Overview: Jonathan Turner is a prominent American sociologist, who is known for his contributions to the history of sociology, the sociology of religion and of emotions, and to the general theoretical practice of sociology, in the mid to late 20th century. Turner also defends the a form of ‘positivism’ in the social sciences, arguing that it is the positivist approach to sociology that secures its status as a science, notwithstanding the differences between methods and theories employed in the social and natural sciences. In several articles (Turner, 1985; Turner, 1992), Turner directly defends the legacy and contemporary contributions of positivism to social science from a variety of criticisms. In this essay, you will be discussing various criticisms of the ‘positivist’ approach to social science, and looking at the way that Turner responds to those criticisms. You will need to decide if you generally agree with Turner and his ‘positivist’ sociology, or if you are persuaded by the critics of contemporary positivist social science.
What you need to do in this essay: This essay can be broken down into four main ‘tasks’:
Accurately summarise Turner’s views of ‘positivism’ (paying attention to his definition of positivism, his views on ‘science’, his concept of scientific theory, his ideas about theoretical and historical explanations) and his responses to criticisms of positivist social science.
Accurately summarise the criticisms of positivism put forward by Bryant (1992) and Riley (2007), and any other additional criticisms or appraisals of ‘positivist’ social science / sociology you have read in the additional readings;
Clearly identify areas of disagreement (and/ or misunderstanding) between the critics and defenders of positivist social science (these may include, but are not limited to: the definition of positivism; the definition of science and social science; the idea of theory; the use of evidence in the sciences; the applicability of natural scientific method to social science; the real-world ‘effects’ of positivist ideas).
Clearly answer the question: is Turner’s defence of positivism successful? (e.g. is it convincing? Does it show the usefulness of a positivist approach or positivist ideas to contemporary social science? Does it show the criticisms of positivism are wrong?)
Notes on the Readings: You are required to read and make reference to the essential readings. These are the two articles by Turner (1985; 1992), and the articles by Bryant (1992) Fuller (1992), and Riley (2007). Note that the three articles – Turner (1992), Bryant (1992) and Fuller (1992) are part of a direct debate about positivism: Bryant’s article is a critique of the ideas of Gerhard Lenski, Guy Swanson and Jonathan Turner; Turner and Fuller then responded to Bryant’s arguments.
Note on the Additional Readings: Baldus (1990), Howe (2009), Ferrarotti (1999), and Brieschke (1992) all provide criticisms of positivism. Lundberg (1939), Schlick & Rynin (1948/49) and Taube (1937) and Laird (1938-9) give ‘classic’ (non-comtemporary) discussions of positivism, attempting to define and exemplify the positivist approach. Other readings on the list talk about positivism and various philosophical approaches to studying society (see: Rickman, 1960; Oberdan, 1990; Warshay & Warshay, 1987), or positivism as a ‘methodology’ (see: Dugger, 1983; Neufeld, 1993; Chenhall, 1971).
Bryant, Joseph M. (1992). ‘Positivism Redivivus? A Critique of Recent Uncritical Proposals for Reforming Sociological Theory (And Related Foibles)’, The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter, 1992), pp. 29-53
Fuller, Steve (1992). ‘A Plague on Both Your Houses: Beyond Recidivism in the Sociological Theory Debates’. The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, Vol. 17, No. 1(Winter, 1992), pp. 62-68
Turner, Jonathan H. (1985). In Defense of Positivism, Sociological Theory, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 24-30
Turner, Jonathan H. (1992). If Not Positivism, Then Why Is Sociology Important? The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter, 1992), pp. 54-61.
Riley, Dylan (2007). The Paradox of Positivism, Social Science History, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring, 2007), pp. 115-126
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