The social sciences try to understand our behavior from a very particular point of view. Thus, to begin to study the way we act, it is necessary to assume some previous ideas. First, we need to determine if we are really capable of interpreting the behavior, if we can learn about social reality.
The answer given will determine how to study the behavior. This would be the ontological hypothesis. Second, another question that will determine how we study human behavior is the epistemological question. The latter raises the question of the relationship between the researcher and the object under study. We can assume that the seeker and the object are separate elements, or that they are identical. The answer, again, will condition the approach used in the social sciences.
In addition to these two assumptions, there are other differences between the approaches. We refer to the methodology. While it is true that different options can be used in different approaches, there are methodologies and forms of action closely related to certain approaches. Based on these four distinctions (ontology, epistemology, methodology, and methods), there are at least four approaches to studying behavior. These four social science approaches are positivist, pospositivist, interpretationalist, and humanistic.
The first approach that we expose is the positivist. This approach considers that social reality is objective. This means that interactions between people obey some natural laws that are easy to understand. This approach of social science considers that the researcher and the object of the study are distinct elements and, consequently, use inductive procedures.
Knowing some behaviors will help us discover the natural laws that govern social reality. In this way, from the study of certain behaviors can be found the causes that lead us to act.
Positivists use empirical methodology, based on experience, through which they aspire to know reality in its entirety. The methods they use come from the natural sciences and emphasize the realization of experiments from which data are obtained which, through statistical analysis, give rise to mathematical models. These models aim to explain the behavior.
Over time, the positivist approach was considered wrong because human behavior does not obey natural laws. From this theory emerged another approach, the pospositivist.
This approach always considers reality as objective, although it takes into account that it is not easy to know it. With change, the researcher and the object ceased to be considered as separate elements and it was decided to think that the researcher can influence knowledge. We have also begun to use deductive methods, which start from the accepted data and apply them to individual cases and verify their validity, based on probability.
The methodology used by the pospositivists remains an empirical method, but they choose to give more importance to the context. In the same way, the methods used are approximations of the natural method among which are the experiments, the statistical analyzes and the quantitative interviews.
The interpretative approach of the social sciences takes as a starting point that social reality is both objective and subjective. This new concept, subjectivity, implies that reality is a human construct. It means that people build social reality.
According to this approach, we can learn about social reality and behavior, although the given interpretation depends on human subjectivity. In order to understand subjective knowledge, interpretatives use conceptual knowledge.
Interpretatives use a context-based methodology. They pay close attention to the meaning that people give to actions. To search for these meanings, researchers use textual analysis and discourse analysis.
Finally, the humanistic approach goes to the other extreme and proposes that the reality be completely subjective. Therefore, the social reality can not be known.In this approach, human subjectivity is the most important, and since we can not know it, we can only aspire to empathy. To understand how others see the world as opposed to how we understand it.
The methodology that uses the humanistic approach to the social sciences focuses on values, meanings and goals. To know them, use empathic interaction. In this way, researchers interact with research topics to gather information about how they understand social reality.
As we have seen, the social sciences offer different ways of understanding our behavior. There are different ways to study them that even if they seem exclusive, the truth is that they can be combined. Human behavior is very complicated and the study of different approaches can help to gain a better understanding. Some approaches may be more useful for understanding certain behaviors or others, but this does not mean that other approaches are not useful or are worse.