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Behavioral Sciences

Behavioral Sciences


The behavioral sciences study human behavior by scientific means; as a preliminary approximation, they can be distinguished from the social sciences as designating a good deal less but, at the same time, somewhat more. The term “social sciences” typically includes the disciplines of anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, and most of psychology. As a case in point, the scholarly associations in these five disciplines—along with history and statistics—provide the core membership of the (American) Social Science Research Council. The behavioral sciences, as that term was originally intended and as it is usually understood, include sociology; anthropology (minus archeology, technical linguistics, and most of physical anthropology); psychology (minus physiological psychology); and the behavioral aspects of biology, economics geography, law, psychiatry, and political science. The edges of any such broad concept tend to be fuzzy—as are the edges of the social sciences themselves—but the center seems to be reasonably clear. Given time, the term will probably settle down to one or two generally accepted meanings, if it has not already done so.

The term “behavioral sciences” came into currency, one might even say into being, in the United States in the early 1950s. A decade and a half later, it appears to be well established in American universities and disciplines and is well on its way to acceptance abroad. Before 1950 the term was virtually nonexistent; since then it has come into such general use that it appears in the titles of books and journals, of conference sessions, programmatic reports, university departments, professorships, and courses, as well as in the names of a book club, a book prize, several publishers’ series, and in the mass media of communication.

The story begins with a committee that undertook a study for the Ford Foundation in the late 1940s, when the foundation was about to enter on the enlarged program that made it, overnight, the largest private foundation in the world. This study committee, given the task of suggesting how “the Ford Foundation can most effectively and intelligently put its resources to work for human welfare,” concluded that “the most important problems of human welfare now lie in the realm of democratic society, in man’s relation to man, in human relations and social organizations” and it recommended that the over-all objective be pursued in five “program areas—the establishment of peace, the strengthening of democracy, the strengthening of the economy, education in a democratic society, and individual behavior and human relations.” Among the social science disciplines, political science became involved in the first and second programs, economics in the third, and, in a more or less residual way, anthropology, psychology, and sociology in the fifth. In the study committee’s report appeared the term that soon became current, “the behavioral sciences,” and the beginnings of a definition to distinguish them from the social sciences: “We have in the social sciences scientifically-minded research workers who are both interested in, and equipped for, the use of such techniques. Among these are the psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists. In addition, there are psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, as well as natural scientists, including geneticists and other biologists” (Ford Foundation 1949, p. 92).

What happened to give rise to the term? The key event was the development of a Ford Foundation program in this field. The program was initially designated “individual behavior and human relations” but it soon became known as the behavioral sciences program and, indeed, was officially called that within the foundation. It was the foundation’s administrative action, then, that led directly to the term and to the concept of this particular field of study.

The conception was developed further in a staff paper, approved by the foundation’s trustees in early 1952, that put forward the first plan for the foundation’s program in this field. In that paper, hitherto unpublished, the notion of the behavioral sciences was characterized as follows:

  1. It refers primarily to a program of research. A major part of Program Five is conceived as a program for research on human behavior, not as an “action program.” Furthermore, it is not expected that the staff of Program Five will itself conduct behavioral research; rather, it will help to initiate and to support such activities.
  2. It refers to the scientific approach. It encourages the acquisition of behavioral knowledge under conditions which, so far as possible, ensure objectivity, verifiability, and generality. It calls for conformity to high standards of scientific inquiry.
  3. It refers to the acquisition of basic knowledge of human behavior and thus it is considered as a comparatively long-range venture. Basic study of the tremendously complicated problems of man cannot be expected to yield significant results in a short period of time.
  4. It refers to the interest of the Foundation not in knowledge of human behavior as such but rather in knowledge which promises at some point to serve human needs. The program is thus oriented to social problems and needs.
  5. It refers to an interdisciplinary approach and not to any single conventional field of knowledge or a single combination of them; traditional academic disciplines as such are not included or excluded. The program’s goal is to acquire scientific knowledge of human behavior from whatever sources can make appropriate contributions. Social scientists, medical scientists, and humanists, singly and in combination, can be engaged on the program. The intention is to use all relevant knowledge, skills, concepts and insights.
  6. It refers to a broad and complex subject matter, since the program aims at a scientific understanding of why people behave as they do. “Behavior” includes not only overt acts but also such subjective behavior as attitudes, beliefs, expectations, motivations and aspirations. The program seeks knowledge which is useful in attacking problems of an economic, political, religious, educational or personal nature by studying the behavior of human beings as individuals or as members of primary groups, formal organizations, social strata, or social institutions. The program is vitally concerned with the cultural heritage by which men live, the social structures they have devised to organize their societies, the goals they pursue, and the means with which they pursue them.
  7. Finally, it is definitely not considered as a cureall for human problems but rather as a contributor to their solution, along with other sources of knowledge and judgment. The goal of the program is to provide scientific aids which can be used in the conduct of human affairs; it seeks only to increase useful knowledge and skills and to apply them wherever appropriate.

