What Are the Social Sciences?
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- The social sciences play a critical role in a traditional liberal arts education.
- Social science entails the study of human behavior and society at a variety of levels.
- Popular social science majors include psychology, political science, and economics.
- A social science degree can lead to many types of jobs in business, science, and law.
The social sciences are a core part of a liberal arts education. Concerned with the human world and society, this field investigates the economy, human behavior, social institutions, and politics.
In college, social science majors build strong analytical and problem-solving skills, which can be leveraged on the job market for an array of industries and jobs.
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But what are the social sciences exactly? And what kinds of jobs can you get in the field?
Social Sciences Definition and Overview
The social sciences are all about how society works. Social scientists examine institutions like the government, the economy, and family; they also study how individuals and groups interact with one another and what drives human behavior.
Some examples of social sciences include the following:
Social science differs from natural science in that it examines the human, constructed world rather than the physical world. Fields like biology, chemistry, and physics use the scientific method to propose hypotheses and theories. Social scientists rely on similar methods, such as quantitative data analysis, to study society.
The social sciences also share some of the same methodological approaches as those used in the humanities, like qualitative research. Both the humanities and social sciences use analytical and interpretive approaches to learn more about the human world.
The social sciences share some of the same methodological approaches as those used in the natural sciences and humanities.
However, the social sciences entail more quantitative and scientific methods. For example, economists rely on statistics and forecasting to understand trends, while political scientists use surveys and polling to track political changes.
Despite these differences, many question whether certain fields — including psychology, economics, history, sociology, political science, and philosophy — fall under the umbrella of the humanities or social sciences.
Is Psychology a Social Science?
Most colleges classify psychology as a social science. Psychology deals with the human mind and behavior, bridging the divide between social science and natural science. Psychology majors study human development, social behaviors, and emotions, which draw on social science methods.
Certain subfields align more with the social sciences than others. Social psychology, for instance, is more often considered a social science, whereas subfields like neuropsychology and biological psychology require stronger training in the physical sciences, leading many to categorize them as STEM subjects.
Is Economics a Social Science?
Economics is a social science focused on the economy and economic activities. Students majoring in economics study economic systems and how individuals and organizations produce and exchange goods. Economists examine topics like the role of the government in shaping the economy, individual economic behaviors, and the distribution of goods and services.
Both macroeconomics and microeconomics utilize social science tools to collect and analyze data, create data-backed projections and predictions, and understand supply and demand.
Is History a Social Science?
History falls somewhere between the social sciences and humanities. In the early 20th century, most historians considered their discipline a social science because they used — and still use — quantitative tools to understand the past.
In recent decades, however, a growing number of historians have begun to refer to their field as a humanities subject due to the fact that they study the history of culture and human values.
While many colleges today group the history department with other social sciences, some consider it a humanities field.
Is Sociology a Social Science?
Sociology is a social science focused on society and social institutions. In many ways, sociology was the first social science, since the discipline originally applied the scientific method to human society.
Sociology majors study human societies to answer questions about social change, disorder in society, and social stratification. Sociologists explore how social institutions shape individual behavior, societal evolution, and how organizations interact with one another.
Is Philosophy a Social Science?
Most colleges consider philosophy a humanities subject rather than a social science. Philosophy emphasizes foundational questions about reality, human nature, and the relationship between mind and matter. Philosophy majors use logic and critical theory to address topics such as morality, the external world, art, and objectivity.
Many social science disciplines look to the principles of philosophy to try to understand human behavior, morality's impact on decision-making, and the development of social institutions.
Is Political Science a Social Science?
Political science is a social science subject that involves the study of political institutions, government systems, and political behavior. These scientists use qualitative and quantitative research to understand political trends and decision-making.
In a political science degree program, students learn about the rise of political institutions, the law-making process, and the interactions between political powers. Some political scientists specialize in political theory, whereas others study international relations, comparative politics, or American politics.
The Role of the Social Sciences in Higher Education
In the 19th century, French philosopher Auguste Comte argued that scholars should use scientific methods to analyze society. Calling this new approach "sociology," Comte and his followers searched for laws of society that would meet the same scientific standards as the laws of nature.
Today, many universities offer social science majors through their College of Arts and Sciences, and most require social science classes as part of their general education requirements.
Social Science Classes and Gen Ed Requirements
Gen ed courses provide a breadth of training for students. Many colleges require gen ed classes in subjects like math, English, communication, the natural sciences, history, and the social sciences.
Social science courses are a core part of a liberal arts education.
Social science courses build critical thinking and analytical skills, making them a core part of a liberal arts education. As a result, many schools include social science classes in their gen ed requirements.
For example, students at the University of Virginia's College of Arts and Sciences must take gen ed courses in three distinct social science categories. Likewise, the State University of New York system requires undergraduates to choose from among various electives — including the social sciences — to fulfill the gen ed requirements.
Skills Gained in Social Science Courses
The social sciences play a central role in a bachelor's degree program because they strengthen key skills, which hold immense value on the job market. In social science classes, students analyze texts to understand their meaning, collect data to project trends, and research changes in social institutions.
