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The Nature of the Social Sciences (2007)

The social sciences are devoted to the scientific study of society, to the better understanding of social life and societal development. Social scientists use the "laboratory" of human and animal societies to study social and cultural aspects of human behavior. Social science theory and empirical findings often inform policies and strategies for improving social conditions or solving social problems by identifying the underlying causes of those conditions or problems.

The social sciences start from three premises. First, social life is patterned. The social patterns that constitute human society occur on many levels, and include ideas people have, intimate relationships, forms of family life, cultural traditions, societal patterns of inequality, power relations in societies, systems of producing and distributing goods and services, and the characteristics of the institutions that regulate societies. Second, these patterns are produced by a set of complex individual, social, cultural, political and economic processes that can be studied. Third, the social contexts in which individuals live their lives both constrain and enable the choices that are available to them; that is, people routinely make selections from "menus" of choices that are socially created.

One of the key contributions of the social sciences is the understanding that technological and scientific advances are not the sole, or even the primary, determinants of social change. For example, the social sciences have shed light on the social conditions under which science is produced and have identified a series of social, economic, political, and cultural conditions under which technological and scientific advances are adopted.

How do social scientists conduct research?

The social sciences are a methodologically diverse field, with methods chosen based on the question to be addressed or the social phenomenon to be examined. Some social science contributions take the form of theoretical models for how society works or should work. Other contributions are based on analysis of empirical evidence about existing social patterns, whether the analysis is qualitative or quantitative. Empirical evidence takes a variety of forms, including historical documents and official records; notes from observations, interviews, or prolonged ethnographic studies; surveys; official statistical data; and simulations. Better to understand similarities and differences across groups and societies, both theoretical and empirical research in the social sciences often makes use of the comparative method: sometimes among societies, sometimes among social groups in a given society, and sometimes over time in a single society.

Because social scientists study phenomena that are contingent, socially situated, and subject to many discrete causes, social science research produces statements about probable or likely outcomes, not deterministic rules. Thus social scientists speak about the "likely consequences" of, say, a drop in fertility or an increase in economic productivity on inequalities in wealth. Knowing the likely results of a set of social changes can be enormously important for understanding the process of social change and developing effective social policies.

How is social science research used?

Social scientific research has implications far beyond the academy. It produces socially necessary knowledge that can be applied to a wide range of societal problems. Social science research has influenced policymaking in a diverse set of areas, ranging from the creation of the welfare state to our understanding of the nature of and appropriate social remedies for poverty and racial inequality to monetary and wage policies to systems of crime and punishment. Social science research also helps the public better understand the social challenges that confront them as individuals and as members of the larger society.