The positivist and phenomenological worldviews


Auguste ComtePositivism is a philosophical system first developed by Auguste Comte (1798-1857). This system maintains that knowledge is about description rather than questioning. Positivists recognise only positive facts and observable events – those things that can be seen, measured and be counted as facts. The system equates very closely with the traditional, scientific view of the world. In fact, Comte drew his ideas from the “scientific” world view that was developing at the time, and applied them to the world of sociological thought. Positivism takes little account of beliefs or feelings, although strangely some of its more extreme protagonists seem to be drawn towards mysticism.


Edmund HusserlBegun by Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) in the 1890s, phenomenology is a very different way of viewing the world in comparison to positivism. Phenomenologists are concerned with what things mean, rather than with identifying and measuring phenomena. They are particularly interested in the idea that human experience is a valuable source of data, as opposed to the idea that true research or discovery lies in simply measuring the existence of physical phenomena.

The following activity will allow you to explore some of the basic beliefs of positivism and phenomenology, how these would influence what a researcher might do and the types of research methods most favoured by positivists and phenomenologists:

Positivist and phenomenological paradigms online quiz.

Positivist and phenomenological paradigms quiz to print out or save to your file store.

Research Philosophies and Methods

Research Philosophies

Research Methods

A boy and A Zen master

On his sixteenth birthday the boy gets a horse as a present. All of the people in the village say, “Oh, how wonderful!”

The Zen master says, “We’ll see.”

One day, the boy is riding and gets thrown off the horse and hurts his leg. He’s no longer able to walk, so all of the villagers say, “How terrible!”

The Zen master says, “We’ll see.”

Some time passes and the village goes to war. All of the other young men get sent off to fight, but this boy can’t fight because his leg is messed up. All of the villagers say, “How wonderful!”

The Zen master says, “We’ll see.”

We’re very quick to jump to conclusions about whether something is “good” or “bad.” The reality is that most things really aren’t either. They just are. They exist.