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What is Social Science?

August 12, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Some may take a quick look at disciplines in a social sciences degree and think that there is not much difference between that and a humanities degree. The difference comes when you take a closer look. While the humanities take a look at society from a cultural standpoint by studying things such as art, religion, and history, social science is more interested in the individual and their interpersonal relationships with society, with studies in sociology, psychology, and economics.

The term used to be referred to as sociology, which was established in the 19th century, but more recently, it has grown to encompass many other disciplines, including history, political science, anthropology, economics, human geography, linguistics, management science, media studies, archaeology, and psychology.

History of Social Science

This history of social science was born out of the Age of Enlightenment, after 1650, when individuals started to change how they understood what was scientific. Social science rose from moral philosophy from the Age of Revolutions. They developed from the applied and experimental sciences, or the systematic knowledge-bases or prescriptive practices, relating to progress and community.

By the 18th century, social science articles were printed in the grand encyclopedia of Diderot, with articles from top pioneers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Soon, articles began to appear in other well-known encyclopedias, including those by the French philosopher and writer Auguste Comte.

Comte also came up with five paths of social science. 

  • Social Research
  • Social Facts
  • Social Phenomena
  • Economics
  • Correlation of Knowledge and Social Values

By the late 19th century, social sciences were taught in five academic fields, established by the top thinkers of the time: jurisprudence and amendment of the law, education, health, economy and trade, and art.

As of the 21st century, many more fields have become part of the social science program. 

Academic Disciplines that are Part of Social Science

Social science programs in colleges are broken down into several disciplines, and some of them are broken down even more into subdisciplines. You can major in these disciplines, minor in them, or take courses in them just for interest towards a different degree.

Anthropology

Anthropology is the science of man and human existence. The discipline is a broad one and has different aspects to it, including social sciences, humanities, and human biology.

Starting in the twentieth century, anthropology was divided into three broad domains:

  • The natural sciences is a branch of knowledge that deals with the study of the physical world
  • The humanities study local traditions through history, religion, literature, music, and arts.
  • The social sciences are a scientific study of human society and social relationships.

Anthropologists tend to study societies that are less primitive than current Western modern societies and have changed the terminology they use, so as not to offend anyone. 

Communication Studies

Communication studies deal with human communication, which encompasses the sharing of symbols to create meaning, having a face-to-face conversation, or television broadcasting such as the news. Communication studies also examine how communication is received and interpreted through cultural, economic, political, and social dimensions of their contexts.

Community studies often overlap with other social science disciplines such as economics, biology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science, and public policy, among others.

Economics

Economics studies centers around wealth, more specifically, it seeks to analyze and describe the production, distribution, and consumption of it in societal terms. Economics has been applied in recent decades to other social situations such as religion, politics, history, law, psychology, marriage and family life, and other social interactions.

Education

Education started with the passing down of culture from generation to generation. One begins being educated as soon as they are born. Some believe that the learning begins while still in the womb. 

As a field learning, education encompasses the teaching and learning of specific skills, knowledge, positive judgment, and well-developed wisdom.

Geography

Geography has two main components: human geography and physical geography. Human geography focuses mainly on man-made environments and how that of what is around us is created, viewed, and managed by people, and the influence they have on the environment around them, such as transportation, military operations, and cities. Physical geography focuses on the natural environment and how the climate, oceans, landforms, vegetation, life, and soil are produced and interact.

History

When it comes to history, there’s a bit of a disagreement. What classifies as history, especially in past centuries? The most accepted answer is that history is the same as humanities, the study of our past. More specifically, it deals with the study and interpretation, and follow-up of humans, societies, and institutions over time. Everyone has a history; however, not everyone’s history will become the history that is written about.

World War I, the Holocaust, Black History Month, and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination are all examples of history. These are all important moments in our past that had a major impact on a nation or globally, and studying them reveals the cause and effect of things that happened so we can learn to prevent them from happening again.

