Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa

Postmodern Positivisms

Vaughan M. Dutton

School of Psychology, University of Natal - Pietermaritzburg

Linguistic turns, epistemological revolutions, the world of text and discourse. Post-structuralism has, of late, become the 'home ground' of several critical voices within the academy. This paper explores the extent to which positivism reproduces itself in the post-structuralist text via prescriptions imposed, by the academy, upon the production of knowledge. By identifying a number of important tenets of positivism within the construction of the academic text, the claim is made that post structuralists' (and especially 'critical' post structuralists') political zealousness is merely the academy's latest trompe-l'oeil. The questions thus raised have definite relevance to the role of the academic in South Africa.

Place two piles of text in front of you.

The first pile - positivist, scientific, writings

The second pile - social constructionist, discourse analytic, writings

The two piles are in opposition to one another. Both paint a 'reality' which the other abhors. Authors of these writings are, generally, opposed to one another. If a 'social constructionist' were accidentally slipped into the first pile the insult would be, to say the least, extensive (and of course the opposite is just as true). Authors of the first pile label authors of the second as (amongst other things) irrelevant and abstract; while authors of the second maintain that authors of the first are the producers and guardians of 'all that is bad in society'. Often, authors of either pile are not sure about what it is that they are criticising about the other. 'Social constructionism' is misunderstood by authors of the first pile; while 'Positivism' is often misunderstood by authors of the second. So positivism and social constructionism are in a dramatic standoff. I refrain from continuing this introduction because I am sure that we all understand the tension of which I speak ...

By closer investigation of the methodologies and style of each pile, the distinction between social constructionist and positivist becomes less clearly defined. Admittedly, this paper compares a certain kind of postmodernism (social constructionism) with a certain kind of positivism (i.e., the French tradition as exemplified in the writings of Comte, Saint-Simon and Durkheim). This selection was not arbitrary, however, since both epistemologies were produced by the same - French - academic system. An interrogation of methodologies (perhaps, even, epistemologies in practice) leaves the distance between the two insignificant enough to overlook. This abandoning of the distance between the two allows the investigator to begin asking, after what it is that has produced both piles and what function an illusory distance serves. Also, critical academics are afforded an insight into the powers which govern their discretionary ability. From this position it is possible to begin to understand the origin of the 'natural separation' which occurs between the two. We will embark on this voyage of confusion and discovery in the first pile - the pile of positivism....

We begin to read. Having ploughed our way through enough of this pile, certain patterns start emerging in the methodological logic. This logic draws on the associated epistemology but is interesting because it converts epistemology into practice (as you see the piles of text before you). We choose to label these patterns as 'tenets' of positivism.

Let us consider a few of these tenets. The first tenet to emerge is: The rule of phenomenalism : which states that "...we are entitled to record only that which is actually manifested in experience." (Kolakowski, 1972, p.11). Positivists do not object to enquiry into the immediately invisible causes of any observed phenomenon, they object only to any accounting for it in terms of occult entities that are by definition inaccessible to human knowledge. Positivism asserts the claims of experience as the ultimate foundation of human knowledge and denies the possibility of meaningful discourse concerning suprasensible objects.

Now we leave the first pile and approach the second pile - the pile of social constructionism. To do so we will have to suck a bitter pill. This pill provides an antidote to the Aristotelean series. The Aristotelean series is that logic which sets up a continuum of priority from 'the thing'; through 'the idea'; into 'the spoken word'; and finally to 't