Social sciences

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

The social sciences are also known pejoratively as the soft sciences in contrast to the hard sciences.

Social science theories typically deal with aggregated, not individual, behavior.

Major fields

The main social sciences include:

Not all institutions recognize these fields as social sciences. For example, communication, cultural studies and history may be classified as humanities depending on how they are taught, and in which country they are taught. 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. Similarly diverse subjects like geography also traverse the natural and social sciences (e.g., geomorphology and historical geography are often taught in single departments 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.


In ancient philosophy, there was no difference between the liberal arts of 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 "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.

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.

August 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 overtime of sounds in a language.

It was with the work of Darwin that the descriptive version of social theory received another shock. Biology had, seemingly, resisted a basis as a 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.

With the early 20th century, a wave of change came to science that saw "statistical" study sufficiently mathematical to be "science". This application of statistics to physics would yield Quantum Dynamics and 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, base 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" was set.

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, through those who do not believe in statistical science of any kind, through those who disagree with the methodology and kinds of conclusion of social science, 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.


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 more "scientific" and easier to manage form of decision making. 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 state

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.


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 refute such claims by pointing to the use of a rich variety of scientific processes, mathematical proofs, and other methods in their professional literature.

A common jest by such critics is that any discipline whose name contains the word “science”, such as social science, library science or political science, is therefore in fact not a true science.


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.

  • 1934, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
  • 1968, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
  • 2001, International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences / ed.-in-chief Neil J. Smelser; Paul B. Baltes, Amsterdam [etc.] : Elsevier, 2001-

See also

External links

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