This is one of my term papers for my PhD course work on Research Methodology (Those unaware, I am pursuing a PhD in Women and Gender Studies and my topic is Indian Women’s Shrinking Spaces on Digital Media due to Gender Trolling). Positivism was one of the earliest theories behind social research which has now been long rejected by feminists. However, it is my argument that in age of post-truth objectivity is once again taking foreground. Some aspects of positivism needs to be revisited.

Feminist criticism of positivism

Meaning of positivism:

Positivism is the way of knowing social phenomenon using the methods of modern scientific research applied in the field of natural sciences. It is an epistemological field that emerged in the wake of French Revolution, scientific revolution and enlightenment in Europe. August Comte (1798-1857) is largely considered as the founder of positivism, following him there were several other proponents, chief among them being JS Mill and Herbert Spencer. Positivism emerged during the age of Enlightenment in 18th century Europe where philosophers had started to look at the world in very different ways owing to the scientific revolution Europe had witnessed through 16th and 17th century.

Science, rationality, atheism, critical thinking, and rejection of idealism and abstractions are some of the ethos that forms the basis of positivism. Age of enlightenment was a time when man had rejected the superiority of God and had acquired the knowledge and reason to be the master of his own destiny. Knowledge created by scientist like Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was at the helm of scientific revolution and enlightenment following which man no longer blindly believed in the knowledge and truth passed down to him through a religious order and started looking at the world critically. At this stage, for the enlightened man, only that knowledge was true which could be seen, touched, observed, and quantified in a scientific way and all other forms of knowledge were of no value, and this approach was considered a positive approach. Positivism was a bourgeoisie philosophy which developed in the backdrop of industrial revolution among scientists, industrialist, capitalists, technologists. Romanticism and religious practices were rejected. Any vague intangible abstract ideas were not considered valid knowledge.

Auguste Comte’s work was published from 1830-1892 during which six volumes of Course of Positive Philosophy was published, and four volumes of System of Positive Politics was published during 1851-1854.

August Comte’s Law of Three Stages

Comte’s most significant contribution in developing Positivism was his ‘Law of three stages’. According to Comte the human society have gone through three stages of knowing the world:

  1. Theological
  2. Meta-physical
  3. Positive

In the first stage people believed in a higher power, a deity, God and so on without questioning. In this stage humans attributed everything to higher power, so if there is a storm or cyclone, God must be causing it and there is no way to either question it or prevent it. In the second stage, meta-physical stage, man explained the world around him resorting to abstract forces which are not Godly but somewhat super powers that can be understood using rationality. This stage was an extension of the theological stage but with elements of rationality and desire to know and learn the principles of forces. The third stage is positive or scientific stage when man was no longer interested in understanding or fearing God or nature but began to observe, scrutinize and learn to control nature and it’s phenomena to be able to rule it.  

The field of science assumes firstly, that the world we live in and its components have certain a-priori truth that is capable of knowing; and secondly that man can fully know it by observations, repetition, comparison, and deductions.

Scientific knowledge and the male scientist acquires a central position in this narrative and heroically takes mankind forward with unwavering objective knowledge. All knowledge is assumed to be tangible and quantifiable, capable of knowing by seeing, touching, hearing, and other senses. Whatever cannot be known in this manner is not considered valid knowledge and therefore not worthy of knowing at all. Things like feelings emotions which cannot be known are therefore not knowledge and not valid topics of research. Knowledge should be objective, distant from the thing to be known and free from emotions and biases and value neutral.

Robert K Merton’s four institutional imperatives of science (Merton)

  1. Universalism – scientific knowledge is universal, which means what is true for one is true for all and knowledge is valid for all time and circumstances
  2. Communism – scientists belong to a community where knowledge is shared and scientist do not demand any ownership but recognition and honour
  3. Disinterestedness – knowledge is free from the individual scientist’s interests or lack thereof, as the scientists do not get emotionally involved with the object to be known
  4. Organized scepticism – all scientists are critical of everything that is to be known. Nothing is too pure to be critically examined.

Comte believed that this objective way of knowing must be extended to the field of sociology to give sociology the same value and legitimacy. Emile Durkheim further developed this and formed more solid foundations of positivist sociology. Both Comte and Durkheim however attempted to establish an order in scientific ways of knowing, effectively replacing the religious order with a new atheistic religion.

Feminist Criticism of Positivism:

Positivism met with many criticism, a significant amount of it from the Frankfurt School of Marxism. Anthony Giddens in his book New Rules of Sociological Method (1984)argued that all knowledge is created within a structure and one must seek to understand the power relations between the agency and structure.

