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The social sciences are a group of academic disciplines that study human aspects of the world. They diverge from the arts and humanities in that the social sciences tend to emphasize the use of the scientific method in the study of humanity, including quantitative and qualitative methods.

The social sciences, in studying subjective, inter-subjective and objective or structural aspects of society, were traditionally referred to as soft sciences. This is in contrast to hard sciences, such as the natural and physical sciences, which may focus exclusively on objective aspects of nature. Nowadays, however, the distinction between the so-called soft and hard sciences is blurred. Some social science subfields have become very quantitative in methodology or behavioral in approach. Conversely, the interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary nature of scientific inquiry into human behavior and social and environmental factors affecting it have made many of the so-called hard sciences dependent on social science methodology. Examples of boundary bluring include emerging disciplines like social studies of medicine, neuropsychology, bioeconomics and the history and sociology of science. Increasingly, quantitative and qualitative methods are being integrated in the study of human action and its implications and consequences.

History of the social sciences Edit

Ancient GreeceEdit

In ancient philosophy, there was no difference between mathematics and the study of history, poetry or politics. Only with the development of mathematical proof did there gradually arise a perceived difference between "scientific" disciplines and others, the "humanities" or the liberal arts. Thus, Aristotle studies planetary motion and poetry with the same methods, and Plato mixes geometrical proofs with his demonstration on the state of intrinsic knowledge.

The EnlightenmentEdit

This unity of science as descriptive remains, for example, in the time of Thomas Hobbes who argued that deductive reasoning from axioms created a scientific framework, and hence his Leviathan was a scientific description of a political commonwealth. What would happen within decades of his work was a revolution in what constituted "science", particularly the work of Isaac Newton in physics. Newton, by revolutionizing what was then called "natural philosophy", changed the basic framework by which individuals understood what was "scientific".

While he was merely the archetype of an accelerating trend, the important distinction is that for Newton, the mathematical flowed from a presumed reality independent of the observer, and working by its own rules. For philosophers of the same period, mathematical expression of philosophical ideals was taken to be symbolic of natural human relationships as well: the same laws moved physical and spiritual reality. For examples see Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz and Johannes Kepler, each of whom took mathematical examples as models for human behavior directly. In Pascal's case, the famous wager; for Leibniz, the invention of binary computation; and for Kepler, the intervention of angels to guide the planets.

In the realm of other disciplines, this created a pressure to express ideas in the form of mathematical relationships. Such relationships, called "Laws" after the usage of the time (see philosophy of science) became the model which other disciplines would emulate.

19th CenturyEdit

Auguste Comte (1797-1857) argued that ideas pass through three rising stages, Theological, Philosophical and Scientific. He defined the difference as the first being rooted in assumption, the second in critical thinking, and the third in positive observation. This framework, still rejected by many, encapsulates the thinking which was to push economic study from being a descriptive to a mathematically based discipline. Karl Marx was one of the first writers to claim that his methods of research represented a scientific view of history in this model.

With the late 19th century, attempts to apply equations to statements about human behavior became increasingly common. Among the first were the "Laws" of philology, which attempted to map the change over time of sounds in a language.

It was with the work of Charles Darwin that the descriptive version of social theory received another shock. Biology had, seemingly, resisted mathematical study, and yet the Theory of Natural Selection and the implied idea of Genetic inheritance - later found to have been enunciated by Gregor Mendel, seemed to point in the direction of a scientific biology based, like physics and chemistry, on mathematical relationships.

20th CenturyEdit

In the first half of the twentieth century, statistics became a free-standing discipline of applied mathematics. Statistical methods were used confidently, for example in an increasingly statistical view of biology.

The first thinkers to attempt to combine inquiry of the type they saw in Darwin with exploration of human relationships, which, evolutionary theory implied, would be based on selective forces, were Freud in Austria and William James in the United States. Freud's theory of the functioning of the mind, and James' work on experimental psychology would have enormous impact on those that followed. Freud, in particular, created a framework which would appeal not only to those studying psychology, but artists and writers as well.

