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In the twentieth century the heritage of positivism as a philosophy of science underwent major changes. Earlier intellectual developments in the century led to logical positivism (and, with some variation in ideas, logical empiricism). The continuity with classical positivism was maintained in terms of opposition to metaphysics, but other and more specific doctrines were elaborated. A scientific theory, for instance, was said to be a formal deductive system with an empirical interpretation that enabled verification by appeal to observations.
However, Popper (1959), while not disputing the deductive system formulation, argued that the universality of theoretical statements made them impossible to verify. Rather, a theory was credible to the extent that it proved its mettle” by surviving falsification efforts. But Kuhn (1970) noted that scientists usually worked within a paradigm and resisted efforts to revise it until anomalies that could not be resolved led to a revolutionary change of paradigm. By the late 1970s there was consensus that a postpositivist era had emerged in the philosophy of science, in which the ”received view” was replaced by a variety of critical reformulations concerning the nature of scientific knowledge and, in particular, the structure of scientific theories. In addition, philosophers formulated a more dynamic conception of sciences featuring such leading notions as research traditions and research programs. Even metaphysics has returned as contemporary analysts propose ideas about the relationships between theory and reality, as in variant forms of scientific realism” as a philosophy of science.
These developments have had ramifications for sociology. Earlier, some sociological theorists looked to logical empiricism for guidance about theory construction, but more recently the favored ideas have been closer to scientific realism in outlook, favoring models and mechanisms in formulating theories. Theory development has been framed as a pluralistic and collective over-time process using a conception of theoretical research programs drawn from the postpositivist philosophy of science.
Other theorists have made quite different proposals in framing a postpositivist conception of sociological theory. For example, Alexander (1982) formulates an explicit contrast between post-positivism and positivism in philosophy as a prelude to his analysis of issues in sociological theory. Contrary to the positivist standpoint, for instance, postpositivism denies any radical break between empirical and non-empirical statements: all scientific data are theory-laden. Also contrary to positivism, postpositivism accepts the legitimacy of general intellectual issues in science.
Based on these and related ideas, Alexander argues that sociology has institutionalized what is an aberration in natural science, namely, presuppositional debates about the most general conceptual problems in the field. The function of theoretical logic in sociology, he maintains, is to make explicit the fundamental issues around which such enduring debates will continue, in particular those relating to rationality and to social order. Critics argue that such discursive debates perpetuate non-explanatory theorizing and are no substitute for the formulation of theories with logical consequences that can be tested empirically. However, one can accept a good part of Alexander’s argument while also favoring the construction and empirical testing of theoretical models that embody generative rules or mechanisms.
- Alexander, J. C. (1982) Positivism, Presuppositions, and Current Controversies. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
- Kuhn, T. S. (1970)  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
- Berger, J. & Zelditch, M., Jr. (eds.) (2002) New Directions in Contemporary Sociological Theory. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD.
- Fararo, T. J. (1989) The Meaning of General Theoretical Sociology: Tradition and Formalization. Cambridge University Press, New York.
- Godfrey-Smith, P. (2003) Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
- Popper, K. (1959) The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Hutchinson, London.