Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Positivism in Human Geography Research Paper

Theory, Evolution, Criticism, and Application
Positivism is the philosophy developed by Auguste Comte who believed that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge which is obtained only from the positive affirmation of theories using the experimental methods. This belief was proposed in the early 19th century as the opposite philosophy to Enlightenment thinkers. Comte observed that scientific method is replacing metaphysics because there is the circular dependence of theory and observations in science. Comte has become one of the leading thinkers of the social evolutionism. Today positivism has evolved into the stage of anthropological evolutionism – science and rational explanations for scientific phenomena being inter-dependent.

Comte’s belief

Positivism had gained its popularity in the 1950s when science was viewed as the numerical set of statements, and there was the need to demonstrate the logical structure of these statements. Positivism rejects classical metaphysics because it insists that at least some of the statements are testable and can be either confirmed or falsified; while the teleological statements are un-testable by nature. The key believes of positivism include the belief that science is cumulative and predominantly trans-cultural; belief that science is based on the specific results that are not associated with the personality of the investigator.

Besides, positivism is also the belief that the only true knowledge is scientific and everything is measurable in this world. Similar to reductionism, positivism supports the claim that pieces of one kind can be reduced to the pieces of another. For example, the societies can be reduced to mental events or the social processes can be reduced to physical events such as relationships between people. Positivism seeks to apply scientific approaches to explain the social phenomena. Comte argued that social research in the 18th century was rather emotive and romantic and lacked rational analysis.

Theory supporters and forms of positivism
Unwin, one of the supporters of positivism, has noted that Comte tried to prioritize the certain, actual, exact, organic, and relative matters (p. 87). In other words, he believed that real and observable issues are more important than imaginary and undecided. Positives favor the objective collection of data through observation and formulation of theories that can be tested systematically to develop the laws explaining human behavior. Ethical and moral questions are rejected because they cannot be answered with scientific methods.

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There are two forms of positivism: logical positivism and critical rationalism. The positivism supporters have developed both forms. Logical positivism was proposed by the Vienna Circle (the unity of social scientists) in the 1930s. They were the first to posit that scientific method can be applied to social issues. 

Johnston has outlined the major assumption of logical positivism (p. 27-28):

  • All events occurring in the society have the definite cause that can be identified
  • Decision making is the result of individual’s confirmation
  • The world is objective and the behavior of every individual can be observed and recorded
  • Scientists should be able to stand outside their subject matter while observing and record the results in a neutral way
  • The theories should be used to alter the societies either by changing the laws or by the changing the circumstances
  • Many scientists and philosophers supported positivism because it is based on the quantitative measurement of facts and allows the statistical testing of relationships between variables. This method of analyzing the results is based on the known facts that are collected from the large populations and is possible to test against large samples.

Critical rationalism, the second form of positivism, has shifted the focus to the verification process. 

The essential critical supporter of rationalism was Karl Popper who noted that the validity of information depends not on the experimental observation but rather on whether it can be falsified (Chalmers, p. 33). He noted that scientific validation should be done through identification of the exceptions undermining the developed theory. If such exceptions are not found, then the theory is considered to be true. The critics of this assumption state that there is no theory that can be fully validated because some of the exceptions might be discovered in the future.

The place of positivism in human geography
Positivism is often regarded as the hidden philosophical thought in the sense that many geographers who adhere to its central ideas rarely consider themselves as positivists (Hill, p. 43). Until the 1950s, geography was rather descriptive and examined the patterns on the regional basis in an attempt to describe and understand the particular places and events. Later, the geographers started to understand that the research should be conducted using more scientific methods. Frederick Schaefer, who has become one of the key catalysts in the process o adopting scientific methods into human geography, noted that geography should be based on the formulation of the laws that underlie the distribution of the certain features in society (p. 227).

Human geography, and positivism, in particular, should shift from fact gathering focused on places to law identification based on the spatial arrangement. Positivism adds important features to the discipline of human geography which is used to be unsystematic and analytically weak. Previously, human geographers were gathering the information as the evidence for the theories. The problem with this method is that it did not distinguish between the causal relations and accidental correlations. For example, the human geographer might suggest that the high temperature caused underdevelopment in tropical countries by inducing idleness among the residents (Hubbard, p. 42). Such assumption is false because the observation is ascribed to all cases within the region. The fact that the two events have been observed in the same place at the same time does not indicate that another caused one of them. This assumption should be tested scientifically.

Criticism and challenges to positivism
Since the 1960s the human geography has much evolved due to the positivistic approach which opened the new reflections on geographical inquiry. At that period of time, the western countries were highly socially disturbed and were questioning the relevance of the existing disciplines providing political and social solutions. As a result, the geographical scientists have started to wonder the use of the scientific method and its philosophical positivism.

Positivistic geography has been questioned by Robert Sack who focused on spatial separatist position. He believed that time and matter had little value for analytical research and the determination of the spatial patterns would not help to identify why these patterns exist and why they change over time. It fails because it does not take into account the social and political processes.