In short, then, Program Five is conceived as an effort to increase knowledge of human behavior through basic scientific research oriented to major problem areas covering a wide range of subjects, and to make such knowledge available for utilization in the conduct of human affairs. (Ford Foundation 1953, pp. 3–5)

The report went on to identify the topics that constituted the subject matter of the behavioral sciences, at least insofar as the foundation’s interests were then concerned: political behavior, domestic and international; communication; values and beliefs; individual growth, development, and adjustment; behavior in primary groups and formal organizations; behavioral aspects of the economic system; social classes and minority groups; social restraints on behavior; and social and cultural change.

It was in this way that an administrative decision having to do with the programming and organization of a large foundation influenced at least the nomenclature, and probably even the conception, of an intellectual field of inquiry. The history of science contains several instances of intellectual concepts becoming administratively institutionalized, for example, psychoanalysis and gross national product (GNP). The concept “behavioral sciences” represents the reverse: an administrative arrangement that became intellectually institutionalized.

In the 1940s there were some similar stirrings within the universities themselves. In 1946 Harvard University organized a department of “social relations,” which was in fact, though not in name, a behavioral sciences department, even to the exclusion of economics, political science, parts of anthropology and psychology, and, after a brief experimental period, history. And about 1950 a group of social and biological scientists at the University of Chicago began to seek a general theory of behavior under the term “behavioral sciences”— “first, because its neutral character made it acceptable to both social and biological scientists and, second, because we foresaw a possibility of someday seeking to obtain financial support from persons who might confound social science with socialism” (Miller 1955, p. 513). Earlier still, a somewhat similar effort was launched at the Institute of Human Relations at Yale University, although the line-up of specialties was different from what is now known as the behavioral sciences.

It is perhaps obvious that the Ford Foundation’s commitment of several million dollars to this program had something to do with the term’s acceptance and spread. In fact, one observer, upon learning that John Dewey and Arthur Bentley had in 1949 come close to using the term by distinguishing the physical, physiological, and behavioral regions of science (Dewey & Bentley 1949, p. 65), remarked that “the term may have been coined by John Dewey but it was minted by the Ford Foundation!” It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the availability of funds was the only factor at work. Indeed, the term became so firmly established that it survived the termination of the foundation’s program in the behavioral sciences in 1957. While money helped to establish it, the term did not die the day the money stopped; there seems to have been a genuine need for a collective term in addition to the traditional “social sciences.”

The reason for this acceptance was and is a sense of both substantive and technical unity within this segment of the social sciences as compared with conventional work in economics, political science, and history. Psychology, anthropology, and sociology are more or less after the same end, namely, the establishment of scientifically validated generalizations about the subject matter of human behavior—how people behave and why. They are thus interested in motivation, perception, values and norms, learning, attitudes and opinion, personality, social organization, group practices, social institutions, culture, and similar matters. In consequence, they typically have more communication with one another than with representatives of the other disciplines; indeed, when political scientists act like behavioral scientists, they are called the “political behavior” wing of the discipline. Moreover, behavioral scientists collect original data on the direct behavior of individuals and groups through the use of surveys, questionnaires, interviews, tests, psychological inventories, personal observations, and the like, whereas economists, historians, and political scientists are more likely to use aggregative, indirect, and documentary sources of data. The rough unity in methods of inquiry goes along with similar subject matter as indicated in the several titles on research methods listed in the bibliography below.

It is only natural that the edges and connotations of such a broad term, especially a new one, are frequently obscure, always in change, and sometimes tendentious. Not everyone using the term uses it in just the same way. Some economists and political scientists have felt that the emergence of the behavioral sciences means that they are being read out of the community of scientific students of human behavior, as have some historians and even some students of literature. However, all of these disciplines have been well represented at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, California, established by the Ford Foundation in 1952; only half the Fellows at the Center during its first ten years came from the three disciplines of anthropology, psychology, and sociology. Similarly, some biologists are eager to keep a place within the behavioral sciences for studies of animal as well as human behavior and for inquiry into the genetic basis or biochemical determinants of human behavior. Just as there has been confusion between “social science” and “socialism,” so there has been an unwarranted confusion between “behavioral science” and the once influential school of psychology called “behaviorism” (associated with John B. Watson).

