An eclectic and sometimes polarizing term, social science is a broad umbrella linking multiple fields, with contention regarding which fields should be included under its purview. Generally accepted as falling under the heading social science are sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, and economics, although debates still rage within these disciplines as to the degree to which each is a humanity versus a science. Disciplines such as history and linguistics, while still addressing social life, are less often included as social sciences. In general, social science can be regarded as the scientific method’s application to all things social. It should be noted, however, that most social sciences manifest, to a greater or lesser degree, a humanities emphasis as well as a scientific one.
There is still some debate regarding the use of the term social science, with criticism generally aimed at the word science. Traditionally, the natural sciences, or “hard sciences,” have been characterized by the use of the scientific method, which involves generating testable hypotheses in order to predict future outcomes and the ability to falsify these hypotheses. When applied to the natural world, the scientific method allows for high degrees of predictability, due to science’s ability to recognize and understand universal laws governing empirical reality. When applied to the social world, however, comparable levels of prediction and discoveries of analogous universal laws governing human behavior have proven to be more allusive. Due to the social sciences’ limited success in employing the scientific method, they are often referred to as the “soft sciences.”
No definitive date can be given for the birth of social science—its emergence is in fact due to a large number of circumstances spanning centuries and some of its rudimentary ideas can be traced to multiple origins, some dating as far back as Plato. It is generally accepted that an important era in the emergence of contemporary social science began with the Enlightenment and its emphasis on rationality, logic, and methodology as applied to the empirical world. There are scholars, however, such as Lynn McDonald, who contend that the foundation of social science should be traced back to the sixth century (McDonald 1993). Maurice Duverger (1961) has argued that the social sciences, despite early roots in Grecian inquiries into the nature of man, did not emerge as a distinct form of research until the eighteenth century, when social philosophy bearing a “philosophical attitude” gave way to a new scientific emphasis. This shift from social philosophy to social science was given impetus by the emergence of positivism as a widely accepted mode of knowledge. First articulated by August Comte and best described in his 1848 work A General View of Positivism, positivism moved almost entirely away from metaphysical speculation and instead focused on the scientific method’s ability to produce facts and falsifiable statements about the empirical world.
At first, much of this new scientific inquiry focused nearly exclusively on the natural world. Great gains were made in physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and other fields dealing with the natural environment. It was not long, however, before the methods employed to achieve these gains were utilized in attempts to describe, explain, and predict human behavior. Hewing closely to positivism’s tenets, the social sciences sought to discover laws governing the social realm—in effect, laws that allow the predictability of human interaction. Subsequent years have shown just how elusive are the levels of predictability and precision found in the natural sciences when sought in the social sphere.
The need for a social science also emerged from widespread and often violent revolutions sweeping European intellectual, political, and economic spheres beginning in the seventeenth century. Economic crisis spurred on by widespread migration to urban centers, widening inequality, and the imperialist ambitions of some European states led many to apply scientific approaches to social behavior, in an attempt to understand and predict social phenomena. Implicit in this project was a distinctly moral component, which scholars such as Alan Wolfe argue is still central to the social sciences, even if it is not always evident in their practice (Wolfe 1989). While social science attempts an objective evaluation of human and social behavior, by its very nature it must grapple with questions of equality, fairness, cohesion, and happiness, and thus with moral issues.
As was the case with the natural sciences, much of the early social science literature relied heavily on human observation in deriving its conclusions. Not until the publication of Émile Durkheim’s Suicide in 1897 was statistical analysis incorporated into social scientific writings. With the subsequent increase in statistical analysis looking at all forms of social behavior, a divide was created within the social sciences between those using quantitative and those using qualitative methods. The proponents of quantitative methods often cite their predictive powers and the ability to develop generalizable properties via random samples—allowing social scientists the ability to sample the behavior, opinions, or values of a relatively small number of individuals and apply their findings fairly accurately to larger populations. Qualitative methodologists argue that their approach results in a more detailed and specific understanding of a given area of study. While at the start of the twenty-first century this divide still exists within the social sciences, a recognition of the need for a more integrative approach is beginning to emerge.
