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Blackwell Publishing Ltd.Oxford, UK and Malden, USATSQThe Sociological Quarterly0038-02532006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

2006473425450MARXISM, POSITIVISM, AND HISTORICISM: AN EXCHANGEMarxism, Positivism, and Sci-

entific SociologyRichard York and Brett Clark

The Sociological Quarterly ISSN 0038-0253


SOCIOLOGY: Social Gravity and Historicity
Richard York*
University of Oregon

Brett Clark
University of Oregon

Marxism and positivism are often thought to be incompatible perspectives in sociology. Yet, Marx-
ism has a long history of commitment to scientific inquiry. Here, we juxtapose these two scientific
paradigms—Marxism and positivism—in ways that can enhance both, while highlighting in par-
ticular the power of the former. We argue that many of the key theoretical claims of Marxism can be
explored in terms of analytic concepts congruent with and easily accessible to the contemporary
positivist tradition. Marxist criticisms of the cruder versions of the positivist program are not anti-
science but are rather rational critiques based on scientific principles.

In the discipline of sociology, there is considerable tension between the so-called

“positivist” tradition—with its primary focus on quantitative, empirical research—and
Marxism. Agger (1998) argues that a definitive feature of critical social theories, including
Marxism, feminism, and postmodernism, is a shared opposition to positivism. The
aspect of positivism that is perhaps most objectionable to Marxists and other critical the-
orists is the underlying metatheoretical assumption that the social world is governed by
immutable laws that can be identified through empirical observation without the encum-
brance of refined theory. Conversely, self-styled positivists often take issue with the per-
ceived tendency of Marxists and other critical theorists to evaluate the validity of factual
claims based on ideology rather than empirical evidence.
Our intent is to show that, contrary to widely held perceptions, there are substantial
connections between the Marxist and positivist traditions with regard to scientific analy-
sis of the social (and natural) world. In particular, we argue that the materialist approach
in the Marxist tradition is consistent with a rigorous scientific method, similar to that of
the positivist program, and that Marxism offers distinct strengths to scientific analyses.
Scientific sociology is not well served by having separate research traditions that operate
largely in isolation, without cross-fertilization. Thus, it is important to recognize connec-
tions between prominent research traditions and identify opportunities for dialogue.
One key feature that limits serious dialogue between those in the positivist tradition
broadly conceived and those in the Marxist tradition is the lack of a shared intellectual

*Direct all correspondence to Richard York, Department of Sociology, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
97403-1291; e-mail:

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Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology Richard York and Brett Clark

language. Empirical sociologists with positivist leanings (C. Wright Mills’ “abstract
empiricists”) generally have only limited training in grand theoretical traditions, while
Marxists are often poorly trained in quantitative methodology and tend to distrust the
“facts” generated by supposedly value-free empirical research.1 We argue that much of the
tension between these two great methodological-theoretical traditions stems from a fail-
ure of each to appreciate the central concerns of the other. One corrective to this problem
is to express important Marxist critiques of mainstream empirical work in the terminol-
ogy of thinkers of a more positivistic persuasion. In so doing, we intend to show that
Marxist methodological concerns and theoretical conceptualization of the social world
are not completely at odds with substantial aspects of the approach to research in sophis-
ticated versions of the positivist program, given certain considerations. C. Wright Mills,
who was strongly influenced by the Marxist tradition, in his classic work The Sociological
Imagination (1961), stressed the importance of historical and structural research and
noted that any systematic attempt to understand involves a dialogue between empirical
and theoretical work (p. 74).
The tension between positivism and Marxism is in some respects ironic in that both
traditions share a foundation in philosophical materialism. Although Western Marxism
has strayed from this materialist focus outside, perhaps, its consideration of economics,
there remains a vibrant materialist tradition within Marxism (Sweezy 1953; Kalecki 1968;
Gould and Eldredge 1977; Magdoff 1978; Timpanaro 1980; Levins and Lewontin 1985;
Braverman 1998; Burkett 1999a; Foster 1999, 2000; Gimenez 2000).2 Our general argu-
ment is that a strictly materialist Marxism and a historically oriented positivism that is
not overly committed to narrow reductionism are not entirely incompatible, and that
each tradition can inform the other. To a large extent, we accept positivist critiques of
nonmaterialist strains of Marxism and concur with the priority positivists’ give to
empirical evidence and realist ontology. However, in the spirit of C. Wright Mills and
contemporary critical realists like Roy Bhaskar (1979), we also recognize the need for
sophisticated social theory to direct our inquiries. Here, an important qualification is
needed: Throughout the rest of this article, we are considering only the relationship of
materialist, critical-realist Marxism3 to the sociological positivist tradition—viewing the
latter in its less epistemologically naïve, more sophisticated form. We make no claims as
to the compatibility of crude deterministic positivism and Marxian materialist dialectics;
nor do we wish to argue for the compatibility of the more idealist or Hegelian versions of
Marxism or post-Marxism with positivism.4 However, we do contend that the critical
realist understanding of Marxism is in line with Marx’s own work.
After presenting a discussion of the distinct characteristics of the positivist and
Marxist traditions, we develop our argument in three steps by translating key Marxist
ideas into statistical terms to demonstrate their amenability to evaluation in the broad
positivist program. First, we argue that there are many factors in any historical era that are
effectively constant for long stretches of time—what we label “background conditions”—
that may exert a strong influence on social processes (e.g., a variety of factors of interest to
the social scientist, such as crime rates and poverty). However, the influences of these
factors, because of their ubiquity and constancy (at least over considerable stretches of

426 The Sociological Quarterly 47 (2006) 425–450 © 2006 Midwest Sociological Society
Richard York and Brett Clark Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology

history)—like gravity—are effectively invisible to statistical analyses. In effect, back-

ground conditions generate “social gravity”; they influence all aspects of society, but often
go unnoticed because of their pervasiveness. Second, we argue that background condi-
tions likely influence not only many variables of interest, but also interact with other fac-
tors, conditioning their effects on social processes. Because of these interaction effects,
empirical relationships among factors in any one context cannot be assumed to represent
invariant social laws, but rather may represent only relationships unique to a specific con-
text. Third, we argue that background conditions may change rapidly following long
periods of stasis. Because of the punctuated nature of historical change, time-series anal-
yses may not be sufficient to capture the effects of background conditions unless they
cover an unusually long span of time.
Following from this analysis, we argue for the central importance of social theory in
understanding historical processes. We are not arguing that theory should be privileged
over empirical evidence, only that theory gives us insights about the limitations inherent
in the data typically available to us as researchers. Furthermore, we argue that Marxism,
in relying on theoretical abstractions to make conjectures about future social conditions,
does not differ from the natural sciences. Like the natural sciences, Marxism is based on
theory built on observation of a limited subset of phenomena to develop expectations
regarding unobserved phenomena. In its focus on historicity and its understanding of
departures from stasis, Marxism transforms the nature of social theory, allowing us to
scientifically grapple with a dynamic world.


