to May (2011, p. 7), “science is thought of as being a coherent body of thought
about a topic over which there is a broad consensus among its practitioners as
to its properties, causes and effects”. Chalmers (1999, p. 1) argued that
science is based upon “what we see, hear and touch rather than on personal
opinions or speculative imaginings”. Thus, it is important to consider the
varied debate surrounding the philosophical approaches based on social sciences
research. Each philosophical approach
, such as
positivist, interpretivist and critical,
has its own assumptions
regarding the ontology, epistemology and based on its methodology’s strengths
and weaknesses from which the related valid knowledge is obtained. Considered
“the approach of natural science” (Neuman, 2011, p. 95), positivism has received
remarkable criticisms in comparison with other approaches in terms of
philosophy and methodology’s relevance and its relation with the differences of
natural and social sciences. As a representative of many research paradigms
affected by natural science method and with reference to social sciences,
positivism will be evaluated and discussed throughout this paper. A discussion
and analysis concerning philosophical assumptions of natural science will be
provided, including ontology, epistemology, human nature and methodology. In
addition, a critical evaluation based upon the natural science adopted by
positivism to gain knowledge in social sciences will be given. Furthermore,
advantages and limitations
will be discussed
various examples will be provided. Lastly, key points and arguments
will be reflected upon,
considering whether positivism can
establish certain knowledge about social science, particularly within the area
of management and accounting.
Philosophy of Natural Science
(1998, p. 51) stated, “
philosophical meaning of
ontology, epistemology and the methodological meanings of validity, reliability
and data” play a significant role within the research process and the selection
of the appropriate philosophical approach.
To this extent, the philosophical assumptions of positivism will be
to obtain a more accurate evaluation of the
relevance of the natural science method adopted by social sciences.
and Priest (2009, p. 26) define ontology as “a
set of axiomatic assumptions within a philosophy of science that define the way
a reality is conceived and perceived”. In this perspective, realism exists in a
positivist stance as an assumption about social world’s reality. Burrell and
Morgan (1979, p. 4) contend that realism sees the social world as “an external
one to individual cognition that is made up of nothing more than names,
concepts and labels which are used to structure reality”. In addition, Hughes
and Sharrock (1997) note that both natural and social sciences are implemented
by following specific rules and holding deterministic structures and so from
the angle of positivism, the reality seems to be objective and stable.
(2011, p. 93) defines epistemology as “the area of philosophy concerned
with the creation of knowledge, focusing upon how we know or what are the most
valid ways to reach truth”. Following a positivist approach, epistemology is
defined as “the researcher’s view regarding what constitutes acceptable
knowledge where only observable phenomena can provide credible data and facts”
(Saunders et al., 2012, p. 140). Positivists focus upon the explanation and
prediction of the related phenomena by observing the accuracy and the
relationship between the phenomena (
Priest, 2009). In management and accounting research, these concepts
in order to gain a valid knowledge so that
positivists are able to manage company’s cultures as variables acquired by
company, and controlled or managed by a company’s management team (Saunders et
and Priest (2009, p. 170) reflect
that “knowledge can be applicable to broad categories such as communities,
industries and/or organizations where this can be useful to see the world
through categorical lenses”. While natural science works with physical
substances such as molecules and liquids, social science is concerned with
social phenomena related to human
of cause and effect, and data is collected concerning social environment and
people’s reactions to it. Based on the assumption of social–scientific
theories, Burrell and Morgan (1979, p. 6) argue that a significant role is at
play in “the nature of the relationships between man and the society in which
he lives in”.
evident that natural sciences’ assumptions impact upon the method of knowledge
investigation in social science, where based on positivism, some authors think
that it is possible “to remove all subjective bias in the assessment of the
reality of knowledge” in order to examine objective knowledge (Johnson and
, 2000, p. 57). Thus, it can be considered that
positivism holds “a nomothetic methodology where it applies protocols and
procedures derived from the natural sciences to gain knowledge of the social
world” (Johnson and
, 2000, p. 78).
This methodology consists of four significant
angles: causality, reliability,
and operationalism. In
this methodology, the possibility of quantification (using mathematics) helps
to achieve the findings’ internal validity and reliability, in order to examine
the casual relationships and the external validity (Johnson and
, 2000). As a result, when conducting research
following a positivist approach, the researcher adopts an objective,
independent and value-free stance (Saunders et al., 2009). The following
section provides a critical evaluation and discussion based on the natural
science adopted by positivism to gain knowledge in social sciences, using
various examples to reveal the advantages and limitations.
Critical Evaluation and Discussion
assumption on natural sciences’ ontology
may be considered
problematic, and cannot be used for social sciences research due to the
differences between the two sciences’ objects and the differences between each
one’s properties. According to Chua (1986, p. 604), “people cannot be treated
as natural scientific objects because they are self-interpretive beings who
create the structures around them”. Benton and
(2011, p. 76)
it as “a life of meaning,
of language and reflexive thought and communication”. They also state that
“human beings and human groups own a property of self-consciousness and they
have the ability to reflect on themselves, their situations and their relationships”
(2011, p. 76).