A third and somewhat distinct methodology emerged during the 1800s from the work of Wilhelm Wundt, generally considered to be the father of psychology. Wundt was one of the first intellectuals to utilize human experiments as a methodological tool for the social sciences—a method still predominant within psychology, but found to a lesser degree in the other social sciences.
Throughout social science’s history, ethical as well as moral considerations have played an important and interesting role in shaping types of studies and areas of inquiry. It is this ethical and moral dimension that to a degree sets the social sciences apart from the natural sciences. With its main area of inquiry being the human animal, it has long been recognized that social science, if misused, poses a certain level of danger.
While they are rare, there have been social scientific studies that were physically or emotionally harmful to the individuals under study. Stanley Milgram’s electrical shock experiments in the early 1960s and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford prison experiment are two of the more infamous cases of disregard for the ethical treatment of study subjects. Milgram, conducting authority experiments, led test subjects to believe they were applying dangerously high levels of electric shocks to other experiment volunteers. In reality, volunteers seemingly receiving shocks were accomplices who only acted as if they were being shocked. Despite being told of the deception after their participation in the experiment, some of the volunteers who were instructed to apply electrical shocks continued to suffer emotional stress caused by their initial belief that they had severely harmed or even killed another individual. Likewise, in 1971 Zimbardo, hoping to explore the nature of human evil, created a mock prison at Stanford University, subdividing volunteers into two groups—prisoners and guards. After only six days the experiment was shut down due to sadistic behavior on the part of the guards and the onset of depression in many of the prisoners. Much was learned from both of these classic social scientific investigations—which are still being studied several decades after they ended—but both also dramatically highlight the potential harm experiments can cause tests subjects.
Another ethical issue confronted by social scientists concerns the use of scientific evidence to further dangerous or prejudiced ideologies, and the ways in which such ideologies can shape research results. In The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Stephen Jay Gould argues that racial and ethnic prejudices can influence social scientific research in such a way that the scientist’s ideological beliefs are reified by flawed research results. Gould shows how early cranio-metrical research attempting to link skull size to intelligence, and ultimately to a hierarchical ordering of races, produced severely flawed results that mirrored the preconceived prejudices of the scientists conducting the studies. The racist undertones of these and other early attempts at blending biology and the study of human behavior (to produce what was later coined sociobiology) have made many social scientists suspicious of biological explanations for social behavior. Nonetheless, by the second half of the twentieth century achievements in evolutionary biology and genetics had sparked new interest in the link between genetics and social behavior.
Social scientists must also consider who will use their findings and the manner in which the findings will be used—especially when utilized by government and military institutions. While social science can provide much insight useful for the formulation of beneficial public policy, it also has the potential to be utilized in unethical ways. Such was the case in the United States after the September 11th attacks of 2001 which led to the War on Terror. The U.S. military turned to the social sciences, mainly psychology, to aid them in extracting information from combatants in custody. Questions were raised regarding the ethics of social scientists utilizing their expertise on human behavior to aid military and government interrogators extracting information from detainees in coercive ways, possibly amounting to torture. Ultimately, the American Psychological Association ruled its members could participate in the interrogations as consultants so long as noncoercive methods were utilized (American Psychological Association Task Force 2005, Behnke 2006).
Differing perspectives on how social scientific inquiry should be applied and what it should be applied to led to the advent of several branches of social science, which, however, display greatly overlapping interests and methods and share a number of major thinkers in common.
Psychology, or the science of the mind, which is often traced to the work of Wilhelm Wundt in the mid-to late 1800s, attempts to explain the behavior of individuals through the mechanisms of the psyche. The related field of social psychology explores the mind’s operations in the context of interactions within a group. Increasingly, however, subfields within psychology have come to be seen as more akin to the natural than to the social sciences. With its increasing emphasis on biological development and on functions within the brain, psychology, perhaps more than other social sciences, is beginning to blur the line between the natural and social sciences.
Anthropology is generally regarded as the scientific study of the origin, the behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans. According to Wolfe (1989) and others, anthropology’s general emphasis on origins has tended to make it only indirectly focus on contemporary society. While it is a broad field, most of its studies can be classified as belonging to one of four subfields: cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology.