Other societies have their versions of what histories mean, such as categorized by a primary source, secondary source, material evidence, etc., and then bring all of the information together to develop a social science definition.

Law

While laws are capable of enforcement through institutions, they are brought about by morals and ethics that are considered community norms. Law often crosses social science and humanities.

Law also crosses over into politics, philosophy, history, and economics. Politicians create the laws, laws tell the histories of many stories due to past cases, and any rule about contracts, property, labor, and other distribution of wealth are part of economics.

Linguistics

Linguistics in social science is different from linguistics in humanities. In social science it focuses on the following areas of the fields:

  • Syntax – the study of the rules of the structure of sentences
  • Semantics – the study of meaning
  • Morphology – the study of the structure of words
  • Phonetics – the study of speech sounds
  • Phonology – the study of what appears to be the abstract sound of a particular language

 It also touches base with areas such as evolutionary linguistics and psycholinguistics, which study the origins and evolution of language, as well as the psychological factors in it. 

Political Science

Political science is unique in that it is both an academic and research discipline, and it involves both the theory and practice of politics and the description and analysis of political systems and behavior.

There are several disciplines and subdisciplines within the political science field. These include civics, political economy, political theory and philosophy, apolitical governance, national systems, cross-national political analysis, political development, international relations, foreign policy, international law, politics, public administration, public law, judicial behavior, and public policy. 

Psychology

An academic and applied field, psychology is the study of behavior and mental processes. Psychology also covers areas such as mental illness and problems within people’s everyday lives. 

Psychology crosses with other areas of social science, science, and humanities on quite a few occasions, from everything to neuroscience to anthropology. Though it might cross paths, in most cases, it is taking a very different approach than those it crosses paths with. A psychologist would be interested in how a person’s mental processes and behaviors, where a biologist would look at that same person with an entirely different point of view, looking to see how they are put together.

Sociology

Sociology is the look at society as a whole. It looks at how individuals fit into those societies, how they interact, the consequences of differences, and other aspects of humans and societies. 

The field has gone through changes over the years. First, it began with which pioneer you chose to follow, be it Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Max Weber, or Emile Durkheim. Sociology evolved into the challenges of modernity. The academic response included industrialization, urbanization, secularization, and rationalization.

Not only have the disciplines within the field-grown, but so have the methodologies and areas within the learning environment. Today, some common methods include historical research, case studies, survey research, interviewing, social network analysis, statistical analysis, and model building, participant observation, among other approaches. 

Role of the Social Sciences in Higher Education

The role of social sciences in higher education is so important, not only are there several degrees and majors based around it, but all degrees require social science courses to graduate. So social sciences play a top role in higher education.

Social sciences provide us with skills other than those that we need to graduate, and they provide us with skill sets that we can use in everyday life that will make us better people, help us become better citizens, and help us advance in life.

Analytical Abilities – Within several areas of social sciences, you are expected to analyze several different types of sources, including survey results, written information, and numerical data. By conducting quantitative and qualitative analysis and learning how to reach conclusions, social science trains students to make data-supported recommendations, which can pour over into real-world experience.

Research Skills – When majoring in the social sciences one thing you are going to do a lot of is research, both quantitative and qualitative. Reading and writing become a big part of this, as does speech since students must practice convincing others of their interpretation of the data.

Communication – Writing, speech, and persuasive communication are important aspects for students to receive their degree in social science. Communication plays a big role in all disciplines of the fields and all the career paths you can take after the completion of school.

Problem Solving – Many of the disciplines within social sciences use problem-solving skills. Students are asked to define problems, collect data, and evaluate information to conclude. Problem-solving also crosses over, with many other core social science skills such as research, analysis, and decision making. 

Critical Thinking – Another skill set that crosses over with other social science skills, critical thinking is required to make the best decisions based on facts, with the ability to identify the most useful sources, question evidence, and identify patterns.

