Shortcomings of Positivistic Methodology for Researching Cultural Psychology

  • Carl Ratner
Part of the Path in Psychology book series (PATH)


Many social scientists see no need for a new cultural psychological methodology because they believe the prevailing positivistic methodology is sufficient. This chapter explains why positivistic methodology is inadequate for investigating cultural psychological phenomena and why a new approach is necessary. I do not simply identify positivism’s shortcomings, e.g., that it is superficial. Such a limited analysis offers no explanation of the weaknesses. Nor does it instruct us on how to achieve a deeper understanding of cultural psychology. Consequently, I attempt not merely to identify positivism’s weaknesses but also to explain them. I link the weaknesses of positivism to its fundamental ontological and epistemological assumptions. Once we understand the erroneous assumptions that underlie positivism’s problems, we can uproot and replace them.


Operational Definition Ordinal Data Color Chip Psychological Phenomenon Overt Response 
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  1. 1.
    One could contend that basic elements do not simply coexist but become configured in new structures. The ways in which elements interpenetrate each other and form new entities could comprise qualitatively distinct cultural psychological phenomena. In these new organizations, the basic elements would subordinate their qualities to the whole. The whole would not retain the features of each element; it would develop new features. In this formulation, qualitatively new phenomena can be formed from basic elements. However, the elements would have to lose their independence and their intrinsic, uniform character. They would, in short, violate the precepts of atomism.Google Scholar
  2. I do not believe that cultural psychological phenomena are formed from basic elements in any fashion. Rather, humans construct cultural psychological phenomena sui generis; we do not simply combine preexisting elements into new configurations.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    In the preface to his Phenomenology of Spirit,Hegel said that this kind of “tabular understanding,” which rests content with tables of discrete items, “gives only a table of contents; the content itself, however, it does not furnish” (cited in Kaufman, 1965, p. 432). Tabular lists of discrete items obscure the phenomenon, or subject, that generates them. The dispersed items do not come together to indicate their integral substance, identity, or self. The underlying phenomenon that is the substance, or self-identify, of the responses is only revealed in their unitary integration (Kaufman, 1965, pp. 433–442).Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    The meaninglessness of the subjects’ responses was compounded by the meaningless stimuli, which were plastic color chips, presented individually in isolation from any meaningful object. Such a condition minimizes the subjects’ effort after meaning. Meaningless stimuli do not stimulate significant meaningful activity.Google Scholar
  5. As Sahlins (1976) pointed out in a trenchant critique of this research on color perception, understanding color perception and color memory requires discovering how they have been appropriated for human use and impregnated with meaning. This requires using meaningful stimulus materials that will elicit meaningful psychological activity (see Ratner and McCarthy,1990, for an example of using ecologically valid color stimuli).Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    The facile identification of performance speed with sensitivity, comprehension, or intelligence is convincingly repudiated by Wolff (1970, p. 85). He observes that chimpanzees may require 300 trials to learn a discrimination task that less intelligent rats learn in 20 trials. The rat’s speed is evidently achieved because it employs simpler learning strategies. Conversely, the chimp’s performance is slowed by its lengthy consideration of spatial and functional relationships that completely escape the rat’s attention.Google Scholar
  7. Wolff draws an important pedagogical lesson from this finding: children’s education should not be accelerated as a means of boosting intelligence, for speed in attaining a cognitive (or sensorimotor) skill does not determine or predict later intelligence (or performance).Google Scholar
  8. 5.
    In contrast to modern positivists, Comte and other nineteenth-century positivists repudiated statistical methods. They complained that statistics accepted numbers at face value without comprehending what the numbers represented or the reasons why the numbers existed. Statistics, they charged, only summarizes contingent, temporary associations of things, and is unhelpful in comprehending the lawful reasons that produce interrelationships.Google Scholar
  9. Comte was angry that Quetelet appropriated his term physique sociale (social physics) and misconstrued it as mere statistics. This misidentification of social science with statistics led Comte to coin a new title—sociology. Sociology originated as a non-mathematical discipline devoted to studying lawful social phenomena (Porter, 1986, pp. 41, 152–160).Google Scholar
  10. Comte rejected the use of mathematics in social science. It was a central tenet of positivism that each science must have its own distinctive method and that sociology could not follow natural sciences in using mathematics. As Lindenfeld (1980, p. 33) saidGoogle Scholar
  11. The name “social physics” is misleading: the laws of sociology are anything but those of the inorganic sciences. On the contrary, Comte was thoroughly committed to the principle of heterogeneity: each step on the ladder presupposes the previous ones, but because of its greater complexity has different laws of its own.Google Scholar
  12. Comte believed that all sciences should be positive in the sense of discarding metaphysical entities and concentrating on discovering relations of similarity and succession among phenomena. However, Comte believed that the phenomena of each science have different content and therefore require different methodologies. “The simpler phenomena of the inorganic sciences lend themselves to mathematical analysis and to the precision which this demands; the complex phenomena of life and society will not do so…. Sociology, being the most complex, is least susceptible to mathematical analysis” (Lindenfeld, 1980, p. 34; cf. Scharff, 1995, p. 31 ).Google Scholar
  13. Comte additionally disavowed most other canons of logical positivism and contemporary research practice. Comte believed that empirical science is an intellectual discipline that includes theory and reasoning. Science is not reducible to observation as logical positivists claimed. Moreover, Comte repudiated the atomism espoused by logical positivists and contemporary positivists (cf Elias, 1978, pp$133–49; Lindenfeld, 1980; Pickering, 1993, pp. 567, 617; Samelson, 1986; Scharff, 1995, pp. 31–32, 88 ).Google Scholar
  14. 6.
    Most statistical testing of significance lacks mathematical as well as psychological significance because mathematical requirements are routinely violated. Significance tests require that subjects have been randomly selected, and the tests only generalize to the particular population that the subjects represent. The fact that most subjects are middle-class college students prevents generalizing conclusions beyond this narrow population. Even more damaging is the fact that virtually all social science research solicits volunteers who are significantly different from nonrespondents. This unavoidable violation of the principle of random selection makes tests of significance unusable (Atkins and Jarrett, 1979 ).Google Scholar
  15. 7.
    Supposedly simply responses such as yes or no are equally ambiguous even in monolingual research. Elliot Mishler (1986, pp. 60–65) reports several interesting examples. One “simple” task presented subjects with a time line of years on which they were to check high and low points of their married lives. The task was more daunting than expected. One subject considered checking a certain year of financial troubles as a low point; however, he reconsidered and said, “they weren’t troubles in the sense of real troubles, no, but they were enforced lean times.” This individual actually paid off a large physician’s bill through small monthly payments during this time and therefore prided himself on pulling through, so he did not count it as a low point despite his financial insecurity. In fact, the subject had mixed feelings about so many years that he said he “can’t make a tangible construction out of this in terms of definitive high points and low points.” Another subject similarly was indecisive about a particular year in which he had gotten married but in which his mother-in-law also died. Yet another respondent felt ambiguous about a certain year in which her daughter starting dating her future husband. This outcome makes it a high point to her on reflection, with her present knowledge; however, when the dating began that year, the mother did not know it would culminate in marriage, and so she did not feel especially high about it at the time. She therefore did not know from which perspective to answer the question and could not decide whether the year was a high point or not.Google Scholar
  16. 8.
    The social psychological ambiguity of supposedly simple, straightforward terms is illustrated by the ambiguity that “light” and “dark” have in reference to colors. The Dani people in Indonesian New Guinea use the terms light and dark to mean something completely different from our sense of the terms. Dani light and dark do not correspond to measurable brightness. When Heider and Olivier asked Dani subjects to name various color chips, the color chip 10 G (green) with a brightness of 8 was called “dark,” while the chip 5 R (red) with a brightness of 3 was called light, despite the fact that 8 is measurably brighter than 3. The attributes that the Dari include in their concept of light and dark are therefore quite different from what we include (Ratner, 1991, pp. 71–72; see Likert, 1951, pp. 238–239).Google Scholar
  17. 9.
    Triandis’s designation of the social variables that determine self concept is also problematic. Triandis ( 1990, fn. 7,10) actually defines collectivist and individualist culture in terms of attitudes. Collectivism is defined as valuing family integrity and identifying with ingroups, whereas individualism is defined as devaluing family integrity and detachment from ingroups. Triandis’s goal of relating psychological variables to cultural ones thus collapses into correlating certain attitudes (e.g., self-concept, goals) with others (the value of morality and prosocial behavior, ingroup—outgroup distinctions, modes of conflict resolution, and the importance of other people’s opinions for one’s own opinions and behavior). Triandis undertakes no empirical investigation of the relation between psychological attitudes and structural, institutional aspects of society. He never relates self-concept or the like to the extent of government ownership of enterprises, government regulation of enterprises, community organizations, government benefits and services, and the manner in which resources such as housing and consumer products are allocated (by a free market, rationing, etc.).Google Scholar
  18. 10.
    Positivistic canons of research act as distorting glasses that curtail the field of vision. When someone discards the goggles and expands his field of vision, his new perception is invalidated as mere imagination because he has not employed the necessary visual apparatus that ensures veridical perception. Moreover, the goggle-wearers cannot see what he sees, and this makes his observations unconfirmable.Google Scholar
  19. 11.
    Strangely enough, the tenets of positivism resemble the perceptual style of aphasic patients! The sensory detecting of simple, singular, overt (superficial), and physical (behavior) responses advocated by positivists resembles the impaired perception that patients experience. In both cases the continuum of signification dissolves into a series of mere points. Both the positivist observer and the impaired patient are sensitive only to discrete elements, not to meaningful configured entities. For both, “it’s all in bits” (Cassirer, 1957, p. 241). Rather than positivist principles serving to strengthen normal observation, they are impoverished caricatures of it.Google Scholar
  20. This fragmentation contrasts with normal perception where “every particular aspect is always related to a comprehensive context, an ordered and articulated totality of aspects, and draws its interpretation and meaning from this relation” (Cassirer, 1957, p. 238). Normal perception is additionally theory-guided and symbolically mediated; it is not a passive recording of sensory information. Positivism is as far from this kind of meaningful perception as aphasic and agnosiac patients are.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carl Ratner
    • 1
  1. 1.Humboldt State UniversityArcataUSA

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