It is more important than at first seems evident to distinguish between the plural and singular versions of the term—between, that is, “the behavioral sciences” and “behavioral science.” The Ford Foundation deliberately used the term in the plural to signify that it had not embarked upon the creation of a unified discipline where three or more already existed. The singular usage has sometimes implied intent to create a unified discipline, whether in place of, or in addition to, the existing disciplines, as for example, in the journal Behavioral Science, which represents the search for a general theory of behavior.

Within the universities, the concept of the behavioral sciences has taken organizational form more frequently at the periphery than at the center. The traditional departments of anthropology, psychology, and sociology have not been supplanted by departments of “behavioral science” at the major universities that do the bulk of graduate training in this field. Organized expression of the behavioral sciences is more likely to be found in two other places: in undergraduate programs, particularly in lower-division work, that seek to put together the behavioral disciplines on both intellectual and economic grounds; and in professional schools, especially schools of business, medicine, and public health, that seek to apply the findings of the behavioral sciences to their own problems without concern for disciplinary lines or labels. In late 1964, for example, the Rockefeller Institute announced the appointment of a senior staff in the behavioral sciences, again signaling the relationship between this field and the biomedical disciplines.

That there is sufficient affinity within the behavioral sciences to maintain the usage of the term seems already indicated by its acceptance in the literature as a convenient and reasonably well understood designation of only one part of what is usually termed the social sciences. There is of course no reason for the two terms to war with one another, since, quite simply, they refer to different things—the one broader, the other narrower.

The behavioral sciences also differ from the other social sciences in age: they are much younger. There is, of course, a long history of study and thought about man in philosophy, literature, history, political theory, religion, law, and medicine—in many cases study and thought about the same kinds of problems now being investigated by behavioral scientists. However, it was not until the late nineteenth century that the empirical, experimental, systematic, operational, scientific investigation of human behavior really began. Political science can of course be dated from Aristotle, history from Herodotus or Thucydides, economics at least from Adam Smith; but it is fair to say that the scientific study of human behavior is largely a development of the twentieth century.

The achievements and the potential of the behavioral sciences are reviewed in many hundreds of articles in this encyclopedia; see especially the articles on the individual disciplines. An inventory of findings is contained in Berelson and Steiner (1964). The boundaries of the behavioral sciences are by no means fixed, either among different observers or through time, but neither are the boundaries of such terms as the social sciences, the natural sciences, or the earth sciences, despite their greater age and familiarity. Nevertheless, it does appear that the concept, born to meet the administrative need of a foundation, has met a genuine intellectual need as well. The term has a place and seems to be here to stay. The new field of the behavioral sciences will in all probability be ranked among the important intellectual inventions of the twentieth century.

Bernard Berelson

[See alsoAnthropology; Political science; Psychology; Sociology.]



Berelson, Bernard; and Steiner, Gary A. 1964 Human Behavior: An Inventory of Scientific Findings. New York: Harcourt.

Dewey, John; and Bentley, Arthur 1949 Knowing and the Known. Boston: Beacon.

Ford foundation 1949 Report of the Study for the Ford Foundation on Policy and Program. New York: The Foundation.

Ford foundation, Behavioral sciences division 1953 Report. New York: The Foundation.

Miller, James G. 1955 Toward a General Theory for the Behavioral Sciences. American Psychologist 10: 513–531.


Abrams, Arnold et al. (editors) 1964 Unfinished Tasks in the Behavioral Sciences. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

American Behavioral Scientist. → Published since 1958.

American Men of Science. 10th ed. Volume 5: The Social & Behavioral Sciences. 1962 Tempe, Ariz.: Cattell.

Behavioral Science. → Published since 1956.

Bennis, Warren, et al. (editors) 1961 The Planning of Change: Readings in the Applied Behavioral Sciences. New York: Holt.

Berelson, Bernard (editor) 1963 The Behavioral Sciences Today. New York: Basic Books.

Festinger, Leon; and Katz, Daniel (editors) 1953 Research Methods in the Behavioral Sciences. New York: Dryden.

Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. → Published since 1965.

Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. → Published since 1965.

Pearsall, Marion 1963 Medical Behavioral Science: A Selected Bibliography of Cultural Anthropology, Social Psychology, and Sociology in Medicine. Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press.

Siegel, Sidney 1956 Nonparametric Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences. New York: McGraw-Hill.

U.S. President’s Science Advisory Committee, Life Sciences Panel 1962 Strengthening the Behavioral Sciences. Washington: Government Printing Office.

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