goals – description, control, and prediction – are incomplete, since they lack the goal of understanding.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex