Before enrolling at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), a world-leading university dedicated to the social sciences, I had not really heard much about social science. I knew about physics, chemistry and biology and recognised geology and astronomy to also be science, but not my subjects of history and government and politics – we never got to wear white coats and goggles in class!
In fact, subjects like anthropology, archaeology, communication studies, economics, history, human geography, international relations, law, linguistics, political science , psychology, social policy and sociology are all part of the social sciences. Social sciences are academic disciplines concerned with society and relationships within a society. Their study involves empirical techniques where data is collected and theories and conclusions derived and proposed.
The Age of Enlightenment, a period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of intellectual activity aimed at reforming society along the lines of reason, challenging ideas based in tradition and faith, and promoting scientific method, saw the social sciences come to the fore. The history of the social sciences includes the names and ideas of Denis Diderot, Jean Jacques Rousseau, positivism, Auguste Comte, Charles Fourier, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, Max Weber, verstehen, Karl Popper, Talcott Parsons and many more.
When conducting research, social science methods can be divided into two broad schools: quantitative designs and qualitative designs. Quantitative approaches picture society through calculable and measurable evidence, and can rely on statistical analyses to make general claims. Qualitative approaches stress understanding social activities through direct observation, communication with participants, or examination of texts, and endorse contextual and subjective accuracy ahead of generalisation.
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Social research can be done on a large scale: census data from a national population of millions, on a small scale: an individual’s experiences, into modern life or ancient practice. Social scientists therefore combine the two main methods when carrying out questionnaires and field, archival and laboratory based data collections.
‘Man, the molecule of society, is the subject of social science’ said nineteenth century economist Henry Charles Carey, and the social sciences offer insights into the dynamics of society and how and why particular outcomes arise. This allows plans for the improvement of lifestyles, health and wellbeing to be formulated and put into action.
The social sciences connect hard science (mathematics and physics) to individuals, communities and wills. For Stephan Hawking, ‘While physics and mathematics may tell us how the universe began, they are not much use in predicting human behaviour because there are far too many equations to solve’. Social sciences provide for the discovery of patterns in people’s behaviour, the functioning of the social world, and how it all fits together.
If the social sciences sound attractive as an area of higher educational study, the LSE in London and Sciences-Po in Paris are notable universities. Most universities in the UK have specialised departments, schools and faculties and prospectuses have detailed sections on the social sciences and the courses available.
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