One of the most persuasive advocates for the view of scientific treatment of philosophy would be John Dewey (1859-1952). He began, as Marx did, in an attempt to weld Hegelian idealism and logic to experimental science, for example in his "Psychology" of 1887. However, it is when he abandoned Hegelian constructs, and joined the movement in America called Pragmatism, possibly under the influence of William James' "Principles of Psychology" that he began to formulate his basic doctrine, enunciated in essays such as "The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy" (1910).

This idea, based on his theory of how organisms respond, states that there are three phases to the process of inquiry:

  1. Problematic Situation, where the typical response is inadequate.
  2. Isolation of Data or subject matter.
  3. Reflective, which is tested empirically.

With the rise of the idea of quantitative measurement in the physical sciences, for example Lord Rutherford's famous maxim that any knowledge that one cannot measure numerically "is a poor sort of knowledge", the stage was set for the conception of the humanities as being precursors to "social science."

This change was not, and is not, without its detractors, both inside of academia and outside. The range of critiques begin from those who believe that the physical sciences are qualitatively different from social sciences [How to reference and link to summary or text], through those who do not believe in statistical science of any kind [How to reference and link to summary or text], through those who disagree with the methodology and kinds of conclusion of social science [How to reference and link to summary or text], to those who believe the entire framework of scientificizing these disciplines is solely, or mostly, from a desire for prestige and to alienate the public [How to reference and link to summary or text].


Theodore Porter argued in "The Rise of Statistical Thinking" that the effort to provide a synthetic social science is a matter of both administration and discovery combined, and that the rise of social science was, therefore, marked by both pragmatic needs as much as by theoretical purity. An example of this is the rise of the concept of Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, a test which produces a number which it is not clear what, precisely, is being measured, except that it has pragmatic utility in predicting success in certain tasks.

The rise of industrialism had created a series of social, economic, and political problems, particularly in managing supply and demand in their political economy, the management of resources for military and developmental use, the creation of mass education systems to train individuals in symbolic reasoning and problems in managing the effects of industrialization itself. The perceived senselessness of the "Great War" as it was then called, of 1914-1918, now called World War I, based in what were perceived to be "emotional" and "irrational" decisions, provided an immediate impetus for a form of decision making that was more "scientific" and easier to manage. Simply put, to manage the new multi-national enterprises, private and governmental, required more data. More data required a means of reducing it to information upon which to make decisions. Numbers and charts could be interpreted more quickly and moved more efficiently than long texts.

In the 1930s this new model of managing decision making became cemented with the New Deal in the US, and in Europe with the increasing need to manage industrial production and governmental affairs. Institutions such as The New School for Social Research, International Institute of Social History, and departments of "social research" at prestigious universities were meant to fill the growing demand for individuals who could quantify human interactions and produce models for decision making on this basis.

Coupled with this pragmatic need was the belief that the clarity and simplicity of mathematical expression avoided systematic errors of holistic thinking and logic rooted in traditional argument. This trend, part of the larger movement known as Modernism provided the rhetorical edge for the expansion of social sciences.

Present stateEdit

There continues to be little movement toward consensus on what methodology might have the power and refinement to connect a proposed "grand theory" with the various midrange theories which, with considerable success, continue to provide usable frameworks for massive, growing data banks. See consilience.

Social science disciplinesEdit

List of social sciences Edit

The social sciences are often considered to include:

Below are summaries of some social science disciplines.

Anthropology Edit

Main article: Anthropology

Anthropology is the holistic discipline that deals with the integration of different aspects of the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Human Biology. It includes Archaeology, Prehistory and Paleontology, Physical or Biological Anthropology, Anthropological Linguistics, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Ethnology and Ethnography.

The word anthropos (άνθρωπος) is from the Greek for "human being" or "person." Eric Wolf described sociocultural anthropology as "the most scientific of the humanities, and the most humanistic of the sciences."

Economics Edit

Main article: Economics

Buyers bargain for good prices while sellers put forth their best front in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala.

Economics is a social science that seeks to analyze and describe the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth. [1]

The word "economics" is from the Greek οἶκος [oikos], "family, household, estate," and νόμος [nomos], "custom, law," and hence means "household management" or "management of the state." An economist is a person using economic concepts and data in the course of employment, or someone who has earned a university degree in the subject.

The classic brief definition of economics, set out by Lionel Robbins in 1932, is "the science which studies human behavior as a relation between scarce means having alternative uses." Absent scarcity and alternative uses, there is no economic problem. Briefer yet is "the study of how people seek to satisfy needs and wants" and "the study of the financial aspects of human behaviour."

Economics has two broad branches: microeconomics, where the unit of analysis is the individual agent, such as a household, firm and macroeconomics, where the unit of analysis is an economy as a whole. Another division of the subject distinguishes positive economics, which seeks to predict and explain economic phenomena, from normative economics, which orders choices and actions by some criterion; such orderings necessarily involve subjective value judgments.

Since the early part of the 20th century, economics has focused largely on measurable quantities, employing both theoretical models and empirical analysis. Quantitative models, however, can be traced as far back as the physiocratic school. Economic reasoning has been increasingly applied in recent decades to social situations where there is no monetary consideration, such as politics, law, psychology, history, religion, marriage and family life, and other social interactions.

This paradigm crucially assumes that:

  • Resources are scarce because they are not sufficient to satisfy all wants;
  • "Economic value" is willingness to pay as revealed for instance by market (arms' length) transactions.

Rival schools of thought, such as heterodox economics, institutional economics, Marxist economics, socialism, and green economics, make other grounding assumptions, such as that economics primarily deals with the exchange of value, and that labor (human effort) is the source of all value.

Political science Edit

Main article: Political science

Political science is an academic and research discipline that deals with the theory and practice of politics and the description and analysis of political systems and political behavior.

Fields and subfields of political science include political theory and philosophy, civics and comparative politics, national systems, cross-national political analysis, political development, international relations, foreign policy, international law and politics, public administration, administrative behavior, public law, judicial behavior, and politics and public policy. Political science also studies power in international relations and the theory of Great powers and Superpowers.

Political science is methodologically diverse. Approaches to the discipline include classical political philosophy, interpretivism, structuralism, and behavioralism, realism, pluralism, and institutionalism. Political science, as one of the social sciences, uses methods and techniques that relate to the kinds of inquiries sought: primary sources such as historical documents and official records, secondary sources such as scholarly journal articles, survey research, statistical analysis, case studies, and model building.

Herbert Baxter Adams is credited with coining the phrase "political science" while teaching history at Johns Hopkins University.

Psychology Edit

Main article: Psychology

Psychology is an academic and applied field involving the study of the human mind, brain, and behavior. Psychology also refers to the application of such knowledge to various spheres of human activity, including problems of individuals' daily lives and the treatment of mental illness.

Psychology differs from anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology in seeking to capture explanatory generalizations about the mental function and overt behaviour of individuals, while the other disciplines rely more heavily on field studies and historical methods for extracting descriptive generalizations. In practice, however, there is quite a lot of cross-fertilization that takes place among the various fields. Psychology differs from biology and neuroscience in that it is primarily concerned with the interaction of mental processes and behavior, and of the overall processes of a system, and not simply the biological or neural processes themselves, though the subfield of neuropsychology combines the study of the actual neural processes with the study of the mental effects they have subjectively produced.

The word psychology comes from the ancient Greek ψυχή, psyche ("soul", "mind") and logy, study).

Sociology Edit

Main article: Sociology

Sociology is the study of society and human social action. It generally concerns itself with the social rules and processes that bind and separate people not only as individuals, but as members of associations, groups, communities and institutions, and includes the examination of the organization and development of human social life. The sociological field of interest ranges from the analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global social processes. Most sociologists work in one or more specialties or subfields (listed below).

The meaning of the word comes from the suffix "-ology" which means "study of," derived from Greek, and the stem "soci-" which is from the Latin word socius, meaning member, friend, or ally, thus referring to people in general. It is a social science involving the study of the social lives of people, groups, and societies, sometimes defined as the study of social interactions. It is a relatively new academic discipline which evolved in the early 19th century.

Because sociology is such a broad discipline, it can be difficult to define, even for professional sociologists. One useful way to describe the discipline is as a cluster of sub-fields that examine different dimensions of society. For example, social stratification studies inequality and class structure; demography studies changes in a population size or type; criminology examines criminal behavior and deviance; political sociology studies government and laws; and the sociology of race and sociology of gender examine society's racial and gender cleavages.

