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Social sciences


Sociology comes from Latin: Socius, "companion," thus referring to people in general; and the suffix -ology, "the study of," from Greek λόγος, lógos, "knowledge." It is a social science involving the application of social theory and research methods to the study of the social lives of people, groups, and societies, sometimes defined as the study of social interactions.

Sociology generally concerns itself with the social rules and processes that bind and separate people not only as individuals, but as members of associations, groups, communities and institutions, and includes the examination of the organization and development of human social life. Sociology offers insights about the social world that extend beyond explanations that rely on individual personalities and behavior. The sociological field of interest ranges from the analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global social processes.

Sociology comprises a cluster of sub-disciplines that examine different dimensions of society. These include demography, which studies changes in a population size or type; criminology, which studies criminal behavior and deviance; social stratification, which studies inequality and class structure; political sociology which studies government and laws; sociology of race and sociology of gender, which examine the social construction of race and gender as well as race and gender inequality. New sociological fields and sub-fields-such as network analysis and environmental sociology-continue to evolve; many of them are very cross-disciplinary in nature.

Sociologists use a diversity of research methods, including case studies, historical research, interviewing, participant observation, social network analysis, survey research, statistical analysis, and model building, among other approaches. The results of sociological research aid educators, lawmakers, administrators, developers, and others interested in resolving social problems and formulating public policy.

Further fields

Additional Social Science disciplines and fields of study include, but are not limited to:

  • Development studies - a multidisciplinary branch of social science which addresses issues of concern to developing countries.
  • International studies - covers both International relations (the study of foreign affairs and global issues among states within the international system) and International education (the comprehensive approach that intentionally prepares people to be active and engaged participants in an interconnected world).
  • Journalism - the craft of conveying news, descriptive material and comment via a widening spectrum of media.
  • Management - in business and human organization, the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively.
  • Marketing - the identification of human needs and wants, defines and measures their magnitude for demand and understanding the process of consumer buying behavior to formulate products and services, pricing, promotion and distribution to satisfy these needs and wants through exchange processes and building long term relationships.

Social science is also heavily involved in many interdisciplinary areas, such as:

  • Area studies - interdisciplinary fields of research and scholarship pertaining to particular geographical, national/federal, or cultural regions.
  • Behavioral science - a term that encompasses all the disciplines that explore the activities of and interactions among organisms in the natural world.
  • Cognitive science - the interdisciplinary scientific study of the mind and its processes, especially focusing on how information is represented, processed, and transformed within living nervous systems and machines (such as computers)
  • Cultural studies - an interdisciplinary field that seeks to understand how meaning is generated, disseminated, and produced from the social, political, and economic spheres within each culture.
  • Environmental studies - an area that integrates social, humanistic, and natural science perspectives on the relation between humans and the natural environment.
  • Gender studies - an interdisciplinary field that studies gender and sexuality in a broad range of areas.
  • Information science - an interdisciplinary science primarily concerned with the collection, classification, manipulation, storage, retrieval, and dissemination of information.
  • Library science - an interdisciplinary field that applies the practices, perspectives, and tools of management, information technology, education, and other areas to libraries; the collection, organization, preservation and dissemination of information resources; and the political economy of information.

Social theory and research methods

The social sciences share many social theory perspectives and research methods. Theory perspectives include critical theory, feminist theory, assorted branches of Marxist theory, social constructionism, and structuralism, among others. Research methods shared include a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative methods.


Main article: Social theory

Social theories are frameworks used to study and interpret social phenomena. Their formulation has given rise to historical debates over the most valid and reliable methodologies (for example, positivism and antipositivism), as well as the primacy of either structure or agency. Certain social theories attempt to remain strictly scientific, descriptive, and objective. Others, by contrast, present ostensibly normative positions, and often critique the ideological aspects inherent in conventional, traditional thought.