Positivism is a diverse tradition with a complex history, encompassing work from
Auguste Comte to that of the Vienna Circle (Hughes 1958; Fuller 2001; also see Gartrell
and Gartrell 2002 for an analysis of positivism in sociological research in the United States
and Britain). Here, we are concerned with contemporary sociological positivism, which
is characterized by the view that
the social sciences, and sociology in particular, are natural sciences in which abstract
laws of human organization can be formulated to explain the operative dynamics of
the social universe. The plausibility of these laws are [sic] then to be assessed against
systematically collected empirical data. (Turner 2001:11827)
Turner (1992) argues that sociological research in the positivist tradition should use “lots
of description and experimental work, ultimately unified by some generally theoretical
principals” to identify social laws (p. 60; see also Alexander 1991). Turner (1985) also
explains that “[n]aturalistic/positivistic schemes assume that there are timeless and
invariant processes in the social universe, much as there are in the physical and biological
realms” (p. 25). Thus, central aspects of the sociological positivist tradition, drawing
upon traditions in the natural sciences, include a commitment to ontological realism,
advocacy for objective value-free analyses, a focus on identifying spatiotemporally invari-
ant (i.e., ahistorical) social laws, a strong preference for direct empirical evidence, and a
distaste for overreliance on ungrounded conceptual notions.5

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Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology Richard York and Brett Clark

In its cruder forms, positivism has demonstrated weaknesses. The early positivism
on which the Vienna Circle based much of its philosophical foundations so strongly
abhorred concepts that where not directly grounded in empirical observation, it led sup-
porters to reject some of the most profound scientific advances of the 19th and 20th cen-
turies. For example, the renowned physicist Ernst Mach (1838–1916), who was a strict
adherent of positivist philosophy, rejected the concept of atoms and Einstein’s theory of
relativity because of their reliance on theoretical constructs without immediate and direct
empirical referents (Goldstein 2005:85; Rigden 2005:46–7). It is worth noting that Ein-
stein rejected positivism because he perceived that its philosophical prejudice limited
insight into natural phenomena. Einstein argued that this prejudice “consists in the faith
that facts by themselves can and should yield scientific knowledge without free concep-
tual construction” (quoted in Rigden 2005:47).
The Marxist tradition has raised concerns along these lines about the positivist pro-
gram. In particular, Marxism eschews ahistorical explanations of social phenomena and
takes an epistemological position that is highly skeptical of the naïve faith that a smatter-
ing of factual observations can lead us to a proper understanding of the social world with-
out utilizing a refined theoretical framework. Although the materialist Marxism that is
our focus here, embodied in the work of social scientists such as Burkett (1999a), Bhaskar
(1979, 1986, 1989), and Foster (1999, 2000) and natural scientists such as Levins and
Lewontin (1985) and Gould (2002), is in full agreement with positivism about the impor-
tance of ontological realism and its support for efforts to gain an objective understanding
of the world, it is apprehensive about the view that objectivity can be obtained by a singu-
lar reliance on supposedly “value-free” empirical research. Materialist Marxism is also
critical of positivism’s neglect of the importance of conceptually rich theory in directing
our empirical inquiries.
The approach we are explicating is one of historical materialism, as distinct from other
versions of materialism. While Feuerbach (1881, 1972), a well-known materialist and
contemporary of Marx, rejected Hegel’s speculative philosophy and placed an emphasis
on naturalism, his materialism tended to be contemplative and ahistorical. It retained a
static conception of nature. The alienation of humans from nature remained an abstract
issue to be resolved in the mind. Marx broke from this position to present a practical
materialism, which involved human praxis as a force in transforming the world (Marx
and Engels 1976a:6–8; Marx and Engels 1976b; Marx 1993; Foster 2000). Thus, Marx’s
materialism is both historical and dialectical. It is characterized by a materialist concep-
tion of history and of nature. It views the world as dynamic, governed by forces that
emerge from the interaction of many factors and contingent historical events.
One of Marx’s important insights is that our social position influences our perception
of the social world, and the views of those in power are often embedded in so-called
“value-free” research. Therefore, to achieve a more objective understanding of the world,
we need to recognize the imprint of ideology on scientific theories, so as not to be misled
by prevailing prejudices (Levins and Lewontin 1985; Levins 1990; Gould 1996). However,
unlike some other critical theories, materialist Marxism, like positivism, takes the posi-
tion that scientific questions should ultimately be decided based on logic of argument and

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Richard York and Brett Clark Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology

validity of evidence, not ideology. Nonetheless, Marxism points to the importance of the-
ory in directing our empirical research and cautions against the naïve assumption that the
accumulation of factual observations alone will lead to an accurate understanding of the
workings of the social and natural worlds. It is not our intention to attempt to reconcile
the differences between Marxism and positivism about the potential for “value-free”
research. We broach the issue simply to note that materialist Marxism and positivism
share a support for materialism, ontological realism, and objective analysis, although
they take different positions about the extent to which our social context inhibits our abil-
ity to be “value-free” in our research and about the necessity of “free conceptual construc-
tion” (to use Einstein’s phrase) for developing insights about the empirical world.
Although there are divides between positivism and Marxism that are perhaps
unbridgeable, many, perhaps even most, practicing scholars of both positivist and
Marxist leanings are more sophisticated and subtle in their thinking than is suggested
by common caricatures of either position. It is to these sophisticated and subtle thinkers
in both traditions that we direct our argument. Our concern is to show the potential for
engagement between Marxists and positivists on the question about the nature of social
“laws.” The materialist Marxist tradition generally is highly skeptical of the claim that
most observed social phenomena can be explained by spatiotemporally invariant social
laws, although it does not a priori reject the possibility of such laws. Rather, Marxists
point to the dramatic changes in social structures and patterns that have occurred
throughout human history and argue that what may appear to be invariant laws to an
observer in any particular period may be in fact transient tendencies unique to a histor-
ical era that emerge from the dialectical interaction of a diversity of social and natural
processes. In this, Marxists are challenging the reductionism that often leads those of a
positivistic bent to assume social patterns occur because of invariant, deterministic,
causal forces operating in isolation, rather than because of dynamic interactions of a
variety of factors arising through the contingencies of history. As we develop below, our
argument is that the conflicting claims of Marxists and positivists regarding the exist-
ence of invariant social laws can be adjudicated in a scientific research program and that
one aspect of scientific sociology, be it positivist or Marxist, should be aimed at estab-
lishing the distinction between forces that are historically particular and those that are
truly ahistorical.
It is worth noting that in physics, often seen as the model science among positivists,
there are growing questions about whether the “constants” embedded in physical laws are
indeed constant, or whether they have changed during cosmic history (Barrow and Webb
2005). The question of “inconstant constants” does not serve to undermine scientific
inquiry, since empirical evidence can be brought to bear on the matter. However, as with
many key theoretical issues in sociology, there are substantial challenges to gathering
appropriate data and measuring relevant factors with sufficient precision. Furthermore,
refined theory is a prerequisite for directing empirical inquiry and alerting theorists to the
possibility that some of the “constants” of nature may not in fact be constant. We point to
this example because it illustrates that the challenges of distinguishing between histori-
cally variant and ahistorical forces are not confined to the social sciences.

