What Do the “Social Sciences” Actually Encompass?


The Economic and Social Research Council defines the social sciences as “the study of society and the manner in which people behave and influence the world around us”– a pretty broad canvas to understand and articulate. By studying the way this field first emerged, we can pinpoint how it has influenced human interaction over the years and informed our understanding of society as a whole.

Generally speaking, social science is believed to have emerged during the intellectual movement of the 1650s, otherwise known as the Age of Enlightenment, according to author Richard Olson. The demand for new information and ideas during this period created a greater need to better understand human interaction and the institutions we create. Thus the social sciences emerged as a way to better understand issues of morality, ethics, organizational psychology, and cultural patterns. These studies began to serve a variety of social and political interests, from government and the economy to health and philosophy.

The context of the Enlightenment created the need for fields like philosophy, psychology, and sociology — a few of the earliest social science foundations. Over the course of a few centuries, the field has expanded tremendously. Today, the main disciplines of social science include:

  • Anthropology
  • Economics
  • Linguistics
  • Communication
  • Criminology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Geography
  • Law
  • Political Science

Though all deal to some extent with people, institutions, and interactions, each of these disciplines has a distinct approach to society; some use surveys and statistics, while others rely on interviews and case studies.

As a member of the overarching science category, the social sciences have their own theories that are tested and refuted with evidence, according to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). This list compiled by the ESRC provides a searchable collection of social science research studies, topics, and other resources.

Major fields of study in the social sciences often coincide with higher education majors; liberal arts, law, lab science, and business all have a place in the social sciences. College-level courses will vary according to the precise degree, but students can generally expect to take a similar and often overlapping range of courses across the various social science disciplines. At Cornell University, for example, social sciences courses cover everything from economics and business management to psychology and industrial and labor relations.

Sub-Disciplines of Social Science

Anthropology, the study of human beings, often includes courses in biology, human anatomy, history, culture, economics, social relations, and even the environment. In order to study humans, one must possess a holistic view of the world and understand the functionality of the society in which they operate. Sociology students have many choices when it comes to choosing a degree concentration; these include social inequalities, law and society, economics, or science and medicine.

Sociology requires both a macro-level perspective of the way people and institutions function, and also micro-level examination and study of small groups in order to inform a bigger picture.

The field of communications encompasses the study of symbols and meaning, which are inherently tied to geographic location, culture, economics, and psychology, among other facets of human life and interaction. Fields like geography inform professions and disciplines like urban planning, which is geared towards creating more environmentally, and economically viable communities. To be effective, urban planners will draw on a number of social science research principles and theories.

Certain social science disciplines are classified as “hard” or “soft” — a term that some academics find misleading. Since the social sciences emphasize theory, mathematics, methods, and replicability, authors Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor believe disciplines based more in culture and history have come to be known as “soft” because they tend to be less rigorous or scientific. On the other hand, a field such as economics — based more fundamentally in math and numbers — may be termed as “hard,” or more scientific since it tends to be more rule-bound than others.

While these labels have been disputed throughout the academic community, there is no refuting the challenging nature of the social sciences on the whole; Kevin Drum of Mother Jones examined this point in a recent article.A field so complex and adaptive can be hard to understand and study — after all, “human communities don’t obey simple mathematical laws.”

Fundamental to daily life, many of the greatest inventions and societal developments are undergirded by the social sciences. For example, doctors are currently studying social behavior, cultural beliefs, and traditions of African communities in order to effectively fight malaria among pregnant women. Social sciences also help business leaders understand and make predictions about market-based economies by focusing on human preferences and interactions. Many large, macro-level matters of government can be studied from a social science perspective in order to understand the impact on individuals, families and communities — from taxation to the state’s role in criminal justice.

The social sciences enable us to create and develop communities that understand and reflect human needs and preferences. A study in any one of the social sciences paints a more representative picture of the world in which we operate, and illustrates the interconnected nature of the systems, peoples, and interactions that one encounters on a daily basis.