The selection of an appropriate theoretical orientation within which to develop a potentially helpful theory is the bedrock of social science. A theoretical orientation (or paradigm) is a worldview, the lens through which one organizes experience (such as thinking of human interaction in terms of power or exchange); a theory is an attempt to explain and predict behavior in particular contexts. A theoretical orientation cannot be proven or disproven; a theory can. Having a theoretical orientation that sees the world in terms of power and control, one could create a theory about violent human behavior which includes specific causal statements (for example, being the victim of physical abuse leads to psychological problems). This could lead to an hypothesis (prediction) about what one would expect to see in a particular sample, such as “a battered child will grow up to be shy or violent.” The hypothesis can then be tested by looking to see if it is consistent with data in the real world. This could be done by reviewing hospital records to find children who were abused, and then administering a personality test to them to see if they showed signs of being violent or shy.

Social theories include various perspectives, including the following:

  • Critical theory is the examination and critique of society and culture, drawing from knowledge across social sciences and humanities disciplines.
  • Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical, or philosophical discourse; it aims to understand the nature of gender inequality.
  • Marxist theories, such as class theory, are strongly influenced by Karl Marx's materialist approach to theory.
  • Phronetic social science is a theory and methodology for doing social science focusing on ethics and political power, based on a contemporary interpretation of Aristotelian phronesis.
  • Rational choice theory is a framework for understanding social and economic behavior based on the idea that patterns of behavior in societies reflect the choices made by individuals as they try to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs.
  • Social constructionism considers how social phenomena develop in social contexts.
  • Structuralism is an approach to the human sciences that attempts to analyze a specific field (for instance, mythology) as a complex system of interrelated parts.
  • Structural functionalism is a sociological paradigm which addresses what social functions various elements of the social system perform in regard to the entire system.

Social research

Social scientists employ a wide range of methods in order to analyze a vast breadth of social phenomena; from census survey data derived from millions of individuals, to the in-depth analysis of a single agent's social experiences; from monitoring what is happening in the world today, to the investigation of ancient historical documents. The methods originally rooted in classical sociology and statistics form the basis for research in the broad range of social science disciplines.

Social research methods may be divided into two broad schools:

  • Quantitative designs approach social phenomena through quantifiable evidence, and often rely on statistical analysis of many cases (or across intentionally designed treatments in an experiment) to create valid and reliable general claims.
  • Qualitative designs emphasize understanding of social phenomena through direct observation, communication with participants, or analysis of texts, and may stress contextual and subjective accuracy over generality.

However, social scientists commonly combine quantitative and qualitative approaches as part of a multi-strategy design. Questionnaires, field-based data collection, archival database information, and laboratory-based data collections are some of the measurement techniques used. It is noted the importance of measurement and analysis, focusing on the (difficult to achieve) goal of objective research or statistical hypothesis testing.

In many cases a mathematical model is developed to describe a social system, a set of interacting or interdependent entities, real or abstract, forming an integrated whole. A mathematical model is "a representation of the essential aspects of an existing system (or a system to be constructed) which presents knowledge of that system in usable form."17 Mathematical models can take many forms, including but not limited to dynamical systems, statistical models, differential equations, or game theoretic models.

Ethics in human research

Research was conducted that raised serious ethical questions regarding the use of human subjects in experimental situations. For example, a famous experiment by psychologist Stanley Milgram measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience.18

Efforts have since been made to protect participants and subjects from abuses in clinical trials and research studies, with these issues remaining an ongoing topic for discussion.19 In the United States, ethical guidelines were formalized in the Belmont report (1979)20 followed by the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects (1991), informally known as the “Common Rule,” 21 Various disciplines within social sciences have formalized their own ethical code, such as the Ethical Principles of Psychologists.22

Generally the principles of ethical research with human subjects include the following:

Respect for Persons' Rights and Dignity

The principle of respect values the dignity and worth of all people, and the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination.22 A cornerstone of this principle is the use of informed consent. This holds that (a) individuals should be respected as autonomous agents capable of making their own decisions, and that (b) subjects with diminished autonomy deserve special considerations.20

Beneficence and Nonmaleficence

The principle of beneficence holds that (a) the subjects of research should be protected from harm, and (b) the research should bring tangible benefits to society. By this definition, research with no scientific merit is automatically considered unethical.20


The principle of justice states the benefits of research should be distributed fairly. The definition of fairness used is case-dependent, varying between "(1) to each person an equal share, (2) to each person according to individual need, (3) to each person according to individual effort, (4) to each person according to societal contribution, and (5) to each person according to merit."20