As with the other social sciences, there are multiple—if similar—definitions of economics. It is perhaps best defined as the study of the creation, consumption, and distribution of scarce resources. The field is broadly categorized into one of two subfields: macroeconomics and microeconomics. Macroeconomics emphasizes national-scale economies and their interactions, whereas microeconomics tends to focus on interactions between agencies, corporations, and individuals. While focusing primarily on markets, economics also explores how markets influence and shape other cultural phenomena.
Like social science’s other branches, political science is a diverse and broad field of inquiry. It is best understood as the study of power and its transfer through political behavior. Political science as a coherent and recognized branch of social science did not develop until the mid-1800s, although it is widely acknowledged that scholars and intellectuals before that time had been pursuing insights into political behavior for many centuries.
Sociology as a coherent and established field of study is the newest of the social sciences, and perhaps the most difficult to define. With its area of scientific inquiry being all things social, sociology is often seen by its practitioners as analogous to social science itself and as integrating the work done in anthropology, psychology, political science, and economics. Such a view is confirmed by the diversity of the thinkers sociology considers influential—many of whom came from other social-scientific disciplines. Karl Marx and Max Weber, recognized as two of sociology’s founders, were trained as an economist and a lawyer, respectively. George Herbert Mead, a philosopher, has had a lasting influence on sociology, as has Talcott Parsons, who had graduate training in economics. Likewise, anthropologist Margaret Mead, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and many other non-sociologists continue to influence sociological research.
While at the start of the twenty-first century sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, and economics are seen as separate and distinct branches within the social sciences, these disciplines continue to be linked together by a common grounding in the writings of a number of key thinkers. Among those that are still read by more than one social science branch are Adam Smith, John Locke, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Erick Erickson, to name only a few.
During the 1960s, two then-emerging intellectual movements known as poststructuralism and postmodernism first articulated an attack on some branches of social science that continues to this day. As Pauline Marie Rosenau argues in Postmodernism and the Social Sciences (1992), from their birth both poststructuralism and postmodernism took very similar positions, and by the end of the twentieth century they were generally seen as synonymous with each other. Poststructuralism emerged from continental Europe in the 1960s in reaction to structuralism —the belief that basic structures governing human interaction can be found, despite its changing and oftentimes contradictory nature. Postmodernists shared the same reaction against structuralism but applied their critique to larger cultural entities. Because of their many commonalities, by the end of the twentieth century the term postmodernism was often used as an all-encompassing word to refer to both movements.
Postmodernism has many historical roots, but its direct origins can be traced to the work of poststructuralists such as Michel Foucault. By the late twentieth century, Jean Baudrillard had emerged as postmodernism’s leading theorist. Baudrillard as well as other postmodernists often draw inspiration from Friedrich Nietzsche’s nihilistic anti-Enlightenment philosophy, which questioned notions of truth. All claims to objective truth or knowledge, especially those produced through scientific inquiry, are seen by postmodernists as subjective “narratives” that need to be deconstructed and decentered, to reveal them as attempts at exercising and enforcing social power. Furthermore, the existence of ordered reality is denied, and the concept of “evidence” is attacked.
While postmodern thought can largely be attributed to French philosophers such as Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and Foucault, there are also American forerunners of postmodern discourse—namely C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, and Berger and Luckmann. Though not generally seen as postmodern thinkers, these Americans hinted at many aspects of postmodern thought prior to the emergence of the postmodern label.
Questions about the objectivity of social science have been raised not only by its critics, but from within the social sciences as well. Recognizing the inherently social nature of scientific inquiry, social science has been able to apply its methodology to the practice of science itself—and in so doing has called into question the claims of science, both natural and social, to be objective. Work by academics such as Thomas Kuhn, particularly his landmark publication The Structures of Scientific Revolutions (1962), as well as advances in the subfield of the sociology of knowledge, have called into question how objective scientific practices really are, and have begun to show that politics, personalities, and larger cultural trends often inform scientific endeavors. Science (and by default social science) is no longer seen as a steady accumulation of more and more data leading to incremental advances in knowledge. Instead, science and the knowledge it produces are seen as the product of social forces that often lead to revolutions within scientific fields, and dramatic paradigm shifts in what any particular science claims to be true at a given point in time. This realization during the mid-twentieth century marked a dramatic turning point in social science’s development. Social science, which previously had relied on the natural sciences as a model to emulate in its own development, could now apply its own knowledge and methods to the natural sciences—which were seen as areas of social behavior in need of study.
Social science achieved perhaps its purest form in America. For a number of reasons, metaphysical and epistemological concerns have largely been ignored within the United States, leaving such “philosophical speculation” to European counterparts—although British social science is more akin to that found in the United States. Academics such as Dorothy Ross in her 1991 work The Origins of American Social Science have argued that America’s particular brand of social science is the result of pre-Civil War American exceptionalism—the belief that America held an exceptional place in the world, outside of the historical currents that were leading to class uprisings and mass poverty elsewhere. By the mid-1800s, with the rapid industrialization of the United States, American social scientists were, however, finally forced to recognize the influence of historical forces on American society.
Social science’s direction at the start of the twenty-first century is difficult to discern. Increasing attacks from postmodernist thinkers provide some reason for concern. Perhaps more alarming, however, are the internal divisions confronting the social sciences. A wide array of sometimes competing methodologies and theories has led to frequent infighting among social science practitioners, and the absence of an accepted grand theory creates some level of worry about future directions. Some of social science’s branches, however, namely economics and psychology, seem to be gaining in prestige. In the case of economics, this is mainly due to the increasing weight given to the marketplace as a predictor of many facets of human behavior; in the case of psychology, it is due to the field’s growing ties to the biological sciences.
There are other positive developments afoot as well. Social science, especially within sociology and anthropology, has increasingly recognized the need for minority perspectives. As a result, an increasing number of minority scholars have made their way into the social sciences since the 1960s. New areas of study loosely affiliated with the traditional social science disciplines have also emerged: African American studies, Chicano studies, queer theory, and women’s studies, all of which have made important contributions to the social sciences. Furthermore, the social sciences have increasingly found a place in governmental and corporate entities, tackling everyday issues confronting society.
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Economics; Political Science; Social Psychology; Sociology
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Comte, Auguste. 1848. A General View of Positivism. Trans. J. H. Bridges. London: Routledge and Sons, 1907.
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"Social Science." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-science
"Social Science." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/social-science
social science, term for any or all of the branches of study that deal with humans in their social relations. Often these studies are referred to in the plural as the social sciences. Although human social behavior has been studied since antiquity, the modern social sciences as disciplines rooted in the scientific method date only from the 18th cent. Enlightenment. Interest at first centered on economics, but by the 19th cent. separate disciplines had been developed in anthropology, political science, psychology, and sociology. The 19th cent. was characterized by the development of wide-ranging theories (e.g., the work of Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer). Developments in the 20th cent. have moved in these directions: the improvement and increased use of quantitative methods and statistical techniques; increased use of the empirical method, as opposed to general theorizing; and the direct practical application of social science knowledge. Social science departments are now firmly established in universities, and social scientists are increasingly called upon to advise industries and governments for future planning.
See C. M. Bonjean, ed., Social Science in America (1976); T. L. Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science (1977); R. S. Lynd, Knowledge for What? (1939, repr. 1986); R. D. Luce et al., ed., Leading Edges in Social and Behavioral Science (1989); D. Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (1991).
"social science." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/social-science
"social science." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/social-science
Discipline boundaries are by no means always clear and the generic term social science usually covers most or all of the disciplines mentioned. All, to various degrees, are engaged in debates about the nature of science and scientific status. Are the social sciences directly comparable to the natural sciences, or does the fact that their object of study is human make them different? And, if they are different, in what sense (if any) are they scientific? Sociologists, in particular, have addressed these questions more or less continuously from the time of the classical theorists onwards. See also METHODOLOGY.
"social science." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-science
"social science." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-science
so·cial sci·ence • n. the scientific study of human society and social relationships. ∎ a subject within this field, such as economics or politics. DERIVATIVES: so·cial sci·en·tist n.
"social science." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-science
"social science." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved July 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/social-science