In this paper I would elaborate the feminist criticisms. By the second of wave of feminism, feminist scholars realized that women have been left out of the scholarship built by positivist sociologists. In this paper, I have deliberately used ‘man’ to refer to humanity because those who propounded positivism in fact viewed the entire gamut of knowledge creation from male perspective. One of the most path breaking work on scientific knowledge ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolution’ by Thomas Kuhn was written in gendered language and the possibility of a women scientists was never considered.

While scientific knowledge, objectivity and rationality have helped human civilization in many ways, when it comes to dealing with women’s question it falls short. With revolutionary scientific developments science posed a threat to God and religion for the right reasons. For example in the theological stage it was believed that human body is a career of past life’s karma and bodily deformities are results of one’s own sins but such myths are now explained away by medical science.

Yet, science is not free from bias and stereotypes. Medical science text books define women’s reproductive system in language less appealing than it uses for men.

The idea that male sperms are a bunch of aggressive racers racing for their survival against time to hit that female egg which is sitting there quietly and passively has traveled from science books to social stereotypes to popular culture. It firmly planted the feminine-passive masculine-active dichotomy into people’s minds which then translated into the stereotype that men are ‘doer’ in all fields and women are merely enabler / receiver. Feminists observed that science have not been free from bias because ultimately, it was the individual scientists who were creating knowledge and their cultural values and mindset including biases and stereotypes had crept into the knowledge. The earlier scientists were mostly white males, their chosen topics of scientific research were naturally male centric, during data collection and analysis women were not included in the research and so it went. To sum it up, the objective scientific knowledge was created by men from their own locations and the knowledge created was subject to their locations. Feminists thus argued that ‘subjectivity’ is one of the most significant element in knowledge creation, which in fact enhances knowledge.

Feminists argued that positivism is a hegemonic epistemology of white male. It is a fact that for all his rationality and atheism Auguste Comte was ironically perturbed by the absence of religion in so far as it created a gap in moral guidance and comfort. Comte believed that the society should have an order to follow and viewed science as the new hegemonic religion. But feminists seek to end all forms of hierarchy and hegemony.

Scientific epistemology Triad – knower known and knowing

The scientific epistemology consists of a triad of knower, known and the process of knowing. There’s a power relation between the knower and the object to be known and this hierarchy influences all knowledge. In response to scientific knowledge emerged the feminist standpoint theory or feminist epistemology to deal with production of knowledge and practices of power.

Feminist Standpoint Theory

The standpoint theory was presented as a way of empowering marginalized groups by giving value to their subjectivity. It is argued that the idea that scientific knowledge is value neutral and free from bias is not true because such a stage cannot be reached. All knowledge is laden with theories and subjectivities because the knower or the researcher comes from unique locations with their own world view. Every research begins with certain background, theoretical assumptions or hypothesis which means the knowledge is already subjective and would hold true only in given framework. Longino have argued that data do not prove hypothesis, in fact the same data can be used to prove arguments contrary to the hypothesis and it depends upon the scientists to make the correct connection (Longino).

Nancy Hartstock therefore argued that since all knowledge is subjective, knowledge created from the women’s standpoint will be richer and more true, if at all there is such a thing as truth. In her article The Feminist Standpoint (1983) Hartsock argues that in the objective didactic approach women’s knowledge remains hidden from the eyes of an objective disinterested knower.   

Feminists argued against the basic ethos of scientific knowledge and tenets of positivism as they run contrary to feminist values. Merton’s imperative that knowledge is universal is untenable because each person’s subjective reality is different and is determined by their unique location. Women in particular have different ways of speaking, writing and knowing. Women and men use different language argued feminist linguists. Merton’s second imperative, communism of knowledge is problematic because in this community the knower seldom challenge each other and a status quo is maintained. Such community of privileged knowers remain closed to the knowledge they can receive from the subject they try to know, and knowing remain a one way process.

In a recently presented paper ‘Mob lynching in India and Everyday Lives of Women – Questions of Marginalization and Representations’ I have argued that the process of knowledge creation get problematized when a group of civil society members make field visits to understand communal violence in India and they only meet male members of minority community and remain disinterested in the women’s perspective. The exclusion of women from public conversations about mob lynching made the process of knowing incomplete. I refer here to a community meeting held between civil society members and victim’s family/minority community, the purpose of which was to know about the pain and suffering of the community and to inquire what kind of support they required from the state or civil society. Assuming the researchers in this team went to the field with particular hypothesis, and were trained to remain objective and disinterested, with the inability to meet women who remained indoors, the team would likely be confronted with questions like, “do women not have anything to add to the conversations? If we leave out the women from the meetings, would the knowledge gathered be complete?” These were some of the questions that I was confronted with as part of this team.

