Wednesday, September 16, 2020

What the Heck is Post-Positivism?

If you are someone who knows a lot about philosophy of science (or pretends to), then this post is not for you. Stop reading now, because you will just get mad at my oversimplistic explanations. You may even say I am “wrong.” Guess what, this post is not for you, so I don’t care[1].

This post is for the many, many, students and professors of psychology who have essentially zero working knowledge of philosophy of science. If you hear someone say, “yeah, but that is such a post-positivistic approach” or “from a critical perspective we think about that quite differently,” and are wondering what the heck those people are talking about, then this is for you. That’s all you will get here, the “heck” without any of the elaboration or nuance. I find it astonishing and concerning that we do not even ensure heck-level training in these issues among our undergraduate students, let alone our graduate students. But so it goes.

Philosophy of science is a multi-layered labyrinth of schools of thought, terms, and debates, and I have no intention of covering anywhere near all of it here. Rather, I focus on a constrained set of what are often referred to as paradigms, meta-theoretical orientations, or even sometimes just philosophies of science: positivism, post-positivism, constructivism, and criticalism[2]. These four paradigms serve as broad meta-theoretical orientations that correspond with particular philosophies of science (see, all three terms are useful!).  

Just about every scholar in psychology is situated within one of these four paradigms, whether they know it or not. This is one of the reasons this issue is so important: most don’t actually seem to know that they are approaching their research and teaching from a particular philosophy of science. But just because you don’t know about it doesn’t mean that it is not there, lurking in the background, having an influence over your approach to science. Additionally, for some, conflict with colleagues, systems, or even within their own beliefs can be traced back to conflicting underlying paradigms. Although this knowledge does not solve the conflict, it does provide better direction for potential resolution.

Yeah so anyway, what the heck is post-positivism? I will contrast the four approaches along four commonly-used “ologies”: ontology, epistemology, axiology, and methodology. Yes, yes, more terms that you may need to learn. Depending on your familiarity with them, you will have at most eight terms to learn (four paradigms by four ologies)—eight. That is within 7 +/- 2, so you should be good[3].

Briefly, ontology relates to the nature of what can be known (truth/reality), epistemology to the relationship between what can be known and the person doing the knowing, axiology to the role of values and beliefs in the knowledge-generating process, and methodology to the process through which knowledge is acquired.

There is near complete non-overlap in the nature of these four ologies across the four paradigms[4]. Rather than bore you further with my prose, I will bore you with a table:

Ok great, so what to do with all of this information? First, it would be a useful exercise to locate yourself in the table (your present and/or past selves). Perhaps you align perfectly with one of the paradigms; if you work in “mainstream psychology,” then chances are high that you align pretty well with the positivistic or post-positivistic paradigms. This is how “the field” tends to like to position itself, and most prestigious institutions, journals, and funding bodies are squarely planted within these approaches.

If, on the other hand, you do not identify much with mainstream psychology and feel like you tend to do things a little differently, you are probably aligned with the constructivist paradigm, and if you really feel like your approach is out there, and take issues of societal power/oppression/privilege seriously in your work, you are probably aligned with the critical paradigm.

But most likely if you feel you are out of the mainstream, you do not actually align perfectly with constructivism or criticalism, but rather blend a little bit from more than one paradigm. This could especially be the case if your approach has changed over the years. This tension of paradigms is well explained by the fact that psychology is dominated by positivism/post-positivism, but the subject matter, and how people want to study it, lends itself to all four paradigms. And because very few of us are actually educated on these matters, we have had no opportunity to sort it all out.

Some of these conflicts are evident in contemporary discourse around the role of race and racism in psychology (and science more broadly). In particular, they reflect disagreements about the place of axiology within our field. From a mainstream positivistic/post-positivistic perspective, we can and should make every effort to separate our values from our work. When people say to judge individuals by their scientific contributions and not their personal beliefs or character, they are arguing from a positivistic/post-positivistic perspective. Calls for the field to be explicitly anti-racist, on the other hand, are calls to not only inject values into the scientific process, but to surface the role of racist values and beliefs that have been there all along. These are calls to bring a critical paradigm to the field, and therefore it is no surprise that many/most in the field become uncomfortable with such a call.

So yeah, these paradigms matter. They matter for understanding not only what we do, but also for how we might want to change. A proposal for an anti-racist psychology that situates itself firmly within a positivistic/post-positivistic paradigm is likely to be much more well-received than one situated within a critical paradigm. But is doing so desirable or even possible? That is a topic for another day.

Thanks, as always, to Kate McLean for ensuring this post was (reasonably) coherent. This post is essay no. 8 in the series, “I Got a Lot of Problems with Psychology.”

[1] Really, I don’t care, so find some other clouds to yell at.

[2] A reviewer of a paper once did not like me using “criticalism” because this paradigm is more commonly known as “critical theory.” I prefer the “ism” form to stay parallel with the other paradigms and, like most psychologists, I would prefer not to get into a serious discussion of what constitutes a “theory.”

[3] Yes, memory people, I understand that this is not how it works.

[4] It is the case that quantitative research is often considered positivistic/post-positivistic and qualitative research considered constructivist. I cannot get into it here, but this is false. Methodologies tend to align with paradigms in practice, but are not essential to them.


  1. Nice post, Moin. I don't think I've ever seen it put so succinctly or entertainingly. I was taught that post-modernism is the term for what you're calling constructivism -- Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions and all.

    1. Thanks, Angus! This is the cost of a succinct treatment of these issues. There is not just one type of constructivism, but several different forms, and some forms and indistinguishable from post-modernism. Others are quite different. So, as constructivists might say here, there are many truths!

  2. Wow! Thank you for this post. I'm studying research methods in my doctoral program, and the textbook is as confusing as all get out, but this provided clarity in simple-to-understand text.