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Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology Richard York and Brett Clark


Perhaps the most basic requirement for statistical analyses is that the explanatory vari-
ables actually vary. In particular, if we wish to explain why some phenomena vary among
cases (e.g., why different people have different incomes), it is necessary that potential
explanative variables have a diversity of values. For example, we cannot assess the effect of
race on income in a sample of exclusively white people. Simply stated, a constant cannot
explain variation. However, it is important to recognize that a factor that appears to be a
constant in certain circumstances may not be a constant in all circumstances.
To address this issue, York, Rosa, and Dietz (2002) introduce the concept of plasticity,
which refers to the potential rate and range of change of a variable. One major problem in
assessing the plasticity of a variable is that its observed rate and range of change (or lack
thereof) may not reflect its potential rate and range of change. Consider a hypothetical sit-
uation where we have time-series data on three variables for an individual (let us call her
Jane): monthly income, monthly expenditures, and amount saved each month. If over a
two-year period Jane’s monthly income remains constant at $4,000, while her expendi-
ture varies from month to month between $1,000 and $3,000, the amount she saves will
vary from month to month. After all, it is plainly obvious that the amount she has to save
each month (S) is a simple function of monthly income (I) and expenditure (E), so that
S = I − E. Based on this formula for monthly savings (which could yield a negative
number, indicating debt or drawdown of accumulated savings), it is clear that income
plays an important role in determining monthly savings. However, if the time-series data
described above were analyzed using typical statistical techniques (e.g., by regressing
monthly savings on income and expenditure in a stochastic linear model), the clear result
would be that income does not explain any of the variance in monthly savings. This result
might lead some naïve researchers to conclude (incorrectly) that income does not affect
savings. The reason for this finding is simply that income does not vary among observa-
tions, and it, therefore, cannot explain why monthly savings varies (in this case, the vari-
ance of monthly savings is entirely explained by the variance of expenditure). Despite this
finding, it is plainly obvious that income has the potential to change (Jane could lose her
job, get a raise, etc.) and any such change could clearly affect the amount of money she has
available to save each month.
Lieberson (1985) makes the point that a statistical analysis of the rate of acceleration
of a variety of falling objects on Earth will fail to detect the effect of the mass of the Earth
(and the gravitational pull stemming from it) precisely because gravity exerts a constant
force on all objects on Earth (because the mass of the Earth is effectively constant). While
gravity explains why things fall on Earth, it does not explain why different types of objects
fall at different rates—the explanation of why a feather falls more slowly than a rock
resides in the field of aerodynamics. To understand the effect of gravity, one must observe
conditions in which its strength varies. One cannot do this by observing only objects on
Earth, but must observe gravitational effects near other “massive bodies” (e.g., other
planets). The fact that the force of gravity is a function of mass and distance means that it

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Richard York and Brett Clark Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology

is necessary to make observations where mass and distance vary substantially (e.g.,
through astronomical observations) to identify the factors that influence the attraction of
matter to matter.
What is the lesson to be learned here? Many potential factors may influence social
facts that are invisible to statistical analyses because such analyses are based on data that
do not come from a wide range of contexts. Most data sets represent only one moment in
time or a short span of time (e.g., a few months, years, or decades), and frequently only a
limited regional context (e.g., a single country). Many factors of interest to the social sci-
entist may be a virtual constant for all observations within such a limited time span and/
or region, but may exhibit substantial change over historical eras or vary among different
regions. Marxism expresses the recognition of this point by characterizing “social laws” as
tendential laws to be understood only in relation to a specific historical context.


Historicity—the notion that social “laws,” unlike natural laws, vary across different his-
torical periods—is one of the most basic concepts of the Marxist tradition.6 Despite the
fact that many social “laws” may indeed seem immutable within a given era, history dem-
onstrates that the apparently immutable can be radically changed, often in a strikingly
short span of time. For example, the feudal system in Europe was fully accepted by virtu-
ally all people at the time as God-given and unchangeable. Nonetheless, feudalism in
Europe is no more. The central point captured by the concept of historicity, then, is that
the social world is not governed singularly by a set of invariant deterministic laws, such as
Newton’s laws of motion, but rather by forces that emerge from a diversity of interacting
factors that change over time. In other words, consideration of the historical context—
the organization and structure of society (e.g., division of ownership of the means of pro-
duction, technological development, and demographic composition) and the condition
of the natural environment (e.g., the global climate and the availability of natural
resources)—in which events unfold is essential for understanding causation in the social
world and the potential for social change. The combination of these conditions influences
the character of the period and the nature of the relationship among social factors.
In any historical period, certain background conditions may exist that, although they
exert a strong influence on the structure of society and the everyday happenings in peo-
ple’s lives, remain largely unnoticed because of their pervasiveness. In typical empirical
analyses of social facts, these “background conditions” are invisible exactly because they
are so pervasive and unchanging (during particular historical eras), just as the effect of the
mass of the Earth on the strength of gravity is invisible to terrestrially bound people
because it is effectively constant. In effect, historical background conditions generate
“social gravity”—influencing all aspects of society while remaining invisible to statistical
analyses because they are effectively constant during extended periods.
Nonetheless, such background conditions may exhibit substantial plasticity on his-
torical time scales, if not on the limited time scales of a human life span. In this sense,

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Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology Richard York and Brett Clark

social gravity is quite different from physical gravity; the specific effects of social gravity
may change between historical periods. Therefore, the results of statistical analyses for a
specific period or region may not reflect the effects of larger historical factors. This is a sta-
tistical reflection of what Marxists call the “principle of historical specificity” (Korsch
1963, 1972; also see Mills 1961). In short, then, we introduce and use the term “social
gravity” to refer to emergent structural forces stemming from historical background con-
ditions that have ubiquitous and pervasive effects across a broad spectrum of social con-
ditions, but that, although effectively constant for long stretches of time, are potentially
Roy Bhaskar, in The Possibility of Naturalism (1979), presents some of the key insights
underlying the theoretical concepts of historical background conditions and social grav-
ity that we develop here. He explains that we are born into a world with existing, histori-
cally determined structures, such as a society operating under the capitalist mode of
production. Certain conditions, such as private ownership of the means of production,
exist that impose specific relationships and an organization on the world. In this case, the
majority of people must sell their labor to those who own the means of production, in
order to pay for the necessities of life. The existence of the political-economic structures
of capitalism creates the conditions that facilitate the reproduction of these relationships
and the continuance of the economic system (although contradictions are always present
and provide the potential for radical change). Braverman (1998) explained how the
expansion of monopoly capital transformed all of society, as it incorporated each realm
of social life into the marketplace. People’s desire and need for food and entertainment
are channeled through the market (pp. 188–96; see also Dawson 2003). These structural
arrangements provide a degree of stability when measured on a limited time scale, such as
tens or even hundreds of years. The capitalist mode of production acts as a fundamental
background condition generating its own social gravity, conditioning relationships
throughout the social world. A key insight of materialist Marxism, however, is that,
although pervasive and enduring, background conditions, such as those associated with
capitalism, are not immutable.
Despite the challenge that this historical position presents to empirical research, the
existence of statistically invisible background conditions and the social gravity they gen-
erate, which may exert a substantial influence on social facts, does not invalidate findings
from typical quantitative empirical work. In fact, positivistic empirical researchers might
argue that background conditions present no problems for their substantive findings on
the ground that, because background conditions are constant over most periods of
observation, ceteris paribus (all else being equal) conditions are met (which is a key goal
of multivariate analyses, and one of the central strengths of experimental designs). So, for
example, based on the ceteris paribus argument, researchers might readily acknowledge
that there are potentially other factors (which are part of historical background condi-
tions) that they have not taken into consideration in their analyses that may influence a
key dependent variable of interest (e.g., crime rate), but argue that their findings regard-
ing the effect of a specific independent variable (e.g., unemployment rate) on the depen-
dent variable (e.g., crime rate) will hold under other circumstances because the historical