Thus, human beings’
are not influenced
by any incentive or cause,
but they interpret and give reasons for their actions and also for others’
actions (Hughes and Sharrock, 1997). By observing two people or two societies,
it can be noticed that they are completely different possessing individual
characteristics and properties (
leading to the statement that “social world is always changing” (Marshall and
Rossman, 1989, p. 147). Thus, it is evident that there is a limited diversity
and social phenomena where
positivists cannot figure out an accurate prediction of human phenomena.
Knowing that there are differences between human beings and physical
substances, human beings cannot be seen or treated as natural objects. If the
researcher fails to distinguish these differences between the two sciences,
then it is possible to
the positivist method
as inappropriate to gain the acceptable and reliable knowledge surrounding
Saunders et al. (2009) and
discussed, the natural science asserts that observed phenomena
to gather acceptable knowledge. Some arguments (see
Chua, 1986; Baker and
, 1997) reflect that the
research related to human senses may create problems. This reveals limitations
where the observer cannot see the actual image and as a result, is not able to
reflect the appropriate meaning. His/her senses may see something that appears
differently in reality. The researcher may interpret observed evidence in
different ways or may state an argument with a variety of meanings (Benton and
, 2011). This situation can be represented by the
classic ‘duck-rabbit’ figure (see below) in which it “can be seen either as the
head of a duck or as the head of a rabbit” (Benton and
2011, p. 32). S/he may see and reflect different interpretations or see and
interpret some evidence in different ways each time s/he observes it. For this
reason, positivism may have unfavorable and unexpected results, and not reflect
the actual reality that this approach pursues.
Classic 'Duck-rabbit' figure - (Source: Benton and
, 2011, p. 33)
case of the empirical, positivism is referred to as “evidence or observations
grounded in human sensory experience such as touch, sight, hearing, smell and
taste” (Neuman, 2011, p. 9). To this extent, “scientific researchers cannot use
their senses to observe directly some aspects of the world such as intelligence,
attitudes, opinions, emotions, power, authority etc.” (Neuman, 2011, p.
They cannot observe the mental state
of individuals since “human beings are not simply external shells of shape,
size and motion; they have an inner life not accessible to observation in the
normal way” (Hughes and Sharrock, 1997, p. 48). This kind of observation may
but is unable to
understand and clarify the feelings or the thoughts of subjects (participants).
Thus, a motivation is given to start the detailed and in depth examinations on
internal rationales. According to Hughes and Sharrock (1997), questionnaires
and other systematic research tools can be
to mitigate the weaknesses
of human senses and to gain access to internal scenes of subjects.
scientific laws are considered as “summaries of observations [that] depend on
the interpretation of scientific laws [...] implied by the existed evidence”
, 2011, pp. 31-32). To maintain the
scientific laws, “it is necessary to adopt a looser criterion of testability,
which acknowledges that new observations may count for or against a hypothesis,
but can never conclusively prove or disprove it” (Benton and
, 2011, p. 32).
A clear knowledge cannot be achieved since the natural science theory
changes as new evidence is discovered or observed. Furthermore, Benton and
(2011) argue that, based on Kant’s (1953) statement,
sensory experience cannot be a guide to the key concepts essential to
knowledge, such as
and effect’ or ‘space and
time’, but these may be achieved from the natural perception. To this extent
, social sciences cannot be considered
to be the
searching general laws as those of natural
sciences because the social world does not behave in these kinds of patterns.
As previously mentioned, there are differences
between social and natural sciences based upon the relationships
between the researchers
and their research objects or subjects (participants). Due to each research
paradigm’s arguments being reliant on different assumptions, without having any
common ground, it is obvious that “debating methodology is a no win situation”
(Watts and Zimmerman, 1990, p. 149). Researchers communicate using different
‘languages’ driving towards an endless debate. Adopting natural science method,
the value-free and independent position between researchers and objects are
considered the main features. According to Bryman (2004), positivist
researchers support that quantitative measurement
as a subsequent device allowing researchers to be consistent with themselves
and others, and contributing to reliable and valid findings. On the other hand,
(2002) argues that the values cannot be
excluded from the investigation of knowledge in the social world. According to
(2011, p. 28), “social scientists
try to find out explanations of particular social phenomena by value
orientations and thus, social explanation seems to be value-relevant”. An
alternative reflection is addressed to the value of social science objects
which may not be feasible in natural science method. As an example, an
/company can be seen as one
entity of society with specific
the key center of the company’s existence (
2002). However, this incident can be
as inexplicit and
ineligible when attempting to gain the related knowledge of social phenomena.
