What are the Social Sciences? – 2023 Edition

June 29, 2023

The social sciences have multiple origins, in the ancient teachings of Confucius and Plato, the sociology of the medieval Muslim world, and later European Enlightenment. Yet only in the 19th century did people begin to speak of the “social sciences” as a branch of learning, on par with other sets of subjects (such as the humanities, natural sciences, formal sciences, and applied sciences). No coincidence there—the fall of the French monarchy and the independence of the United States from Great Britain took place during the Enlightenment, at a time when supposedly “common” people were freeing themselves of their feudal status and winning the upper hand against their aristocratic suppressors. As this new middle class formed, they gained greater access to education and exerted their rights as equal members of society.

This turn towards “modernity” made scholars, philosophers, doctors, explorers, and a whole slew of other thinkers and professionals more interested in investigating the nature of humans, both as individuals and as populations. They did so in their own communities, and by traveling far across the globe. A few influential figures who helped shape the early social sciences include Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Émile Durkheim, and Margaret Mead. But what are the social sciences, exactly?

What Are the Social Sciences Today?

In a nutshell, the “social sciences” designate a branch of disciplines that uses scientific and analytical reasoning to examine human behavior. This human behavior comprises individual behavior, social relationships on a small scale, and whole societies. Many colleges and universities consider the primary fields to include economics, sociology, psychology, and history.

Of course, as with most attempts at categorization, social sciences are a man-made concept. Thus they lie on a larger spectrum of academic study. For this reason, social science courses and degrees will vary depending on the institution. It may help to think of the social sciences as wedged between the natural sciences and the humanities on the spectrum of learning.

The natural sciences rely on the observation of empirical evidence and the collection of quantitative data (data in the form of numbers, or quantities), in order to test hypotheses and determine results. The humanities, on the other hand, rely on qualitative data. This means the observation and analysis of unquantifiable material (think values, symbols, aesthetics, emotions, sensory details, and experiences.) The social sciences use a bit of both.

Humanities vs. Social Science

The humanities and the social sciences certainly do overlap. To explain how they differ, let’s jump back through history again, this time to the Italian Renaissance. At the onset of this era, most people who received education were men—aristocratic scholars and monks. While the monks studied holy texts in Latin, the learned elite studied the bible alongside Greek and Arabic works concerning natural science, philosophy, and mathematics. However, scholars slowly began to turn their attention to forgotten ancient Greek and Latin works of literature, history, and oratation. These secular (meaning non-religious) texts formed the backbone of the studia humanitatis, or the “study of the humanities.” They brought about the revival, or “renaissance,” of classical thought.

Today we think of the humanities as part of the core of a liberal arts education.  It is slotted neatly alongside the social sciences and natural sciences. The humanities distinguish themselves from the social sciences by focusing on aspects of society and culture. This could be something like narrative, expression, and morality. Simply put (though not a strict rule of thumb), the humanities tend to explore the “what” of human cultural achievement. For example, what is the meaning of A Dirge, by Christina Rossetti? The social sciences explore the human impetus behind the what—the “how” and “why.” (Why does writing poetry help people grieve? How were the British buried in the 19th century?)

Typically, the humanities cover the following academic fields: language arts, foreign languages, philosophy, religion, classics, performing arts, and visual arts. And, well, history. Yes, that’s right. Both the humanities and the social sciences lay claim to the study of history. And you thought you were just beginning to answer the question of what are the social sciences!

Is History a Social Science?

Some universities classify history under the humanities, while others prefer the social sciences. The latter makes sense if we think of history not only as the study of what once happened but also as an attempt to understand the interconnected events and results of past human behavior. The human behavior of individuals (say, Nelson Mandela), of groups (such as the African National Congress), and nations (like South Africa) can be examined both qualitatively and quantitively, in order to understand how Apartheid was abolished.

Certainly, if we wish to learn from history so as to not repeat the mistakes of the past, from fascism to war to human atrocities, it becomes necessary, even urgent, to study the motives and patterns of historical actions through a social science lens. Reading history as more than past factual narrative, but as current and reproducible phenomena, may allow humans to advance as a global, cooperative society.

