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In philosophy and models of scientific inquiry, postpositivism (also called postempiricism) is a metatheoretical stance that critiques and amends positivism. While positivists believe that the researcher and the researched person are independent of each other, postpositivists accept that theories, background, knowledge and values of the researcher can influence what is observed. However, like positivists, postpositivists pursue objectivity by recognizing the possible effects of biases.
Postpositivists believe that human knowledge is based not on unchallengeable, rock-solid foundations, but rather upon human conjectures. As human knowledge is thus unavoidably conjectural, the assertion of these conjectures are warranted, or more specifically, justified by a set of warrants, which can be modified or withdrawn in the light of further investigation. However, postpositivism is not a form of relativism, and generally retains the idea of objective truth.
Postpositivists believe that a reality exists, like positivists do, though they hold that it can be known only imperfectly and probabilistically.
One of the first thinkers to criticize logical positivism was Sir Karl Popper. He advanced falsification in lieu of the logical positivist idea of verifiability. Falsificationism argues that it is impossible to verify that beliefs about universals or unobservables are true, though it is possible to reject false beliefs if they are phrased in a way amenable to falsification. Thomas Kuhn's idea of paradigm shifts offers a broader critique of logical positivism, arguing that it is not simply individual theories but whole worldviews that must occasionally shift in response to evidence.
Postpositivism is an amendment to positivism that recognizes these and other critiques against logical positivism. It is not a rejection of the scientific method, but rather a reformation of positivism to meet these critiques. It reintroduces the basic assumptions of positivism: ontological realism, the possibility and desirability of objective truth, and the use of experimental methodology. The work of philosophers Nancy Cartwright and Ian Hacking are representative of these ideas. Postpositivism of this type is common in the social sciences (especially sociology) for both practical and conceptual reasons.
There is an open controversy as to whether the work which best represents the origins of Postpositivism is that of Thomas Kuhn or that of Karl Popper. Whereas the work of those following Kuhn has led to a sociology of scientific knowledge, the work of those following Popper pursue classical problems of methodology and epistemology.
- Karl Popper (1934) Logik der Forschung, rewritten in English as The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959)
- Thomas Kuhn (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
- Karl Popper (1963) Conjectures and Refutations
- Ian Hacking (1983) Representing and Intervening
- Andrew Pickering (1984) Constructing Quarks
- Peter Galison (1987) How Experiments End
- Nancy Cartwright (1989) Nature's Capacities and Their Measurement
- Alexander, J.C. (1995), Fin De Siecle Social Theory: Relativism, Reductionism and The Problem of Reason, London; Verso.
- D.C. Philips & Nicholas C. Burbules (2000): Postpositivism and Educational Research. Lanham & Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
- John H. Zammito (2004): A Nice Derangement of Epistemes. Post-positivism in the study of Science from Quine to Latour. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
- Popper, K. (1963), Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, London; Routledge.
- Moore, R. (2009), Towards the Sociology of Truth, London; Continuum.
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