  1. ↑ Roger E. Backhouse and Philippe Fontaine (eds.), The History of the Social Sciences since 1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0521717762).
  2. ↑ William Thompson, An Inquiry Into The Principles Of The Distribution Of Wealth Most Conducive To Human Happiness (Ulan Press, 2012).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper (eds.), The Social Science Encyclopedia (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005, ISBN 978-0415476355).
  4. ↑ Akbar S. Ahmed, "Al-Biruni: The First Anthropologist," RAIN 60 (1984): 9-10.
  5. ↑ Serena Nanda and Richard Warms, Culture Counts (Wadsworth, 2008, ISBN 978-0495007876).
  6. ↑ Robert Lowie, Primitive Religion (Nabu Press, 2011, ISBN 978-1245089456).
  7. ↑ Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom (Gordon Press, 1976, ISBN 978-0879684648).
  8. ↑ Lionel Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. Retrieved January 23, 2013.
  9. ↑ James Hayes-Bohanan, What is Environmental Geography, Anyway? Retrieved January 23, 2013.
  10. ↑ William D. Pattison, The Four Traditions of Geography Paper presented at the opening session of the annual convention of the National Council for Geographic Education, Columbus, Ohio, November 29, 1963. Retrieved January 23, 2013.
  11. ↑ H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law (Oxford University Press, 1994, ISBN 978-0198761228).
  12. ↑ Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes Against Humanity (The New Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1595580719).
  13. ↑ Ronald Dworkin, Law's Empire (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986, ISBN 978-0674518360).
  14. ↑ Joseph Raz, The Authority of Law (Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0199573578).
  15. ↑ John Austin, The Providence of Jurisprudence Determined (Cambridge University Press, 1995, ISBN 978-0521447560).
  16. ↑ Definition of Social Work International Federation of Social Workers. Retrieved January 24, 2013.
  17. ↑ Pieter Eykhoff, System Identification: Parameter and State Estimation (New York, NY: Wiley & Sons, 1974, ISBN 978-0471249801).
  18. ↑ Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1983, ISBN 978-0061319839).
  19. ↑ Sharon Stoerger, Social Science Ethics: A Bibliography. Retrieved January 30, 2013.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 The Belmont Report The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, April 18, 1979. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
  21. ↑ Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects ('Common Rule') U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved January 18, 2013.
  22. 22.0 22.1 American Psychological Association, General Principles Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Retrieved January 18, 2013.


  • Austin, John. The Providence of Jurisprudence Determined. Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0521447560
  • Backhouse, Roger E., and Philippe Fontaine (eds.). The History of the Social Sciences since 1945. Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0521717762
  • Dworkin, Ronald. Law's Empire. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0674518360
  • Eykhoff, Pieter. System Identification: Parameter and State Estimation. New York, NY: Wiley & Sons, 1974. ISBN 978-0471249801
  • Flyvbjerg, B. Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0521772686
  • Hart, H.L.A. The Concept of Law. Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0198761228
  • Kuper, Adam and Jessica Kuper (eds.). The Social Science Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Routledge, 2005. ISBN 978-0415476355
  • Lowie, Robert. Primitive Religion. Nabu Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1245089456
  • Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1983. ISBN 978-0061319839
  • Nanda, Serena, and Richard Warms. Culture Counts. Wadsworth, 2008. ISBN 978-0495007876
  • Raz, Joseph. The Authority of Law. Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0199573578
  • Robbins, Lionel. An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science. Retrieved January 23, 2013. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007. ASIN B000XG8SV4
  • Robertson, Geoffrey. Crimes Against Humanity. The New Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1595580719
  • Singleton, Royce A., and Bruce C. Straits. Approaches to Social Research. Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0195147940
  • Smelser, Neil J., and Paul B. Baltes (eds.). International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Elsevier, 2001. ISBN 978-0080430768
  • Thompson, William. An Inquiry Into The Principles Of The Distribution Of Wealth Most Conducive To Human Happiness. Ulan Press, 2012. ASIN B009ESBBJS
  • Tylor, Edward B. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. Gordon Press, 1976. ISBN 978-0879684648