The method used to mitigate the value is considered inadequate and unsuitable
to gather the related knowledge, whilst also potentially significantly
impacting upon the accuracy of findings.
the findings of positivism may seem to be irrelevant, and as a proof, Chua
(1986, p. 609) refers to
“as manageable by the appropriate design
of accounting controls such as budgets, cost standards, cost allocations and
divisional performance criteria”. Hogan and Sinclair (1996, p. 439) also argue
that “positivist management research lacks relevance [giving the example of the
benefits of positivism research to management such as those related to]
industrial psychologists [in the extent that positivist method allows the
researchers to identify] a set of characteristics that enable an individual to
meet those requirements or the methods of selection to identify individuals
with desired amounts of those characteristics”.
the issue of independence, this value may face difficulty during the
establishment since researchers cannot be fully independent from the subjects
of the research, particularly during the data collection process.
(2002) represents the case of female researchers
that acquire deeper information than male researchers, due to the different
and different language styles that
the interviewer can employ to influence the emotional stance of the
respondents, producing different final results. Thus, it is evident that human
beings can be influenced by their own perceptions
by the status of researchers in order to remain independent. When researchers
are using a positivist approach, this lack of independence is considered
to be a
difficulty figured in the context, as they attempt
to mitigate any bias.
to discover any variables’ relationships for theory development, positivism
presents limited outcomes that demonstrate weaknesses of the related theory
that represent the complicated social world (Johnson and
2000). It seems that human beings are not responsive and thereafter, can act
independently without following the strategy of natural science (Benton and
, 2011; Hughes and Sharrock, 1997). Thus, using
variables to predict human beings' actions and ignoring free will and other
such social world's considerations, it could lead to results that expose
limited chances of social reality through representations. Through their study
of earnings management based on positive accounting research,
(2007) and Barth et al. (2008) suppose that the
of senior management to manipulate earnings
figures is affected by the companies’ executive pay related to earnings
figures. However, it can be noticed that in a business environment, other
causes could appear in context which may affect the management’s action such as
the reputation acquisition (Graham et al, 2005) and financial analysts’
expectations (Elias, 2002). Thus, it is known that variables may not show the
reality of the business world.
of human beings as social
science objects, Smith (1970, cited in Hughes and Sharrock, 1997, p. 30) states
that “individuals acting on their own self-interested preferences could produce
large-scale social regularities”. Furthermore, Saunders et al. (2009, p. 10)
“the structural aspect of management may differ
but the essence of the function is very much the same in all organizations”.
Thus, even if human beings maintain an independent stance, there is no doubt
can be affected by environment or financial/
conditions. In Watts and Zimmerman (1990)
paper, accounting researchers seem to use scientific method to uncover
systematic patterns in accounting, and to present a framework related to
accounting prediction. In the example of earnings management, a variety of
external causes may appear in the context and could affect the decision-making
process on how to manipulate earnings management. The relationship between
accounting practices and executive pay
can be indicated
as a possible solution to establish specific legislation or accounting
standards in order to combat this particular issue.
Aspects of Social World
critical lenses, positivism disregards other kinds of societies that could play
a significant role in research focused upon the definition of social world.
According to Chua (1986, p. 604), “economics and accounting are based on
assumptions about the information needs of people given limited access to
resources” for maximization purposes. This statement suggests that capitalism
appears to be the first priority of capital owners in order to
their profits. To this extent, positive accounting
research tends to focus on the stock market, where researchers think that the
relationship of accounting information and firms’ stock prices can be explained
and predicted, revealing the shareholders’ benefits (
et al., 2007; Landsman et al., 2012). On the other hand, other forms of
business exist, such as within countries following the ideology of communism,
in which accounting systems are controlled and supervised by the State in order
to reach and accomplish desirable economic objectives (
et al., 2007). In their study,
et al. (2007)
presented the case of a stock market with companies controlled by families,
arguing that positive accounting may not be suitable for these kinds of
companies. Thus, by disregarding the social world nature, different accounting
information and results may seem inaccurate and irrelevant when using the
this philosophical journey, a critical evaluation of natural science method
. The opportunity was given for social
scientists, particularly those in the area of accounting and management, to
further understand the philosophy of positivism regarding the natural and
social sciences, and whether certain knowledge can be established through
science. It is evident that positivism has various limitations that make it
difficult to reflect reliable and valid conclusions; it excludes the
examination of both external and internal reality and the background of the
action or event taken place. It is known that humans take action with
objectives in mind and during the
they may be
affected by their internal or external environment or by events that happened
in their workplace or in general economy. As a result, various theories exist
and relate to human
that can describe and
explain their actions, choices, habits, attitudes and thoughts. Positivist
researchers do not take into consideration the environment and events, namely
the social, economic and political context, that may significantly impact a
participant’s action, choice, thought and position and subsequently affect the outcome
or result. Thus, attention must be given while accounting and management
researchers choose philosophical assumptions that may have a significant
relationship with natural science method, as their results may not reflect nor
thoroughly examine the real situation and the factors that played a significant
role during the process in order to find outcomes and to reach conclusions.
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