The process of knowing got further complicated for me when I managed to go inside some of the households, and spoke to some of the women on topics they wanted to talk about and not the topics I wanted to know. I had visited them to know about communal issues, but issues like poverty, caste oppression, lack of jobs, child marriage, bride trafficking emerged when I engaged in  a two way communication with the women separately from the male members of the community. I learned and unlearned more things that I wanted to know about. The issues that emerged cut across academic disciplines, range and size of studies, geographies and other boundaries. No single research can possibly accommodate the wide range of issues and thus I was left with the question, whether it is worth probing into subjects beyond the scope of the immediate ethnographic study, whether we should take more interest in the people and human stories we come across apart from those we intend to gather, or whether we should go into the field without having any immediate concept as Dorothy Smith (1987) suggested and widen our study to include women’s experiences?

Poulomi Chakroborty have argued that the field of Partition Studies have become richer only by the works of Ritu Menon, Urvashi Butalia starting in around 1995, who went beyond the political and communal angle of the partition and collected and recorded stories of women’s everyday realities even when those women were not directly affected by partition violence (Chakraborty).

In positivist sociology however such knowledge were not considered valid. Dorothy Smith in her essay ‘A Peculiar Eclipsing’ elaborated the history of exclusion of women from man’s culture. Smith argues that power relations of ruling is “mediated through text, words, numbers and images on paper, in computers or on TV and movie screen” but women’s experience, interests, ways of knowing the world have not been represented in the organization of this ruling (Smith, A Peculiar Eclipsing).  

In her large volume of work Dorothy Smith foregrounded the everyday lives of women as source of knowledge. While scientific epistemology rejects the idea that mundane lives of women and other subaltern is worth knowing, it is in their daily experiences that their truth lies, which is different from the masculine notion of truth. Truth is relative argued Smith.

Feminists argued that women must be included in the process of knowing. ‘Add women and stir’ was an approach taken by some of the second wave feminists who insisted that women’s participation in every level of knowledge creation is imperative. Women of colour, women who maintain a veil are often kept out of the process of knowledge creation when the researcher is a white male and/or male as they cannot have access to such women. A researcher belonging to the same community having interest and empathy for that community would be better equipped to gather knowledge and understand the community’s realities. Therefore the subjectivity of the researcher plays a significant role in knowledge creation.

Merton’s fourth imperative of scientific knowledge that is organized scepticism have been challenged by Thomas Kuhn in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolution’ where he argued that far from being always critical the community of scientists do not actually question the past knowledge and simply follow pre-determined rules and try to fix knowledge into conceptual boxes. The community do not create new knowledge or new thinking.

Post-modern feminism have taken the criticism further to the point where human identities are complicated and multi-layered and therefore as a natural corollary any objective rigid approach to knowledge or to fit ideas into boxes would be ineffective. Kimberly Crenshaw faced similar questions that I earlier mentioned when she met black women who were victims of domestic violence staying in US shelter homes. In the work Mapping the Margins’ on intersectionality Crenshaw observed how women face ‘political intersectionality’ and ‘intersectional disempowerment’ due to their unique locations as women of colour, migrant women, women of marginalized community. Identity politics “frequently conflates or ignores intra group differences. In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class (religion and caste in Indian context) (Crenshaw).”


The most significant criticism of positivist approach is to change the notion that knowledge can ever be free from social realities and it is therefore important to taken into account subjectivity and create a holistic knowledge.


Crenshaw, Kimeberle Williams. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Colour.” Standford Law Review, Vol 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241-1299.

Giddens, Anthony 1984. The constitution of Society, Outline of the Theory of Structuralism, Polity Press: Cambridge

Harding, Sandra The Feminist (2004). Standpoint Theory Reader Intellectual and Political Controversies: Routledge

Hartsock, N. C. M, (1983). The feminist standpoint: Developing the ground for a specifically feminist historical materialism

Hartsock, N. C. (1985). Money, sex, and power: Toward a feminist historical materialism. Boston: Northeastern.

Longino, H. E. (1989). Feminist critiques of rationality: Critiques of science or philosophy of science? Women’s Studies International Forum, 12, 261-269.

Merton, Robert K. The Normative Structure of Science. University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Smith, D. E. (1987). The everyday world as problematic: A feminist sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press.