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Richard York and Brett Clark Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology

background conditions are held constant and they have, therefore, determined the inde-
pendent effect of one variable on another.
The key problem with the above argument is that it does not recognize the potential
for interaction effects—a situation where the effect of one independent variable (X) on a
dependent variable (Y) depends on the value of another independent variable (Z). If
interaction effects are present, then ceteris paribus arguments make little sense, because
the value at which one independent variable is held constant will have a substantial influ-
ence on the effect of the other independent variable.
We use a simple hypothetical example of the effect of the education and gender of
individuals on income (using hypothetical numbers) for illustrative purposes. For exam-
ple, in a situation where there is no interaction effect, perhaps each year of education (for
either a man or a woman) corresponds with an additional $1,000 of annual income, and
perhaps men make on average $5,000 a year more than women, controlling for the effects
of education. In this situation, we can obtain an unbiased estimate of the annual income
of an individual based on the simple addition of the effect of his or her education and the
effect of his or her gender (assuming that we have also estimated the y-intercept and have
controlled appropriately for other factors). In this situation, where there is no interaction
effect between education and gender, we can appropriately identify the effect of education
on income ceteris paribus. Note that if there is no interaction effect between education
and gender, then we could assess the effect of education on income by studying only
women or only men. Alternatively, we could assess the effect of gender on income by
studying only people with one level of education.
However, if there is an interaction between education and gender, the situation
becomes considerably more complex. Perhaps for men each additional year of education
corresponds with an additional $1,500 of annual income, whereas for women it corre-
sponds with only $500 of annual income. This also indicates, conversely, that the effect of
gender on income will vary with education—in this specific hypothetical example, the
income gap between men and women is higher among those with more education
(assuming that the y-intercept for women is not higher than it is for men). In this situa-
tion, we cannot simply estimate (in an unbiased manner) the income of an individual by
adding together the “independent” effects of gender and education, since the effects are
not in fact independent. As a consequence, if we studied only men, we would get a sub-
stantially different estimate of the effect of education on income than if we studied only
women. Furthermore, if we studied only college graduates, we would get an entirely dif-
ferent estimate of the effect of gender on income than if we studied only high school drop-
outs. In such a situation, speaking of ceteris paribus conditions makes little sense, because
there is no “correct” level at which to hold other factors constant and thereby determine
the “true” independent effect of one variable on another.
Note that it is not difficult to estimate interaction effects with typical statistical proce-
dures. However, as with all such analyses, variability of all factors in question is a require-
ment for estimation. Therefore, in the example given above, estimating the interaction
effect between gender and education on income presents no particular problem, as long
as the researcher recognizes the need to look for it. However, in a broader macrohistorical

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Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology Richard York and Brett Clark

context, interactive factors may not show substantial variance among observations if the
scope of analysis is restricted.
If, hypothetically, the political economy of a nation interacts with ethnic diversity to
determine crime rates, we cannot legitimately speak of a universalistic effect of ethnic
diversity on crimes rates. In one context (e.g., in a capitalist nation), ethnic diversity may
show a positive empirical association with crimes rates (i.e., more diversity leads to more
crime). However, in a different context (e.g., in a socialist nation), ethnic diversity may
have no association with crimes rates, or even a negative association with crime rates (i.e.,
more diversity leads to less crime). If there is a substantial interaction between historical
background conditions and many key social variables (and there is every reason to sus-
pect that there is), then empirical findings derived from analyses of data from one histor-
ical period, although certainly not invalid, are clearly context dependent. In such a
situation, researchers should be very cautious about assuming that existing empirical
relationships between factors are an indication of invariant social or natural laws. For
example, some Marxists have argued that the “law of value” of capitalism did not operate
in the Soviet Union because of the lack of effective mechanisms of competition, which in
Marx’s political economy enforces the law of motion of capitalism. In an essay entitled
“Are There Economic Laws of Motion of Socialism?” Harry Magdoff (1985) answered
“No,” even though he insisted that such laws were clearly evident in capitalism. In other
words, if economic background conditions change radically, which has occurred numer-
ous times throughout human history, what appear to be universal laws in a particular
context may be shown to be invalid in other contexts.
The myopia of ignoring interactions between variables and context dependence is
evident in the “unbroken line of science from the criminal anthropology of 1876 to the
criminal cytogenetics” of today (Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin 1984:25). Determinist
claims linking social actions with physical characteristics—such as the Lombrosian sci-
ence that declared that inherent criminal intent from birth is evidenced through physical
characteristics such as cranial size, or contemporary claims of genetic causes for criminal-
ity—assume “social institutions reflect nature” (Gould 1996:166). These claims stem
from analyses that neglect political contexts and social relations and, therefore, produce
dubious results. This sleight of hand, which ignores context dependency and interacting
variables, starts from the reasonable position that humans are biological entities and that
we are greatly influenced by our genetic makeup, just like all other organisms. However,
biological determinism reduces physical and social characteristics to codes inscribed on
genes (e.g., Dawkins 1976). However, as Lewontin (2000) argues, an organism does not
simply compute itself from its genes, but rather depends on existing cellular structures
and its environmental context for development. Its ontogeny “is the consequence of a
unique interaction between the genes it carries, the temporal sequence of external envi-
ronments through which it passes during its life, and random events of molecular inter-
actions within individual cells” (pp. 17–18). In fact, Lewontin (2000), a leading geneticist
and dialectical biologist, who explicitly acknowledges his connection to Marxism,
opposes a determinist position in evolutionary science.7 He emphasizes the interaction
between constraints (historical and internal) and external forces:

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Richard York and Brett Clark Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology

All species that exist are the result of a unique historical process from the origins of
life, a process that might have taken many paths other than the one it actually took.
Evolution is not an unfolding but a historically contingent wandering pathway
through the space of possibilities. Part of the historical contingency arises because the
physical conditions in which life has evolved also have a contingent history, but much
of the uncertainty of evolution arises from the existence of multiple possible pathways
even when external conditions are fixed. (P. 88)
An organism becomes a site of interaction between the environment (including the ever-
changing historical social and natural conditions) and genes.
Thus—disregarding social variables such as rearing, education, and economic ine-
qualities—in one context, individuals with certain genes may be more likely to commit
certain crimes compared to others with different genes. However, in a different context,
they may be less likely to commit the same crimes than others. The point is that it is mis-
leading to argue that crime can be explained by the existence of “criminal genes” and, by
extension, that society reflects some sort of “natural order.” In fact, the history of society,
like evolution, remains contingent. Chance is always at play. The social gravity acting
today, persistent as it may seem in terms of our own lives, will be transformed in time.
What form it will take, we do not know. As Lewontin (2000) notes, “What we cannot do
is to keep things as they are” (p. 68). Change is inevitable and the future remains open.