Reasons to Choose a Social Science Degree

You could ask everyone currently enrolled in a bachelor’s degree in social science why they chose to major in their discipline, and you wouldn’t get two of the same answers. There are so many reasons to choose a social science degree, and many of them are so fascinating.

Social sciences help us think and plan for a different future. Whether it’s through urban and regional planning, economics, history, or sociology, all of these disciplines can help us develop patterns and trends to see what our cities and societies could look like in the future.

We can thank social scientists for witches no longer being burned at the stake. Indirectly at least. We have them to thank for studying mental illnesses and fighting to normalize them and show the world that it is scientific and not witchcraft.

Not only has the internet opened our eyes to what’s going on around the world, history, art, and more, but so has social sciences. You might be watching the latest social movement playing out online, watching a favorite documentary on the Roman Civilization, or visiting a museum. All of these activities are brought to you by social science. 

While we still have a long way to go, social science makes the world a safer place by having basic human rights, laws, UN organizations, social services, funding agencies, etc. Without the help of these people, the politicians, lawmakers, and lobbyists, we would be centuries behind where we stand today. 

Our children’s lives are enriched and improved due to social science and education. By providing the proper education systems for children, all children, their lives can be improved, not just while they are children, but well into adulthood as well. Teachers and the education system play a big role in that, as do other areas of social sciences.

These are just some examples of why degrees in social sciences are important and why people should choose them. Some may choose them because they know someone who has issues with mental illness, and they want to understand them more, or they have the drive to get into politics, maybe they’ve always wanted to work at a museum. There are no right and wrong answers here.

Career Paths in Social Sciences

There is a huge range of career paths that you can take with a social science degree, much longer than we can list here, but here is a list of some of the highest paying career choices in different disciplines within the field.

Political Scientist

The highest-paid job with a degree in social science is as a political scientist, so if you enjoy politics, you may want to make it a career choice. The main tasks of a political scientist are to investigate how political systems began. Then, follow how they advanced and how they look in the modern-day. They will often follow political trends and as well as come up with new political ideas and policies.

As scientists, there will be plenty of research and analysis of data, whether it’s from historical texts, or election surveys and results.

Economist

Not only is an economist number two on the list of the highest paying jobs with a social service degree, but it’s also growing faster than the positions can be filled. If this is something that interests you, there’s a good chance you could make a career of it.

There is a lot of talk about the economy and different aspects of the economy. Some areas that economists study are how goods, services, and resources are produced and distributed by creating and conducting surveys. They then compile and analyze the results. Economists use historical trends as well as current data to help predict changes and patterns.

Industrial Organizational Psychologist

This career path is likely one that a lot of people may not be very familiar with. An industrial organizational psychologist is someone dedicated to studying human behavior in the workplace. They use the same methods used by other psychologists and can work in many departments within the workplace, such as administration, human resources, sales, and marketing.

Oftentimes, they work with management to help create policies for team and company growth, training, and hiring. Industrial organizational psychologists deal with many areas, including team effectiveness, occupational stress, employee motivation, safety risks, and job performance.

Sociologist

Sociologists study the way people interact, so if that is something you are interested in, and you have great communication skills, this might be the career path you decide to choose. Some of the social interactions sociologists observe include cultures, social institutions, organizations, groups, and relationships. They develop theories and then test them through research using surveys and interviews with various subjects. Then, they use these observations to gather data. Sociologists may work with lawmakers, administrators, educators, policymakers, and social workers.

Geographer

Being a geographer, you get to have a foot in both the physical and social sciences. Geographers research the earth, including the physical features of the land, the cultures that inhabit the land, and the political structures within those cultures.

Geographers collect data using maps, photographs, census responses, satellite imagery, or fieldwork of their own. Oftentimes, geographers want to visit the regions they are studying to make their own observations. They may use technologies such as remote sensing, global positioning systems (GPS), or geographic information systems (GIS). 

Once they have collected all of their data, they will analyze the data and see if they can find any patterns within, before presenting their findings in presentations and written reports, or visual modes such as maps, diagrams, and graphs. 

