I listened to a presidential debate question, “Do you believe in science?” It seems a simple, yes or no question. It isn’t. I’m a sociologist, and retired demographer. I believe that scientific method is the best way to move toward understanding and describing the world. I’m a numbers, statistics and data guy. A positivist. I like my theories to be supported by numbers. I tend to use functionalism and conflict theory – both provide frameworks that can give me the numbers that make my science work. There is a whole lot of Karl Marx in conflict theory.
Jurgen Habermas was at the other side of the theoretical spectrum – developing modern Critical Theory. In his work, the model focused on language, symbolism, communication and social construction, Horkheimer described critical theory as seeking “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” There is a whole lot of Karl Marx in critical theory. It’s not the sort of approach that gets a lot of measurable data. I’m pretty sure that “positivist” is not a word that critical theorists use to describe approval.
Our chosen theoretical approaches limit our research. I believe in the value of scientific method. I also believe anything we accept as fact is tentative – my scientific facts are the best explanation available, with the data we have now. Critical theorists may develop an explanation that positivists can quantify. Most of the time that doesn’t occur. I like my approach better – but “Do you believe in science?” is not a good question.