Chapter 19 – How To Read Social Science (part 1 of 2)


The concepts and terminology of the social sciences pervade almost everything we read today. … These concepts and this terminology are also reflected in the vast number of current books and articles that may be grouped together under the heading of social criticism. … the literature of social science is not confined to non-fiction. There is also a large and important category of contemporary writing that might be termed social-science fiction. Here the aim is to create artificial models of society.

Furthermore, there is hardly any social, economic, or political problem that has not been tackled by specialists in these fields. … Far from the least important factor in the growing pervasiveness of the social sciences is their introduction at the high school level and in the junior and community colleges.


We have been talking of social science as if it were a single entity. That is hardly the case.

Which, in fact, are the social sciences? One way to answer the question is to see what departments and disciplines universities group under this name. Social science divisions usually include departments of anthropology, economics, politics, and sociology. Why do they not ordinarily include as well schools of law, education, business, social service, and public administration, all of which draw on the concepts and methods of the social sciences for their development? The reason commonly given for the separation of these schools from the social science division is that the main purpose of such schools is to train for professional work outside of the university, while the previously mentioned departments are more exclusively dedicated to the pursuit of systematic knowledge of human society, an activity that usually goes on within the university.

What about psychology? Those social scientists who interpret their field strictly tend to exclude psychology on the grounds that it concerns itself with individual and personal characteristics, while the social sciences proper focus on cultural, institutional, and environmental factors. Those who are less strict … hold that psychology … should be regarded as a social science on the grounds of the inseparability of the individual from his social environment.

What of the behavioral sciences? … As originally used, the term behavioral science included sociology and anthropology and the behavioral aspects of biology, economics, geography, law, psychology and psychiatry, and political science. The accent on behavior served to emphasize observable, measurable behavior capable of being systematically investigated and of producing verifiable findings. Recently, the term behavioral sciences has come to be used almost as a synonym of the term social sciences, but many purists object to this usage.

Finally, what about history? It is acknowledged that the social sciences draw on the study of history for data and for exemplifications of their generalizations. However, … it is not a science in the sense that of itself it yields systematic knowledge of patterns or laws of behavior and development.

Is it possible, then, to define what we mean by social science? We think so, at least for the purposes of this chapter. Such fields as anthropology, economics, politics, and sociology constitute a kind of central core of social science, which almost all social scientists would include in any definition. In addition, we think it would be conceded by most social scientists that much, though not all, of the literature of such fields as law, education, and public administration, and some of the literature of such fields as business and social service, together with a considerable portion of psychological literature, falls within the confines of a reasonable definition. We will assume that such a definition, although admittedly imprecise, is clear to you in what follows.


A great deal of social science writing seems like the easiest possible material to read. The data are often drawn from experiences familiar to the reader – in this respect, social science is like poetry or philosophy – and the style of exposition is usually narrative, already familiar to the reader through his reading of fiction and history.

In addition, we have all become familiar with the jargon of social science and use it often. Such terms … tend to appear in almost every conversation and in almost everything we read.

Consider the word “society” itself. What a chameleon-like word it is, what a host of adjectives can be placed in front of it, while throughout it continues to convey the broad notion of people living together rather than in isolation. … “Social,” as an adjective, is also a word of many and familiar meanings.

The jargon and metaphors of much social science writing together with the deep feeling that often imbues it, make for deceptively easy reading. The references are to matters that are readily familiar to the reader; indeed, he reads or hears about them almost daily. Furthermore, his attitudes and feelings regarding them are usually firmly developed. Philosophy, too, deals with the world as we commonly know it, but we are not ordinarily “committed” on philosophical questions. But on matters with which social science deals, we are likely to have strong opinions.