Students who wish to pursue degrees in history may be interested in the following careers: archivist, heritage officer, historic buildings inspector, conservationist, history teacher, and archaeologist. Professions adjacent to the study of history include working as a lawyer, writer, journalist, civil service administrator, marketing executive, policy officer, and politician. If this social science subject interests you, check out our list of best colleges for history.

Is Psychology a Social Science?

One particularly insightful way to study human behavior on a small scale is through psychology. Psychology is a social science exploring the mind and behavior of individual humans. It takes into account their conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings, reactions, prejudices, dreams, traumas, and more. While all individuals have unique lives and experiences, one aim of psychology involves finding patterns in the ways that different people think and feel, in order to better understand humans at large. Another purpose of psychology is to help individuals, couples, and families better understand themselves, cope with difficulties, and find resolutions that help them live healthy, fulfilling lives.

Harvard University cites psychology as ranked third among majors for college students in 2022 and 2023. While UMich comes in first on our list of best colleges for psychology, many schools offer this popular major. College graduates go on to work in numerous positions, as childcare workers, market researchers, career counselors, lab assistants, sales representatives, and psychiatric technicians, to name a few. A master’s in psychology can lead to further employment opportunities. Examples include working as a mental health professional or licensed clinical social worker. To become a full-fledged psychologist, students will need to obtain a PhD or PsyD, while psychiatrists must earn a Doctor of Medicine.

Is Economics a Social Science?

Economics at its most basic involves studying the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Yet we consider it a social science rather than a formal or applied science. This is because these very actions—producing, distributing, and consuming—require human drivers. Thus, humans en masse, their motivations, reservations, and other thought patterns can determine broad scarcity or surplus. Being able to predict a stock market crash involves a qualitative understanding of people. Yet, it also requires a quantitative understanding of market data. Ideally, a mastery of economics should lead to the better use and distribution of resources, for the betterment of society.

Students interested in studying this social science as undergraduates may want to consult our list of best colleges for economics. Degree holders in economics may find fruitful careers not only as economists, but also as financial planners and risk analysts, accountants, economic researchers, investment analysts, data analysts, and actuaries.

Where does Sociology fall?

Indeed a social science, sociology examines society, social relationships, and social institutions as they change and evolve due to human behaviors and contextual pressures. Because so many different relationships arise in society and in diverse social groupings, sociology can take as its subject a wide range of topics, from popular culture to race divisions to religious movements. Some sociologists who’ve changed the way we think about society include W. E. B. Du Bois, Judith Butler, and Michel Foucault.

Sociologists combine science with theory in order to better understand and explain phenomena in society. These intellectuals tend to think outside the box, in order to better see society from an objective perspective. While becoming a sociologist, researcher, or sociology teacher may be an obvious choice for anyone interested in this subject, a degree in sociology can also lead to other jobs. For example, marketing, communications, human resources, public relations, and law all have ties to sociology. Check out our list of best colleges for sociology if you’re considering this major.

Final Thoughts

If you’re still wondering what are the social sciences, or if you’ve understood the basics and want to learn more, do some digging on college and university websites themselves. Many institutes offer a wide variety of introductory social science courses. Students interested in social sciences will find these courses particularly helpful in picking their major. Furthermore, most small and large universities offer more distinct, specialized majors within the social sciences beyond the four subjects we’ve covered here.

For example, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s College of Social Sciences includes the following departments: Anthropology, Communication and Information, Economics, Ethnic Studies, Geography and Environment, Political Science, Psychology, Public Administration, Sociology, Urban and Regional Planning, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies includes a bachelor’s degree entirely devoted to the social sciences. This program allows students to take a broader range of social science courses with a professional focus. These students can specialize in a topic through various electives, ranging from Artificial Intelligence to Strategic Management. Interested in leadership, or public health? You may be a candidate for the social sciences!