Sociology is methodologically diverse using case studies, survey research, statistical analysis, and model building, among other approaches.

New sociological sub-fields continue to appear - such as economic sociology, community studies, computational sociology, network analysis, actor-network theory and a growing list, many of which are cross-disciplinary in nature.

Since the late 1970s, many sociologists have tried to make the discipline useful for non-academic purposes. The results of sociological research aid educators, lawmakers, administrators, developers, and others interested in resolving social problems and formulating public policy, through subdisciplinary areas such as survey research, evaluation research, methodological assessment, and public sociology.

Sociological methods, theories, and concepts compel the sociologist to explore the origins of commonly accepted rules governing human behavior. This specific approach to reality is known as the sociological perspective.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


Not all institutions recognize some fields listed above as social sciences or as being only social scientific:

  • Some disciplines have characteristics of both the humanities, social and natural sciences: for example some subfields of anthropology, such as biological anthropology, are closely related to the natural sciences whereas archaeology and linguistics are social sciences.
  • Communication, cultural studies and history are regularly classified as humanities depending on how they are taught, and in which country they are taught.
  • Psychology is a very broad science that is rarely tackled as a whole, major block. Although some subfields encompass a natural science base and a social science application, others can be clearly distinguished as having little to do with the social sciences or having a lot to do with the social sciences. For example, biological psychology is considered a natural science with a social scientific application (as is clinical medicine), social and occupational psychology are, generally speaking, purely social sciences, whereas neuropsychology is a natural science that lacks application out of the scientific tradition entirely. In British universities, emphasis on what tenet of psychology a student has studied and/or concentrated is communicated through the degree conferred: B.Psy. indicates a balance between natural and social sciences, B.Sc. indicates a strong (or entire) scientific concentration, whereas a B.A. underlines a majority of social science credits.
  • Some fields also are considered to be applied sciences, such as education and law.
  • Law is often considered not to be a science at all, and labelled as one of the humanities. The main reason for this is that law is normative (see also norm (philosophy)). Legal discourse is closer in some respects to ethics, politics and interpretation (see also interpretivism). Law should not be confused with sociology of law or anthropology of law.
  • Geography traverses the natural and social sciences: historical geography is often taught in a college in a unified Department of Geography.
  • Some social sciences may converge with certain fields from the natural sciences, and become interdisciplinary. Examples of such fields include sociobiology -- an interdisciplinary field drawing on sociology and biology.
  • Note that social science methodologies are being incorporated into so-called hard science fields like medicine, where a three-legged stool to the understanding of physical well-being is now emphasized in the medical curriculum: biological, socio-pyschological, and environmental.

Social theory and research methodsEdit

The social sciences share many social theory perspectives and research methods. Theory perspectives include various types of critical theory, dialectical materialism, feminist theory, post-colonial theory, postmodernism, rational choice theory, social constructionism, structuralism, and structural functionalism. Research methods shared include a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative methods.

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The social sciences are sometimes criticized as being less scientific than the natural sciences, in that they are seen as being less rigorous or empirical in their methods. This claim is most commonly made when comparing social sciences to fields such as physics, chemistry or biology in which direct experimentation and falsification of results is generally carried out in a more direct fashion. Social scientists however, argue against such claims by pointing to the use of a rich variety of scientific processes, mathematical proofs, and other methods in their professional literature. Others, however argue that the social world is much too complex to be studied as one would study static molecules. The actions or reactions of a molecule or chemical substance are always the same when placed in certain situations. Humans, on the other hand, are much too complex for these traditional scientific methodologies. Humans and society do not have certain rules that always have the same outcome and they cannot guarantee to react the same way to certain situations.

A third criticism is that social sciences tend to be compromised more frequently by politics, since results from social science may threaten certain centers of power in a society, particularly ones which fund the research institutions. Further, complexity exacerbates the problems, since observed social data may be the result of factors which are hard to evaluate in isolation.


The beginnings of the social sciences in the eighteenth century are reflected in the grand encyclopedia of Diderot, with articles from Rousseau and other pioneers. The growth of the social sciences is also reflected in its specialised encyclopedias. The older editions are therefore of strong historical interest while the newest reflects current discussions, methodologies and ideologies.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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