Positivism Vs Hermeneutics

Positivism and hermeneutics are theories and philosophical frameworks for the creation and understanding of science. The modern social science started during the 1800s, and the question which was raised was, should the social science study be built based on the existing scientific model, or should it be built on a different model. Positivism, the most prominent and dominating ideology during the 1900s, inherited its name from the theories of Auguste Comte, and builds on the assumption that even the social science study should be based on the general natural scientific models to develop its theory and understanding of the concept. Hermeneutics on the other hand, which itself means interpretation of text, was called anti-positivism until early 1900s. It is a theoretical framework which is based on the idea that it is not enough to conduct a social science study based on existing natural  science models, and that a sociological study in and of itself must include symbolic values (qualitative/non-quantitative) and therefore cannot employ the natural scientific model. Supporters of hermeneutics believe that even the positivistic scientific notion of “truth” is relative and does not have a general meaning in the contents and contexts of different persons, cultures and eras. Therefore, hermeneutics has not developed a general understanding of the research model for the social science fields as it is in the core of the theory that everything needs to be interpreted in its context.

As mentioned, positivism adopted the natural sciences model for their study and research.

It focuses on describing the phenomena e.g. how things are, and what the relation between cause and effect is. In this vain, positivism has adopted the concept of the material after the natural science, and as a result believes that all scientific creations be explained by natural/physical world, much like mathematical axioms and the physicists search for a unified theory. In stark contrast, hermeneutics try to understand and interpret the phenomena in its context, without reducing vital non-material components, e.g. what effects and implications a phenomenon has on an entity. Understanding the context requires the researcher to problematize the research topic and view the social world as a composition of materials which differ from that of physical materials. E.g. people can interpret the same text (physical material) in different ways (social phenomenon).

Supporters of positivism abstract and generalize research in order to find general and physical explanatory truisms for the phenomena and they believe that the science should work within a simple and controlled environment to be able to study cause and effect. In contrast, hermeneutics believe social science cannot work with a simplified reality and they should study the world in its original context. As a result of its philosophical lineage, hermeneutics concludes that we cannot even generalize the concept of reality as even the interpretation of reality is merely a notion built by the context and from the contents of our culture and beliefs.


Should a researcher adopt one or the other, or can a researcher utilize a healthy and fruitful combination? With the advent of our information and globalization age, how will positivism and hermeneutics evolve? Will the superabundance of information be a blessing or a curse, and which theory (if any) will prevail?

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