Below are some of the most important skills gained in a social science program:
The social sciences emphasize the ability to analyze several types of sources, including written sources, numerical data, and survey results. Students conduct qualitative and quantitative analyses and learn how to reach conclusions based on their analyses. Social science coursework trains learners to make data-supported recommendations.
Social science majors learn about the research methods in their field, including both qualitative and quantitative research. Assignments teach students how to identify reliable data sources and evaluate a research question using a variety of sources. Depending on the school, undergrads may conduct research as part of a senior thesis or capstone project.
Strong communication skills benefit professionals in nearly every field. Social science students learn to communicate their ideas in writing and speech. A social science degree also emphasizes persuasive communication, as learners must practice convincing others of their interpretation of the data.
Training in the social sciences can help sharpen problem-solving skills. Students learn to define problems, collect data, and evaluate information to reach a conclusion. Problem-solving draws on many other core social science skills, such as analysis, research, and decision-making.
This final skill synthesizes analytical, research, and evaluation abilities. Critical thinking requires the ability to identify the most useful sources, question evidence, and identify patterns. Social sciences build critical thinking skills by teaching undergrads to thoroughly analyze information so they can reach logical conclusions supported by their sources.
Indeed's 2020 list of the most in-demand skills in today's workforce ranks analytical and problem-solving skills near the top. The ability to interpret data, identify trends, and make data-backed decisions helps social science majors succeed in their chosen careers.
What Are the Most Popular Social Science Majors?
As a fundamental liberal arts branch, social science remains popular among college students.
The most popular social science majors include psychology, political science, economics, and sociology.
Data released by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that several social science subjects rank among the most popular majors. In 2017, 14% of majors belonged to the social sciences, with 159,000 students earning a bachelor's degree in the social sciences or history and 117,000 earning a degree in psychology.
The most popular social science majors include psychology, political science, economics, and sociology, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Many students also focus on anthropology, geography, criminology, and international relations.
Some people's list of social sciences include closely related fields like social work, public administration, and education, which also rank among the most common undergraduate majors.
The Professional Value of a Social Science Degree
Research from Georgetown indicates that social science majors earn typical salaries for college graduates. The median starting salary for social science majors ($33,000) falls slightly below that for business majors ($37,000) and just above that for humanities majors ($29,000).
By mid-career, professionals with a social science degree typically earn around $60,000 a year, or $24,000 per year higher than the median annual wages for a high school graduate without a college degree.
Social Science Jobs
A social science degree can lead to several professional paths, including a career as a social scientist. For example, geographers apply their undergraduate training to study the Earth and human geography. A bachelor's degree meets the requirements for many positions, including those with the federal government.
Many jobs in the social sciences require a graduate degree. A master's degree represents the typical entry-level education for political scientists and economists. Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists generally require an advanced degree as well.Over 40% of social science majors go on to earn a master's or doctoral degree. Obtaining a graduate degree translates into a 45% increase in median annual wages.
Median Social Science Salaries
- Political Scientists: $122,220
- Economists: $105,020
- Sociologists: $83,420
- Geographers: $81,540
- Psychologists: $80,370
- Historians: $63,680
- Anthropologists and Archaeologists: $63,670
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Other Careers You Can Pursue With a Social Science Major
Social science majors can take advantage of many different career paths after graduation. In addition to social science jobs, a social science degree can lead to positions in fields like law, education, and business.
In the business sector, social science majors may work as data analysts, market research analysts, or economic researchers. The growing field of data analytics often hires candidates with a social science background. All of these jobs draw on the analytical and research skills of a social science degree.
A social science degree can lead to positions in fields like law, education, and business.
Social science majors may also take a position working for the government or in civil service. Possessing a background in geography or political science could open doors in urban planning, public finance, and public administration.
Some social science degree-holders may prefer to work in education. High school teachers educate students in several social science disciplines, including geography, social studies, and civics. Note that teaching jobs generally require a state-issued teaching license.
Additionally, the analytical and critical thinking training gained from a social science degree can prepare graduates to pursue a career in law. Many political science, economics, and psychology majors choose to continue their education through law school.
PayScale's 2019 College Salary Report identifies numerous in-demand careers for social science majors, including financial analyst, intelligence analyst, fraud investigator, and social services director.
Should You Get a Social Science Degree?
Social science majors study exciting topics like criminality, elections, decision-making, and abnormal behavior, all while strengthening their analytical and critical thinking skills. A social science degree can prepare you for success in a number of professional fields.
Compared with STEM and humanities majors, social science majors reported a higher rate of employment after college graduation.
In a study by the Campaign for Social Science, social science majors reported a higher rate of employment after college graduation: 84% of social science graduates held a job 3.5 years after graduation, compared with 78% of STEM majors and 79% of humanities majors. Social science majors were also more likely to hold a managerial or senior role.
While there's no guarantee you'll nab a job right out of college, a social science degree can offer plenty of benefits. In a social science program, you'll not only build critical skills like problem-solving and data interpretation, but you'll also learn how you can apply your newfound knowledge and abilities to a number of potential career tracks.