Please explain why people behave as they do.  How would you contrast the positivist viewpoint regarding universal laws that govern human behavior with the historic viewpoint regarding the need to...

Please explain why people behave as they do.  How would you contrast the positivist viewpoint regarding universal laws that govern human behavior with the historic viewpoint regarding the need to consider specific cultural traditions? Please give examples.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is, of course, very difficult (and maybe impossible) to actually know why people behave as they do.  Because there are so many different groups of people (let alone individuals) and so many different situations that people experience, it is very difficult to form a comprehensive theory as to why people behave the way that they do.

Positivists believe that they can find laws that govern human behavior.  They believe that, in at least some cases, it is possible to predict human behavior as accurately as science can predict the behaviors of some aspects of the physical world.  They believe that we can devise laws that will tell us that Condition A will lead to Result B in the human world.  For example, positivist sociologists might argue that birthrates will invariably fall as a society moves into the middle levels of income.  They would argue that this stems from predictable human reactions to economic constraints and influences.

By contrast, other types of sociologists (for example, symbolic interactionists) would argue that cultural differences have to be taken into account.  They would emphasize the fact that human beings have free will.  Because human beings have free will, their actions will not be predictable through laws.  This would explain, for example, why some religious groups tend to have very high birth rates even when economic influences would tend to push them towards having smaller families.  Because they perceive procreation as a mandate from God, they act in ways that are contrary to what positivists would predict.

Thus, it seems that we should say that human beings base their behaviors on a mix of factors.  There may be some ways in which their behaviors can be objectively predicted.  However, the ways in which people perceive the world and the (culturally-influenced) meanings that they ascribe to various aspects of human life will affect the ways in which they act.  These effects will not be as predictable as positivists tend to think.

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