4 Ways of Understanding the Social Sciences

· September 9, 2018

The social sciences attempt to understand human behavior from very particular perspectives. If you want to study behavior, you have to accept certain ideas. First, you have to determine if humans are truly capable of interpreting behavior and if they can understand the social reality.

The answer that you give will determine how you study behavior. This is the ontological assumption. The second question that determines how you study human behavior is epistemological. This assumption proposes a relationship between the researcher and the object being studied in such a way that you can assume that the researcher and subject are separate elements or are the same. The answer, again, will determine the social science focus.

In addition to these two assumptions, there are other differences between approaches. We’re talking about methodology. While it’s true that different approaches can use different options, there are methodologies and practices that are common within certain approaches. Based on these distinctions (ontology, epistemology, methodology, and methods), at least four approaches to studying behavior arise. These four different social science approaches are positivism, postpositivism, interpretationism, and humanism. 

The positive approach in social sciences

The first approach we will talk about is positivism. This approach believes that social reality is objective. In other words, interactions between people obey certain natural laws that are easy to understand. This approach in social science believes that the researcher and subject are separate elements. Consequently, it uses inductive procedures for inquiry.

People putting puzzle pieces together.

Being able to identify some behaviors will help us figure out the natural laws that govern our social realitySo, by studying certain behaviors, we can find the reasons behind our actions.


Positivists use the empirical method. They aspire to fully understand reality through experience. The methods that they use come from the natural sciences and revolve around experiments. From these experiments, researchers get data and use statistical analysis to create mathematical models. These models explain behavior.

Post-positivist approach to social sciences

Over time, people started to criticize the positivist approach. They saw that human behavior doesn’t obey the laws of nature. This criticism gave rise to another approach called post-positivism.

Said approach still believes that reality is objective, though it takes into account that it isn’t easy to understand. As a result of the change, researchers and subjects are no longer considered separate elements. Instead, postpositivists believe that the researcher can have an influence on the process. This approach began to use deductive methods, which started with accepted facts that were applied to individual cases to test their validity using probability.

The post-positivist methodology is still empirical, but it gives greater importance to context. In the same vein, the methods are approximations of the natural method. Among them, we find experiments, statistical analysis, and quantitative interviews.

The interpretative approach in the social sciences

Interpretationism assumes that social reality is both objective and subjective. This new concept, subjectivity, implies that reality is a human construct. That means that people create their own social reality.

According to this approach, we can understand social reality and behavior even though the interpretation will depend on human subjectivity. In order to understand subjective behavior, interpretationists rely on conceptual knowledge.

Man with hot air balloon head understanding social sciences.

Interpretationists use a methodology based on context. They pay a lot of attention to the meaning that people assign to actions. To find those meanings, researchers use textual analysis and speech analysis.

The humanistic approach to social sciences

Lastly, the humanistic approach goes to the other extreme. It proposes that reality is completely subjective. Consequently, we can’t understand social reality. In this approach, human subjectivity is more important than anything else. Given that we can never understand it, we can only hope to empathize. We can only understand how other people see the world by how it differs from our own understanding.

The humanistic methodology in the social sciences is interested in values, meanings, and objectives. To get this information, researchers use empathetic interaction. They interact with the research subjects in order to collect information about how they understand their social reality.

As you can see, the social sciences offer different ways of understanding our behavior. There are different ways to study them. At a first glance, they probably seem mutually exclusive. However, they can be combined. Human behavior is very complicated. Studying it with different approaches can help the researcher arrive at a more comprehensive conclusion. Some approaches are more useful for understanding some behavior than others. However, that doesn’t mean the rest of them are useless or less valuable.