Later, more critiques to positivism have developed, Marxist and radical in particular. Spatial science rejected such issues as politics and religion and gathered information only through observation. Thus, it was limited in some questions because it perceived individuals as rational beings without ideology and history. Critics argued that the structure of the society is more complicated. Harvey noticed that positivism did not help to understand such issues as ecological problems, class division and debts of the poor countries (p.64). Moreover, positivism was criticized for seeking to detail what is happening now and what will be changed in the future, while it could not give assumption what should be happening.

Positivism is people-less because it does not take into account the existence of the people’s beliefs, values and feelings and the impact of the feelings on the human geography. People do not always behave in the predicted way and human geographers offered to develop theories that are more sensitive to lives of people. Moreover, it has been noted that scientists cannot be completely objective and neutral in observing the world. This is impossible because geographers are also the participants who have their own views and perceptions.

Positivism is criticized for being too rational and seeking to minimize the human interactions to a predictable and theoretical setting which is not possible to do. Human geographers should reject this rationality and be more sensitive to the different relations within the process, to be more self-reflective, seek outside expertise. In other words, positivism is criticized for the search of tools to create the full rational knowledge of the world; while in fact, this knowledge will always be only partial and viewed from the certain perspective.

Importance of positivism
As it was already noted at the beginning of the paper, knowledge can be and should be verified using the laws of science and nature. Verification is necessary to distinguish between the facts and fictions. Generalization is widely used in human geography research, and the so-called scientific method of testing allows to apply the results to all circumstances. What all of the information people possess is perceived either as fact or as a hypothesis. But the information which is considered to be factual now might not be several factual decades ago. Positivism and the study of positivism within human geography help to distinguish facts and fiction using scientific methods that are highly reliable.

Materials taught to students at school or university have been collected through positivistic methods. For example, in order to learn about how many people, plants, and animals live in the certain places and do not in the other, what kind of resources are used and in what ways, what cultural features are common for some areas and not others, a lot of data need to be collected and clear correlation between the different factors has to be found. Positivism is the only human geography philosophy which provides the answers to the above questions using purely scientific methods.

In order to understand the importance of positivism to human geography and human studies in general, it is enough to imagine the following situation: when the individual is presented with some information, he does not usually tend to ask the questions about the how was the data produced, whether the information is true or not. People tend to accept the presence of different classifications and categories for everything, but they rarely question how these categories were invented. Positivism gives the possibility to critique and to challenge the existing ways of understanding the world and to ask the questions about the world people are part of.

Positivists attack the supporter of metaphysics and religion because these systems of understanding the world are based on the statements that cannot be in practice verified in any way. Thus, such statements are only the expression of the one’s emotions and imagination. On the other hand, positivism helps to resolve the social conflicts making them more clear to formulate and providing the ultimate effective solution to them. Positivism seeks for the ideal regime of knowledge which can be resistant to the stance of social, moral and religious beliefs.

Positivism is not only the method to gain the valid knowledge and verify the assumptions, but it is also the ideology or the philosophical thought that promotes the social justice. Positivism is rather radical because it completely rejects the knowledge that cannot be verified. Theological knowledge or moral principles are radical in a similar way because the supporters of these disciplines sometimes reject the facts proved by science as well. The presence of such opposite beliefs generates the debate and leads to the further development of the theories that help to verify the gained information.

Positivism today
Despite all criticism, positivism plays an important in human geography as the philosophy that employs scientific principles and reasoning and seeks for lawful models explaining the human world. Positivists seem to pay little attention to philosophical debates and critiques of their beliefs in general. It makes positivism weak unstable and vulnerable to the challenges because of lack of proper response. It does not mean that positivism lacks scientific theory, but it rather means that it lacks fundamental ontological base.

The work of human geography positivists does have value in addressing both the scientific matters and practical human situations. Nevertheless, the ignoring of the wider philosophical debates, positivism is often criticized for being limited in usage. Positivism is no longer sustainable for the human geography. In the long term, positivism might open the way for the new, more sensitive to unpredictable human behavior, theories. Moreover, positivism is a good tool for foreseeing predictable future.

In conclusion, positivism as the part of the human geography science should be studied and researched because it was one of the key philosophical beliefs that changed the perception of the human geography as the whole and has become the stimuli for the other theories to be developed. Positivism is based on the scientific evidence and has numerous advantages as the research and analytical tool. Positivists seek to explain the world from rational standpoint avoiding the influence of their emotions as well as ignoring the emotional factor of the observed population sample. Human geographers strive to find the correlation between different events, places, and behaviors to develop the pattern of how the universe functions.

Works Cited
Chalmers, A.F. What Is This Thing Called Science? St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1982.
Harvey, D. Social Justice, and the City. London: Arnold, 1973.
Hill, M.R. Positivism: a “hidden” philosophy in geography. London: Croom Helm, 1981.
Hubbard, P., Kitchin, R., Bartley, B. and Fuller, D. Thinking Geographically: Space, Theory and Contemporary Human Geography. London: Continuum, 2002.
Johnston, R.J. Philosophy and Human Geography: An Introduction to Contemporary Approaches, 2nd edn. London: Arnold, 1986.
Schaefer, F.K. “Exceptionalism in geography: a methodological examination”. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 43 (1951): 226–49.
Unwin, T. The Place of Geography. Harlow: Longman, 1992.

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