social science

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social science,

term for any or all of the branches of study that deal with humans in their social relations. Often these studies are referred to in the plural as the social sciences. Although human social behavior has been studied since antiquity, the modern social sciences as disciplines rooted in the scientific method date only from the 18th cent. Enlightenment. Interest at first centered on economicseconomics,
study of how human beings allocate scarce resources to produce various commodities and how those commodities are distributed for consumption among the people in society (see distribution).
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, but by the 19th cent. separate disciplines had been developed in anthropologyanthropology,
classification and analysis of humans and their society, descriptively, culturally, historically, and physically. Its unique contribution to studying the bonds of human social relations has been the distinctive concept of culture.
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, political sciencepolitical science,
the study of government and political processes, institutions, and behavior. Government and politics have been studied and commented on since the time of the ancient Greeks.
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, psychologypsychology,
science or study of the thought processes and behavior of humans and other animals in their interaction with the environment. Psychologists study processes of sense perception, thinking, learning, cognition, emotions and motivations, personality, abnormal behavior,
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, and sociologysociology,
scientific study of human social behavior. As the study of humans in their collective aspect, sociology is concerned with all group activities—economic, social, political, and religious.
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. The 19th cent. was characterized by the development of wide-ranging theories (e.g., the work of Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer). Developments in the 20th cent. have moved in these directions: the improvement and increased use of quantitative methods and statistical techniques; increased use of the empirical method, as opposed to general theorizing; and the direct practical application of social science knowledge. Social science departments are now firmly established in universities, and social scientists are increasingly called upon to advise industries and governments for future planning.


See C. M. Bonjean, ed., Social Science in America (1976); T. L. Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science (1977); R. S. Lynd, Knowledge for What? (1939, repr. 1986); R. D. Luce et al., ed., Leading Edges in Social and Behavioral Science (1989); D. Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (1991).

social science

The entirety of those disciplines, or any particular discipline, concerned with the systematic study of social phenomena. No single conception of SCIENCE is implied by this usage, although there are sociologists who reject the notion that social studies should be seen as scientific in any sense based on the physical sciences.

A central issue that arises concerning the scientific status of social studies is how far the existence of meaningful purposive ACTION and choice in social life removes any possible basis for explanation involving general scientific laws. As well as questions about the effectiveness of explanation based on scientific laws, questions also arise as to the appropriate ethical posture to be adopted towards the human social actor.

For some sociologists, the essential features of social action mean that sociology can only explain satisfactorily using MEANINGFUL UNDERSTANDING AND EXPLANATION and that scientific laws can play no part. However, whereas most sociologists recognize that important differences exist between the social and the physical sciences, they usually reject any suggestion that these differences mean that sociology must be seen as ‘nonscience’ because of this. The more usual position is to see the use of the term social science as justified by the existence in sociology of systematic RESEARCH METHODS, and both meaningful explanation and a variety of more general forms of sociological EXPLANATION. Thus, although there are important exceptions, sociologists will usually be found to regard sociology as scientific in one or more of the several senses in which the term science is used. Sociologists and philosophers who reject the term social science (e.g. Winch, 1958) usually do so on the basis of restrictive conceptions of science, when in reality conceptions of both physical and social science are both more open and more variegated than this. See also SCIENCE.

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