The quantitative analysis of time-series data is growing in popularity among social scien-
tists. This is for good reason; dynamic effects cannot always be properly assessed with
cross-sectional analyses. Nonetheless, can time-series analyses help us overcome the
problems outlined above regarding background conditions that may be constant in any
given historical era? The answer depends on both the period considered and the nature of
structural change. If, for example, time-series data for some aggregate phenomenon (e.g.,
crime rates) for the period 1950–2000 in the United States were analyzed, certain impor-
tant explanative factors may remain effectively constant, even over this relatively long
period. The most striking example may be the structure of the political economy. Over
the past 50 years, market forces have consistently dominated the U.S. economy and all
prominent political leaders (presidents in particular) have been unquestionably procap-
italism. Although minor variations may have occurred in some aspects of the capitalist
structure (e.g., government spending, taxation policies), the basic defining structure of
the political economy has not changed appreciably.
A key argument of Marxists is that historical change is typically not smooth and con-
tinuous, but rather, occurs very rapidly following periods of stasis. This position is per-
haps best expressed in Eldredge and Gould’s (1972; and Gould and Eldredge 1977)
argument that the evolutionary history of organisms is best characterized as “punctuated
equilibria,” long periods of stasis, punctuated with (geologically) brief periods of rapid
change. Social historical change may also follow a pattern of punctuated equilibria. If

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historical background conditions are generally constant, only changing occasionally and
rapidly, time-series data will frequently not span the change of state and, therefore, will
not capture the effects of prominent factors (such as the structure of the political econ-
omy of a nation) on other social factors.
Francis Galton, a prominent Victorian intellectual,8 developed a useful metaphor to
illustrate the nature of punctuated change, specifically in reference to evolutionary
change in the organic world (Gould 1993, 2002). Galton proposed that organisms are not
metaphorical spheres, like billiard balls, rolling smoothly along an evolutionary path dic-
tated by the slightest nudges of external forces (natural selection). Instead, he proposed
that organisms are metaphorical polyhedrons (multisided objects, such as dice). The
polyhedron, its structure metaphorically representing the constraints on change imposed
by the structural integrity of organisms, unlike a billiard ball, stands in place when it is
only slightly nudged (via natural selection). However, when confronted by strong exter-
nal forces that can give it a sufficiently hard push, it is forced to move, and thus switch
facets. The polyhedron’s response to external forces is restricted “by its own internal
structure,” the polyhedron’s various sides—that is, it cannot rest in a position between
facets, only on a facet (Gould 1993:384). In contrast with a sphere, which may roll
smoothly with a light tap, the polyhedron will resist minor perturbations, but, given suf-
ficient force, will switch facets abruptly. This metaphor illustrates the manner in which
structural factors can lead to the dominance of discontinuous change in history. Inter-
connected social structures in a dynamic tension can lead to temporary stability, but
when sufficiently jostled, a cascading of processes can be set in motion, leading to abrupt
change. When this change happens, at a societal level, such as in the mode of production,
the historical background conditions will be restructured, changing the nature of the
social gravity that influences the social world.
Marx and Engels (1976b) stressed that humans are active agents in the creation of his-
tory, interacting with nature, both as a source of life (which is transformed in interaction)
and as a force influencing social development. Marx’s insistence on a materialist concep-
tion of both history and nature provided a dynamic approach for understanding the
interaction of human society with nature (Godelier 1986; Bhaskar 1979; Foster 1999,
2000; Dickens 2004). Through this social relationship with nature, the immediate histor-
ical context confronted by humanity facilitates and constrains the possibilities of the
future in creation. As Marx (1987) noted, “Men make their own history, but they do not
make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves,
but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past”
(p. 15). The point of central concern for our argument is that when people “make their
own history” (i.e., change historical background conditions), they often do it in a brief
historical moment of punctuation, which is commonly preceded and followed by stasis or
periods of slow historical change.
Thus, if prominent social background conditions change in the facet switching
manner of “Galton’s polyhedron,” time-series data will not necessarily be sufficient to
observe variation in key causal factors since change will be concentrated in brief historical
moments. When this consideration is combined with the recognition that many

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Richard York and Brett Clark Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology

important social variables may interact with background conditions to generate their
effects, it becomes clear that observed empirical relationships among variables in the typ-
ical sociological analysis will not necessarily represent invariant laws.
Cross-sectional data on a macroscale may present some hope for observing the effects
of key factors that remain constant over fairly long periods in a specific case (e.g., nation),
if they vary across cases. For example, even though within many nations key structural
factors remain constant for extended periods, such factors may vary substantially at any
one time across nations. Thus, it is not possible to assume that social structures in a par-
ticular nation will remain constant throughout time—witness the dramatic changes in
Russia in the 1990s and the ones we are seeing in Venezuela in the 2000s.9 A variety of eco-
nomic systems may exist in the world at the same time with various degrees of develop-
ment and power. For instance, socialist (or at least semisocialist) nations still exist, despite
their diminished number. Because of cross-national variation in key structures, then, it is
possible to assess the effects of certain background conditions that remain constant
within any particular nation over extended periods. The ongoing expansion of global
capitalism is, of course, reducing the cross-national diversity of many factors, but a hand-
ful of noncapitalist models of the nation-state still exist.
Despite the existence of some degree of cross-national diversity, there may be condi-
tions that operate on a global level and, therefore, influence all societies in the same
manner that gravity has the same effect on all objects on Earth. In this case, at any one
point in time, global background conditions will lead to the problems discussed above,
where important causal forces remain invisible to statistical analyses. Is it reasonable to
assume that such global forces exist? Wallerstein (1974) argues that all nations of the
world are structurally interconnected and form a single world system.10 In fact, this
world system has a life of its own, a drive for the ceaseless accumulation of capital, inde-
pendent of the individual nation-states that exist within its boundaries (Bergesen 1982).
With the emergence of capitalism in the 16th century, precapitalist modes of production
were eliminated as the new economic system expanded throughout the world. Capital-
ism, as the dominant mode of production, consists of an integrated social system com-
posed of interacting subsystems held together through conflicting forces and long-term
historical processes (Wallerstein 1974). The world system is unified economically, but it
is politically decentralized, despite the role of the United States as the current hegemon
(Mészáros 2001). This arrangement, with divisions between the core and periphery,
facilitates the unequal accumulation of capital between spheres within the global econ-
omy (Sweezy 1981). The constant drive for accumulation, the concentration of military
strength in the hands of the dominant capitalist nations, and the division of the world
into an economic-political hierarchy helps maintain the world system, despite inherent
conflicts and shifts in economic-military power throughout the centuries (Magdoff
1969, 1978).11
The world-systems perspective, then, suggests that there are forces that operate
worldwide that have been basically constant in some aspects since the 16th century, but
may be, as Wallerstein (2004) himself proposes, on the brink of sudden change.
Structural factors of the capitalist world system likely influence social conditions in all

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Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology Richard York and Brett Clark

nations—even noncapitalist nations. If this is the case, causal forces stemming from the
structure of the capitalist world system (social gravity on a global scale) will be invisible
to statistical analyses, even if they examine a broad cross-section of nations and a long
period (even stretching into centuries).


