The social sciences deal with human behaviour in its social and cultural aspects. It all began with the ancient Greeks and their rationalist inquiries into human nature, the state, and morality. The social sciences are different from the natural sciences because it examines and focuses on human behaviour and the community rather than the physical world. In natural sciences like biology, chemistry, and physics, data is measured via experiments. The social sciences collect experiential data, collected via interviews, surveys and more. To illustrate this: the former measures a litre of liquid nitrogen, the latter analyses the root causes of bullying by speaking to many perpetrators.
There are many reasons to study the social sciences. It helps us understand the who, what, when, where and most importantly “why?” of our existence. We understand the systems and institutions that flood our news feed every day — why does ICE have so much power? How did the US electoral college come about? Is our Earth really warming up to the point of no return? These are issues that affect people’s lives every day — expertise in this is crucial. This is not lost on some of the biggest tech companies today, which are increasingly recruiting grads with the know-how around issues like community, identity, political polarisation and “fake news.”
Here are the seven main branches of the social sciences:
Anthropology as a part of the social sciences, studies the past and present of humans and societies, looking at patterns of behaviour and cultural meanings. It also looks at how language has an effect on our biological development. It’s basically studying what makes us human, using a broad approach to process several different aspects of the human experience.
They consider the past, and through archaeology, explore how human groups lived thousands of years ago, including what makes up our bodies and genes. They uncover fascinating discoveries, from the most inane to the most fantastical. The “new superfood” turmeric turning up in lattes, ice cream and smoothies all over Europe? Turns out it isn’t that new after all. That Asian spice can be traced to a market in the Levant 3,700 years ago. That 35,000th selfie you just took? That would shock a Papua New Guinean in 1969, when the late Edmund Carpenter, groundbreaking archaeologist and anthropologist, journeyed to the country in Oceania as he “wanted to observe, for example, what happens when a person — for the first time — sees himself in a mirror, in a photograph, on films, hears his voice; sees his name.”
Sociologists study human interactions, and the dynamics that preserve and change them. This is through observing the constituent parts of societies like population, gender, racial or age groups. Social life regulates the behaviour of humans because we largely depend on social institutions and organisations to inform our decisions and actions — something sociologists are constantly observing and studying.
You know the mother of dragons? Well, sociology is the “queen of all sciences,” according to French philosopher Auguste Comte. The founder of sociology and of positivism — a theory that knowledge is derived from experience and excludes a priori or metaphysical speculations — dubbed it so as it would be able to embrace and hold together the rest of the sciences, just like a keystone.
History is one of the social sciences that observes the chronological record of events based on a critical examination of source materials, usually explaining their causes. History studies the change over time, covering all branches of human society: political, social, economic, scientific, technological, medical, cultural, and so forth. If you have a passion for details, and perhaps comparing Minecraft to World War II, or finding out what in “Game of Thrones” is factually incorrect, this could be for you. Were there really dragons 12,000 years BC?
Geography is the study of the diverse environments, places and spaces of the Earth’s surface and how they interact with each other. This field on our list of social sciences chases answers to questions like why things are the way they are, and where they are. It studies the characteristics of places, in particular their natural environments and its inhabitants, and the connection between the two. Did you know: dinosaurs used to live in Antarctica?
Political science studies the dynamics of a government system and political activities, thoughts and behaviours through methods of analysis. It mainly examines the state and its institutions. Geography is defined by location as an environment factor, history relies on leftover relics for data, sociology is dependent on human behaviour and conditioning, while political science focuses on power. The ability of how one political actor gets another political actor to do what it wants at all levels — international, national and local. Think of the “Trump Effect” on international students in the US since becoming president in 2017. It has led to less diverse student bodies, which in turn had a ripple effect on global higher education as well as the makeup of American society.
Economics is a social science that studies the production, distribution, and consumption of wealth. Why is Elon Musk worth 147 billion USD? Would you get a Tesla? Why are you able to afford it, but not others? These are the questions an economist seeks to answer.
A neat definition of the field is hard to find. Leading 19th century English economist Alfred Marshall called it “a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life; it examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment, and with the use of the material requisites of wellbeing”. Others, like 20th century economist Lionel Robbin defined economics as “the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between (given) ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” The current consensus is the definition provided by Canadian-born economist Jacob Viner is the most accurate for now: economics is what economists do.
Linguistics, our last on the list of social sciences, is the scientific study of language. It is concerned with the historical development of languages in written texts and in the context of literature and culture. The linguist gives priority to spoken over written languages and the problems that deal with analysing them. You could be a lexicographer — a person who compiles dictionaries, or if that’s not exciting enough, turn it up a notch and look into forensic linguistics who have an average salary US$40,000 to 100,000.