Economics is generally regarded as a social science, although some critics of the field argue that economics falls short of the definition of a science for a number of reasons, including a lack of testable hypotheses, lack of consensus and inherent political overtones. Despite these arguments, economics shares the combination of qualitative and quantitative elements common to all social sciences.
Social sciences, which include fields such as law, anthropology and pedagogy, differ from natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry, in that they revolve around the relationships between individuals and societies, as well as the development and operation of societies. Unlike most natural sciences, social sciences rely heavily on interpretation and qualitative research methodologies.
However, social sciences also use a number of quantitative tools used in the natural sciences to chart and understand trends. For example, economists use statistics and mathematical theories to test hypotheses and forecast trends, a process known as econometrics. In addition, many social sciences use surveys and other rigid research methodologies to determine trends and provide clarity to future practices.
The increased reliance on mathematical models to study the economy began with neoclassical economics in the late 19th century and remained essential to new classical economic theories of the latter 20th century. Both new classical economic theory and new Keynesian economics assume individuals and businesses make rational decisions, which underpin economists' ability to build economic models based on scientific principles.
The Uncertainty of Economics
One of the primary arguments made against classifying economics as a science is a lack of testable hypotheses. Underlying the difficulty in developing and testing an economic hypothesis are the nearly unlimited and often unseen variables that play a role in any economic trend. The frequency of immeasurable variables in economics allows for competing, and sometimes contradictory, theories to coexist without one proving the other infeasible. This uncertainty has led some observers to label economics the dismal science.
Much of the uncertainty of the dismal science, however, applies to the theoretical and overarching questions of macroeconomics. The scientific method, on the other hand, is regularly applied by economists in the field of microeconomics, including conducting quantitative studies in real world settings that produce verifiable and retested results. Additionally, continued advances in computing power and data processing allow economists to model increasingly complex simulations.
While economics increasingly uses scientific and mathematical methods to track and predict trends, conflicting models, theories and results at the macroeconomic scale prevent economics from providing empirical data as found in many of the natural sciences. These discrepancies and conflicts, however, are inherent in any social science, all of which require an element of interpretation rarely found in the natural sciences. The field of economics contains quantitative and qualitative elements common to all social sciences, and as long as social sciences exist as a class of sciences, economics fits within the class.
(For related reading, see: Economics Basics.)