Building on the concept of the biosphere introduced by Vladimir Vernadsky in 1926
(Vernadsky 1998), J. B. S. Haldane in Britain and A. I. Oparin in the Soviet Union inde-
pendently introduced a materialist hypothesis of the origins of life, which argued that the
emergence of life from nature radically transformed the conditions that made emergence
possible (Oparin 1965; Bernal 1967). In fact, life—in interaction with the existing envi-
ronment—created the atmosphere as we know it. An interrelationship between living
and nonliving materials within the biosphere produces a cycling of chemical elements.
Thus, the history of life and the physical and chemical processes of our planet are a story
of coevolution (Levins and Lewontin 1985:46–9).
The unique composition of gases in the atmosphere is the product of biological pro-
cesses on earth. Three billion years ago, the Earth’s atmosphere had a dramatically lower
concentration of oxygen than it does today. Unsurprisingly, anaerobic bacteria (i.e., bac-
teria that survive in the absence of oxygen) dominated the Earth. Early bacteria survived
by fermentation, breaking down the sugars and chemicals existing in the surrounding
environment (Capra 1996:236–42). Fermenting bacteria metabolizing sugars produced
methane and carbon dioxide (key greenhouse gases) as waste products, helping to create
the conditions to hold heat in the biosphere. Some bacteria developed the ability to fix
nitrogen. Evolutionary changes led to an early form of photosynthesis, which is quite dif-
ferent from the process found in plants today. These photosynthesizing bacteria used
hydrogen sulfide from volcanism (not water) as a source of hydrogen and combined it
with energy from sunlight and carbon dioxide from the air “to form organic compounds”
(Capra 1996:237). Oxygen was not released in this process.
Further evolutionary changes in bacteria led to the emergence of a special type of
blue-green bacteria that developed the ability to use sunlight of higher energy to split the
stronger bonds of hydrogen and oxygen found in water. The hydrogen was used for build-
ing sugars, while the oxygen was released. Over many years, oxygen began to accumulate
in the environment, causing toxic reactions with organic matter and the destruction of
essential biochemical compounds. Oxygen pollution killed numerous species, creating a
punctuated change in the evolutionary development of the bacterial world. This contin-
gent moment in organic history yielded blue-green bacteria that could both engage in
photosynthesis, producing oxygen, and in respiration, utilizing oxygen from the atmo-
sphere (Margulis and Sagan 1986). Thus, blue-green bacteria were able to make use of the
waste (oxygen) produced by their photosynthetic process, which, to some degree, regu-
lated the oxygen present in the atmosphere. After several billion years of evolution, life in
interaction with the abiotic environment created a mixture of atmospheric gases that

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Richard York and Brett Clark Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology

provided conditions for the evolution of oxygen-breathing organisms, thus changing the
material conditions of the world.
An analysis of life on Earth at any one point in time could very easily miss the fact that
the atmosphere is changing because of the activities of living organisms. In fact, perhaps
as a result of the bias that arises from the limited time scale of human affairs compared to
geological processes, Western philosophers and scientists traditionally assumed that
nature maintains a sort of foreordained equilibrium (Botkin 1990). This is not the case,
however. The actions of organisms at any one point in time contribute to the modifica-
tion of the biosphere and lay the foundations for future conditions.12 In a very real sense,
the anaerobic bacteria of Earth’s ancient history were their own gravediggers—they were
changing their environment so that it became uninhabitable to them.13
We use this example to illustrate the point that current conditions—either in nature
or in society—are not necessarily immutable. Furthermore, the key to understanding
how processes operating at present may play out in the future lies in the realm of theory.
Turner (1985), arguing in support of theoretical development, states that theorists need
to “begin to develop abstract principles and analytical models about invariant and time-
less properties of the social universe” in order “to cumulate knowledge about human
action, interaction, and organization” (p. 30). In contrast, we argue that we need to his-
toricize these relationships and properties to determine which extend beyond the back-
ground conditions of any particular historical era and which are context dependent,
unique to a specific historical era. For example, during a short period, it is unlikely that
dramatic changes in the atmosphere caused by the activity of organisms would be
observed (the present anthropogenic alteration of the atmosphere is perhaps an excep-
tion).14 However, careful observation may lead us to understand processes at work at a
particular time—such as anaerobic bacteria consuming carbon dioxide and emitting free
oxygen—and, through the development of theory, may further allow us to recognize the
changes that such processes may lead to in the full extent of time. In this, we can better
grapple with the knowledge that change is inevitable and recognize that theory provides
a basis for processing the empirical reality of the nature–society relationship (Lieberson
Specifically in reference to Marxist theory, our point is that theoretically derived
expectations of future changes in society are not necessarily at odds with typical scientific
practice. Just as abrupt change is a topic for natural science and is recognized as a recur-
ring phenomenon (Gould and Eldredge 1977; Botkin 1990), so too it must be incorpo-
rated into social science. A central aspect of science is the attempt to build nomothetic
theory based on a selection of observations. It is obviously not possible to observe all phe-
nomena at all periods of time. Science relies on the observation of a subset of given phe-
nomena to develop general explanations that can, through deduction, apply to situations
that have not been observed. In this sense, Marxist theory grounded in materialism is no
different from theories in the natural sciences in its realist-empiricist stance.15 Indeed,
Marx was a close observer of the rise of modern science, tracing the impact of Greek mate-
rialists, particularly Epicurus, on early modern scientific philosophy as represented by
Bacon and Gassendi (Foster 2000:21–65; see also Griese and Pawelzig 1995). Using a

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historical materialist (or critical-realist) approach, Marxism embraces the conception

that the lives, thoughts, and concepts of humans change in relation to the conditions of
their material existence (Bhaskar 1979; Burkett 1999a; Foster 2000). This perspective
provides the basis for understanding the social relationships in society and with nature.
In this dialectical relationship, the present remains an emergent reality tied to previous
historical, material conditions (Bukharin 1971, 2005). An analysis of inherent contradic-
tions (tensions) provides a basis for making conjectures about the machinations of the
political economy—much in the same way that an analysis of the oxygen releasing activity
of anaerobic bacteria allows for conjectures about the future composition of the
It is important to recognize that Einstein originally developed his theories of special
relativity and general relativity without direct empirical tests, by logically deriving them
from existing knowledge with his famous “thought experiments” (Thorne 1994; Rigden
2005). In fact, the development of theory about black holes, which Einstein’s physics
implied, occurred, at least in its initial stages, entirely without observational evidence
(Thorne 1994). Crucial to scientific inference as understood since the time of the ancient
Greeks (Asmis 1984) is the need to understand how readily apparent physical conditions
(observations) are dependent on often invisible processes, requiring that conjectures
regarding the unobserved be based on theoretical constructs. From knowledge of obser-
vations, processes (including natural laws), and theoretical insights, scientists make
rational inferences about future changes in nature and society.
Marxism embraces this dynamic of the scientific enterprise, analyzing the tensions in
the social-economic world and the evolving contradictions of the political economy. In
his embrace of the cause of socialism and the main tenets of Marx’s critique of political
economy, Einstein (1949) argued on realist-scientific grounds against the “economic
anarchy of capitalist society” in which “production is carried on for profit, not for use”
(pp. 12–14). Sweezy (1953) insisted that we understand the present as history now, in
order to fully comprehend the processes operating and the contradictions in develop-
ment. Whether we look at the economic crises (O’Connor 1973) or the ecological crises
(Vitousek, Mooney, and Melilo 1997; Foster 2000, 2002a,b; Buell 2003; Burkett 2003;
York, Rosa, and Dietz 2003; Clark and York 2005) produced by capitalism, arguments that
question capitalism’s stability are no less scientific than conjectures regarding the future
composition of the atmosphere or for a heat death of the universe caused by entropy.16
Capitalism is an inherently expansionary economic system, requiring access to cheap
labor and natural resources. Through its operations and tendencies, capitalism acts as an
organizing force within global society, while influencing and responding to the specific
historical contexts of and within nations (Foster and Clark 2003). The ultimate goals
within this economic system are to maximize profit and to sustain the unfettered devel-
opment of the capitalist enterprise (Baran and Sweezy 1971:78–81). Given this back-
ground condition, capital becomes a barrier to itself by perpetuating the conflict between
“production for profit and production for human needs” (Burkett 1999a:177–80).17 In
this situation, nature is freely appropriated, workers are increasingly separated from the
direct means of survival, and social needs are trumped by the demands of capital

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Richard York and Brett Clark Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology

(increasing social inequalities) and the commoditization of everything (Burkett

1999a:70, 1999b; Wallerstein 1992:15–19). Given these conditions and processes,
Marxism recognizes that the incessant drive to accumulate capital inevitably undermines
the natural conditions of given social formations and/or modes of production (Dowd
1989; Foster 2002b; Sweezy 2004; Burkett 2005).
Coupled with human action—such as a global, mass social movement of resistance—
the internal dynamics of the political economy make it increasingly difficult for the sys-
tem to expand. At the same time, Marxists note, these conditions produce the possibility
of a social revolution that will radically change the historical background conditions of
social relations. However, even if revolution fails to end the capitalist system, a worst-case
scenario presents itself. Capital will continue to profit despite the degradation of nature,
which is inherent in the operations of the political economy and is intensified as the sys-
tem develops, only to destroy the ability of nature to sustain human societies, thus ending
the capitalist system (Foster 2002a,b; Burkett 2003; Sweezy 2004). While being influenced
by natural conditions, social action, and historical constraints, the future remains contin-
gent. The collapse of capitalism, given its inherent operations and contradictions, is a
rational conjecture regarding the future of society, but the retreat of capitalism to the
pages of history only offers the possibility of a more sustainable social order.
In relying on empirical evidence and rational analysis, Marxist conjectures are not
unscientific, but they are more like midterm weather forecasting than predicting the
phases of the moon. Predicting the future is shaky business, particularly when incomplete
information limits our knowledge of systems, when stochastic processes operate, and/or
when factors interact with one another in complex ways. Just as the prediction by many
economists in the last half of the 1990s that the business cycle was a relic proved wrong,
assuming the smooth continuity of current trends can be problematic. We must recog-
nize the difference between projection and prediction. Projection merely extends current
trends into the future, while prediction may involve consideration of forces that are not
operating at present but that theory suggests may operate in emergent contexts. For
example, over the past 100 years human material quality of life has improved despite envi-
ronmental degradation, suggesting that human material well-being does not depend on
environmental well-being. However, theoretical insights suggest that such a relationship
is context dependent. While resources are plentiful, they can be extracted rapidly without
much notice or concern. However, after a threshold is reached, conditions may deterio-
rate appreciably and rapidly (Muradian 2001; Scheffer et al. 2001). That is to say, over the
next 100 years the relationship between human well-being and environmental well-being
may change dramatically. It is important to recognize that population projections, such
as those generated by United Nations demographers, assume “conditions as usual,” and
do not take into account punctuated changes in background conditions (e.g., rapid cli-
mate change, global nuclear contamination), which could lead to dramatically different
outcomes. Engels (1966) pointed to the possibility that anthropogenic induced climate
change in the form of deforestation and desertification (also involving increased regional
temperatures) had in some cases dramatically turned the tables on the human relation to
nature and might do so again on a larger scale if human production relations were not

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Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology Richard York and Brett Clark

changed (pp. 179–83). As with the effect of anaerobic bacteria on the atmosphere, life can
create radical transformations in natural and social systems, drastically altering the future
and its possibilities.


Our central argument is that because of their shared philosophical materialism, nonvul-
gar, and historically informed versions of Marxism and positivism are not entirely incom-
patible and can inform one another. We make our case by expressing Marxist critiques of
mainstream contemporary empirical research in statistical terms, to show that a positivist
program can address empirical conjectures based on Marxist theory. Our argument
unfolds in three steps. First, macrostructural background conditions that have substan-
tial effects on a variety of social processes—“social gravity” specific to a given historical
era—may be effectively constant for fairly long stretches of history, particularly within
any one society. Because of their constancy during any one period, the effects of such
background conditions are invisible to statistical analyses. Second, background condi-
tions may not only have a direct effect on variables of interest, but also likely interact with
other factors to generate social outcomes. Because of these interaction effects, observed
empirical relationships among factors may not represent enduring social or natural laws,
but rather, only context dependent relationships. Third, historical background condi-
tions that have remained effectively constant for long stretches of time may change rap-
idly, such as through revolutions, and thereby alter social conditions and establish a new
state of social gravity. Because of this historical pattern of stasis punctuated by brief peri-
ods of rapid change, time-series analyses will frequently miss periods of historic change
and will, therefore, fail to capture the effects of background conditions.
We draw these points together to argue that because of the nature of historical change
and the interaction of background conditions with many social factors, simply projecting
short-term historical trends into the future may be highly misleading. A theoretical
understanding of the processes at work is necessary for making informed conjectures. In
this sense, Marxist conjectures regarding future structural changes in society are not
different in principle from the kinds of conjectures made by scientists in the natural
A scientific perspective that avoids overly reductionistic, mechanistic, and teleologi-
cal positions and incorporates the concepts of plasticity, historicity, social gravity, and
coevolution can provide the foundation for critical research that is not epistemologically
naïve, while remaining grounded in materialism and realism. In this, the scientific enter-
prise, whether Marxist or positivist, can grapple with the dynamic world in which we are
immersed. The historical materialist tradition of Marxism offers a methodological
approach for analyzing the historically observed (context dependent), the potentially
invisible (in particular contexts), and the contradictions of relationships, in tandem with
developing theoretical insights. In this fashion, Marxist theory is not in conflict with
the positivist research agenda, broadly construed. Marxism makes clear, empirically

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Richard York and Brett Clark Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology

assessable conjectures of the social–economic relationships within society and points to

the importance of distinguishing between emergent, historically transient relationships
and spatiotemporally invariant laws.
Marxist critiques of existing empirical work are not antiscience. Rather, Marxists raise
issues related to positivism’s tendency to be mechanistic and ahistorical. Such critiques
are fully consistent with scientific and statistical considerations. In fact, these critiques—
such as Hessen’s (1971)—highlight the historical and social relationships involved in sci-
entific work, much like Merton’s (1957, 1970) classic work on the sociology of science.
Historical context remains a necessary part of any presentation of the world. Further-
more, Marxist arguments regarding the evolution of society, based on the recognition of
internal contradictions, are not teleological. Contrarily, they are fully consistent with the-
ory in the “hard” sciences (e.g., black holes, atmospheric changes, etc.).
Marx (1993) noted, “History itself is a real part of natural history. . . . Natural science
will in time incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will
incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science” (p. 143). Just how this is
done (whether it is sensitive to the concerns we express here) remains to be seen. No
doubt, this will be an area of contention. The future is influenced by historical and mate-
rial constraints, but trend is not destiny. Marxist theory provides an additional tool for
understanding the world, while grappling with the changes that are taking place. Both
social and natural processes remain external forces to turn the polyhedron into the

We thank John Bellamy Foster, Philip Mancus, Jason W. Moore, Eugene A. Rosa, and the
TSQ editor and anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments. The first author’s
contribution was supported in part by the New Faculty Award and the Junior Professor
Development Award from the University of Oregon.

