Positive (or Descriptive) vs. Normative

… a core concept used in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

Concept description

The Oxford Dictionary (reference below) defines positive as dealing only with matters of fact and experience – not speculative or theoretical, and it defines normative as establishing, relating to, or deriving from a standard or norm, especially of behaviour.

The term descriptive, which Oxford Dictionary defines as describing or classifying in an objective or non-judgmental way, is often used as a synonym for positive.

The distinction between positive (or descriptive) and normative is highlighted in many of the disciplines that contribute to the study of public policy and public administration, as illustrated below.

Descriptive claims vs. normative claims

CriticalThinkers.com (reference below) says:

“A “claim” is statement that asserts something that could be either true or false.

  • A DESCRIPTIVE claim is a claim that asserts that such-and-such IS the case.
  • A NORMATIVE claim, on the other hand, is a claim that asserts that such-and-such OUGHT to be the case.

“Normative claims make value judgments. Descriptive claims do not make value judgments.

Positive theory vs. normative theory in philosophy

Alfonso Llanes (2018, reference below) writes:

“Positive theory is a theory that tries to explain how the world works in a value-free way, while a normative theory provides a value-based view about what the world ought to be like or how it should to work. In general, positive theories express what is, while normative theories express what ought to be.”

Positive statements vs. normative statements in economics

Geoff Riley, writing about economic statements, says:

“Positive statements are objective statements that can be tested, amended or rejected by referring to the available evidence. Positive economics deals with objective explanation and the testing and rejection of theories. For example:

  • A fall in incomes will lead to a rise in demand for own-label supermarket foods
  • If the government raises the tax on beer, this will lead to a fall in profits of the brewers.
  • The rising price of crude oil on world markets will lead to an increase in cycling to work

“Normative statements are subjective statements – i.e. they carry value judgments. For example:

  • Pollution is the most serious economic problem
  • Unemployment is more harmful than inflation
  • Resources are best allocated by allowing the market mechanism to work freely
    The government should enforce minimum prices for beers and lagers sold in supermarkets and off-licences in a bid to control alcohol consumption
    Focusing on the evidence is called adopting an empirical approach – evidence-based work is becoming more and more important in shaping different government policies and how much funding to give to each.

“A value judgement is a subjective statement of opinion rather than a fact that can be tested by looking at the available evidence … Focusing on the evidence is called adopting an empirical approach – evidence-based work is becoming more and more important in shaping different government policies and how much funding to give to each.”

See also Normative Ethics.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Policy Analysis and Process (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101 Policy Analysis and Process.

Sources

Oxford Dictionary, positive, at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/positive, accessed 16 March 2019.

Oxford Dictionary, normative, at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/normative, accessed 16 March 2019.

Oxford Dictionary, descriptive, at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/descriptive, accessed 16 March 2019.

CriticalThinkers.com, Descriptive versus Normative Claims, at https://criticalthinkeracademy.com/courses/moral-arguments/lectures/655333, accessed 16 March 2019.

Alfonso Llanes (2018), Is a building task a positive or a normative theory?, Medium, at https://medium.com/@alfonsollanes/is-a-building-task-a-positive-or-a-normative-theory-790e5408ae1, accessed 16 March 2019.

Geoff Riley, Positive and Normative Statements, Economics Topic Videos, at tutor2u, at https://www.tutor2u.net/economics/reference/positive-and-normative-statements, accessed 16 March 2019.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 16 March 2019.

Image: Bloomsbury.com, cover for book by Michael G. Lawler, at https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/what-is-and-what-ought-to-be-9780826417046/, accessed 16 March 2019.