Psychologist

Much like an industrial-organizational psychologist, a psychologist investigates human behavior. Not only do they speak and listen with clients, but they also perform research studies to learn about brain function and behavior. One goal of a psychologist is to develop a pattern of behavior, including how emotions, thoughts, and beliefs contribute to behavior. They will use interviews, surveys, tests, as well as gather information from their observation.

Urban and Regional Planner

The land is a finite valuable resource, more so in some areas than others. Urban and regional planners are those who establish new communities, enlarge existing communities to accommodate the increased population, and update outdated infrastructure and facilities.

The first step for urban and regional planners is to assess the needs of a particular community. They will collect and assess their information, using different software to analyze the outcomes before collaborating with land developers and public officials, and ensuring that all environmental and zoning codes are met.

Historian

Historians are quite often researchers, combing through books, government documents, archived articles, and more, and are responsible for interpreting historical documents and events. They work to preserve historical documents in locations such as museums and historic sites, create educational exhibits at museums and historical associations, and expand our understanding of the past.

History is a broad field so while you’re a student, try sampling courses such as U.S. History, Western Civilization, and World History, to name a few, to think about what kinds of history you may be most interested in.

Anthropologist and Archeologist

Anthropologists and archaeologists do much the same as a historian, just with a different focus. Just like historians, both anthropologists and archeologists can often be found combing through books, government documents, archived documents, and more. They, too, work to preserve historical documents in locations such as museums and historic sites, create educational exhibits at museums and historical associations, and help to expand our understanding of the past.

Survey Researcher

Yes, you might get irritated when stopped in the mall by someone who wants to ask you a few questions, but the person who created that survey, and who will study the results of the answers, makes it in at number 10 for our highest paid jobs with a social science degree.

Much more goes into creating a survey than just coming up with a few questions. A survey begins before the questions, with background research on the subject. This research is followed by the purpose of the survey and the method that fits that purpose the best. The surveys are tested to ensure that they are understandable and unbiased. After they find an appropriate population to sample, they will send out the surveys at that point before collecting and analyzing the data. 

Schools that Offer the Best Social Science Programs

The top five schools that offer the best social science programs are:

Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyAll students at MIT are required to take social science courses. Some subjects that are taught include politics, gender studies, psychology, and political science.

University of OxfordThe most famous degree at Oxford is the PPE degree, which is Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. The social science division also looks at poverty, environmental change, political turmoil, cybercrime, social inequality, and immigration.

Stanford UniversityYou can find courses in sociology, communication, anthropology, economics, political science, and psychology. Many programs at Stanford are interdisciplinary, including democracy, urban studies, ethics in society, and development, and the rule of law.

Harvard UniversitySocial science at Harvard is interdisciplinary, with subjects in sociology, gender studies, economics, government, and psychology.

University of California, BerkleyThere are 15 departments and programs at the University of California, Berkley’s social science department, including African American studies, linguistics, cognitive psychology, sociology, and political economy.

In Closing

Social science covers a broad range of fields and disciplines; however, students often zone in on what they want to focus on before they are forced to choose their major. When entering secondary education, they think they’re getting an education in art, history, religion, etc., not realizing they are also getting an education in communication, problem-solving, research, and more as well.

Getting a bachelor’s degree in the social sciences is great if you aren’t exactly sure what you want social science jobs are right for you. It has the flexibility to allow you to receive your degree before you need to worry about a career path. If you are unsure, you can start your first year or two taking courses in all different areas of social sciences so that by year three, you know what you would like to focus most on.

A social science degree is extremely versatile and one that you won’t regret getting. It will teach you life skills that will help you in everyday life, as well as help you get a career in almost any industry, even if you decide to switch paths multiple times. 

With eleven main disciplines and several more subdisciplines, you are exposed to so much information and data that plays such an important role in humanity and society when you choose to get a degree in social science. It is one of those degrees that will allow you to make a career out of your passion, instead of working at a desk all day. 

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