Here, we are only stating a generality. We, of course, recognize that there are some scholars who do
not fit this pattern. The most notable example is Erik Olin Wright (see, e.g., Wright and Perrone
1977; Wright and Cho 1992), who is perhaps the sociologist best known for combining a Marxist
perspective with quantitative empirical methods. Likewise, Marxist approaches to economics
have often been empirically and mathematically rigorous (e.g., Steindl 1952; Kalecki 1968; Shaikh
and Tonak 1994).
“Western Marxism,” labeled as such by Merleau-Ponty (1973) in the 1950s, is a tradition that is
derived from the work of Lukács, Korsch, and Gramsci in the 1930s, which emphasizes the role of
culture, rather than economics, in shaping social relations. Western Marxists embrace dialectics,
emphasizing holism, history, and reflexivity, noting that these are distinctive to the realm of
human history. By forging this separation between natural science and social science, Western
Marxists distanced themselves from Marx’s materialist conception of human history and his
materialist conception of nature. (It should be noted that not all Western Marxists were equally

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Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology Richard York and Brett Clark

caught up within this move away from materialism.) For Marx, materialism must be both histor-
ical and dialectical (Anderson 1976; Bhaskar 1989; Foster 2000). Materialism without dialectics
tends toward mechanism and reductionism. Dialectics without materialism tends toward
Marxist social movements have generally been more practical and less prone to esoteric philo-
sophical hang-ups than academic Marxists. We are focusing on issues in academic Marxism and
recognize that these same issues are not necessarily a principal concern of those involved in the
immediate practical aspects of social movements.
For an extensive discussion of various traditions, see Timpanaro (1980).
Throughout this article, we engage work by both social and natural scientists. In part, we rely on
the work of natural scientists to illustrate our argument because it is the natural sciences that are
usually used as a model for positivists in the social sciences. Many of our examples will also be
drawn from both the natural history and environmental literatures. The work of Marxist natural
scientists demonstrates that there is substantial heterogeneity in the natural sciences and that a
Marxist social science is not necessarily at odds with epistemological practice in the natural
Karl Popper (2002) is perhaps the best-known critic of “laws of history,” such as those supposedly
suggested by crude versions of Marxism. The critical Marxist tradition we focus on here, charac-
terized by scholars such as Thompson (1978), Haila and Levins (1992), Foster (2000), Lewontin
(2000), Gould (2002), and Burkett (2005), generally takes a position at odds with Popper’s carica-
ture of Marxism, rejecting universal trans-historical laws of history and arguing for the prevalence
of contingency in the unfolding of historical processes. In other words, it takes history seriously.
The Marxist view of the philosophy of science is more in accord with Lakatos (1978) and even
Kuhn (1962) than with Popper, without thereby abandoning a realist perspective or rejecting all
of Popper’s insights. It should also be noted that Levins and Lewontin (1985) provide an impor-
tant example of how a dialectical and historical approach is used to study nature, as opposed to a
mechanistic approach.
The term “positivism” is not widely used within the natural sciences. Instead, critical scientists,
such as Lewontin and Gould, critique mechanism and crude reductionism.
Note that Galton is a complex historical figure who defies simple classification. In addition to pro-
viding insights into the evolutionary process, helping to lay the foundations of modern statistics,
and writing on and engaging in African exploration, among many other endeavors, he was a key
proponent of the eugenics movement. We recognize the irony that an advocate of biological deter-
minism (in the form of eugenics), also provided an important metaphor regarding the nature of
historical change (as well as structural constraint) that was utilized by Marxist-influenced schol-
ars (see Gould 1993, 2002).
The collapse of the Soviet Union caused much debate within the social sciences, as scholars
tried to determine why they had not predicted such an event (see the special issue of Theory
and Society in 1994 [Vol. 23, No. 2] devoted to this topic). As a result, a symposium in the
American Journal of Sociology (1995, Vol. 100, No. 6) was devoted to issues of prediction in the
social sciences. Collins (1995) contends that social science, given a set of conditional state-
ments, can make predictions about future social developments. Collins, using a modified
version of world-systems perspective, argues that he was able to predict the eventual downfall
of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, prediction making remains a contested issue, especially in
regards to issues of temporality, particularly if prediction is aimed at the moderately distant
future (e.g., 30–50 years). Kuran (1995) finds this type of prediction making to be unacceptable

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Richard York and Brett Clark Marxism, Positivism, and Scientific Sociology

and imprecise, because there is inherent uncertainty about many social processes because of
fractured and incomplete knowledge. Kuran notes that surprises will frequently confront social
scientists in a contingent world.
Our use of Wallerstein and the world-system perspective is for illustrative purposes. Wallerstein is
a theorist influenced by Marx, as well as other theoretical traditions. Wallerstein is in agreement
with classical Marxism that capitalism is, from birth, a globalizing system.
Mészáros, Sweezy, and Magdoff, along with Paul Baran, have all contributed to the development
of the Monthly Review school of thought, of which Wallerstein has drawn upon (and debated) at
times in his own theoretical development. This particular tradition is separate from the world-
system perspective as conceived by Wallerstein. At the same time, there is a similarity between
these perspectives in their view of capitalism as a global system.
In 1864, George Perkins Marsh (1864:11) highlighted the role humans had in the transformation
of nature, often in devastating ways, in the process of obtaining their livelihood (also see Clark and
Foster 2002:167–169). His work served as a warning to humanity that if wanton destruction of
nature continued the necessary conditions for human life would be destroyed.
Lewontin (2000) emphasizes that there is no evidence that organisms are becoming more adapted
to the environment. Environmental change is a given. Around 99.99 percent of all species that
have ever existed are extinct. He argues that what humans can try to do is to slow the rate of extinc-
tion and decrease the degradation of the earth so humans and other living creatures can have
decent lives (p. 68).
The long-standing view that nature exists in a static state and the challenges of analyzing dynamic
processes with data covering only a short span of time likely inhibited the recognition of the
anthropogenic climate change currently underway. Note that data from glacial and geologic
sources on climatic conditions stretching back well before modern humanity emerged were
important in firmly establishing the influence of modern societies on the global climate (IPCC
It must be noted that an overly mechanistic, reductionist tradition of Marxist materialism was
once quite popular, as seen in the crude work of Plekhanov (1974). This crude mechanistic posi-
tion was fairly common within the Second and Third Internationals and prompted Western
Marxist scholars such as Lukács (1972) and Gramsci (1995:293) to reject this direction of Marxist
theory. Unfortunately, this rejection resulted in the abandonment of any connection between the
dialectic and nature, and hence a distancing of Marxism from the natural and physical sciences
altogether. An epistemological Marxism wrapped in idealistic practice developed, leaving materi-
alism to natural science and positivists (Foster 2000:231–49). Fortunately, a historical materialist
approach, which rejects narrow mechanism, has resurfaced in environmental sociology (see
Burkett 1999a; Foster 2000) and continues in the natural sciences (see Levins and Lewontin
1985; Haila and Lewins 1992; Gould 1996; Lewontin 2000; Gould 2002).
We, of course, do not wish to imply that conjectures based on Marxist theory have the same like-
lihood of being correct as those based on the second law of thermodynamics! We are merely mak-
ing the point that both types of conjectures are based on extrapolating from known observations
into an unobserved future. It is important to recognize that in both cases (the heat death of the
universe and the collapse of capitalism) we do not reach a point of absolute certainty until we
make observations when such events occur. For example, Hawking (1988:143–53) notes the pos-
sibility (a possibility that he ultimately rejects, however) that under a certain set of assumptions
about the nature of the universe (i.e., it eventually contracts, collapsing in on itself), a reversal of
entropy may occur.

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Given monopoly capitalism, the contradictions of capital have only increased. Stagnation
becomes the normal state of the economy, even though it continues to expand (Baran and Sweezy
1966:108). Operating at less than full capacity, the valorization of surplus value and incentive to
invest capital is hindered, leading to further stagnation in the economy (Foster, Magdoff, and
McChesney 2003).

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