Social Science: What It Is and the 5 Major Branches

Social Science

Investopedia / Mira Norian

What Is Social Science?

Social science is the study of how people interact with one another. The branches of social science include anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology.

Social scientists study how societies work, exploring everything from the triggers of economic growth and the causes of unemployment to what makes people happy. Their findings inform public policies, education programs, urban design, marketing strategies, and many other endeavors.

Key Takeaways

  • Social science is a group of academic disciplines that focus on how individuals behave within society.
  • It attempts to explain how society works, exploring everything from the triggers of economic growth and causes of unemployment to what makes people happy.
  • Social science is a relatively new field of scientific study that rose to prominence in the 20th century.
  • Typical careers in social science include working as an advertiser, economist, psychologist, teacher, manager, and social worker.
  • Social scientists generally rely more heavily on interpretation and qualitative research methodologies.

Understanding Social Science

Social science as a field of study is separate from the natural sciences, which cover topics such as physics, biology, and chemistry. Social science examines the relationships between individuals and societies as well as the development and operation of societies, rather than studying the physical world. These academic disciplines rely more heavily on interpretation and qualitative research methodologies.

Branches of Social Science

Some say there are seven social sciences, while others claim there are four, five, six, or something else. Opinions vary on what should be included, yet most pundits agree that the following five fields definitely fall into this category:

  • Anthropology
  • Economics
  • Political science
  • Sociology
  • Social psychology

History is also sometimes regarded as a branch of social science, although many historians often consider the subject to share closer links to the humanities. Both humanities and social science study human beings. What separates them is the technique applied: Humanities are viewed as more philosophical and less scientific.

Law, too, has some ties to social science, as does geography.

There are many fields within social science. The five main ones are anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology, although some people also include history, criminology, and geography in this conversation.

Social Science in Schools

In the United States, early education in social science begins in elementary school and progresses throughout middle and high school, with an emphasis on aspects of core social sciences such as economics and political science. At the collegiate level, more specialized disciplines are offered.

Nowadays, colleges and universities offer numerous social science programs. For example, the University of California, Berkeley has 15 academic departments categorized as social sciences. They are:

  • African American studies
  • Anthropology
  • Cognitive science
  • Demography
  • Economics
  • Ethnic studies
  • Gender and women’s studies
  • Geography
  • Global studies
  • History
  • Linguistics
  • Political economy
  • Political science
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

Master’s degree and Ph.D. programs at colleges and universities offer further opportunities for deeper specialization.

Social Science Careers

Typical careers in social science include working as an advertiser, psychologist, teacher, lawyer, manager, social worker, and economist.

The subject matter of social science—human behavior, relationships, attitudes, and how these things have changed over time—is useful information for any successful business to possess. The concepts of social science, such as demography, political science, and sociology, are frequently applied in many different business contexts. For example, advertising and marketing professionals often use theories of human behavior from these fields to more efficiently market their products to consumers.

Naturally, the social studies field of economics is key to the business sector. Many industries use economic analysis and quantitative methods to study and forecast business, sales, and other market trends. In fact, economists are one of the most sought-after workers in the U.S., especially behavioral economists, who use psychology to analyze and predict the economic decision-making processes of individuals and institutions.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the projected change in employment for economists from 2020 to 2030 is 13%, vs. an average of 8% for all occupations. Social workers, too, are expected to be in high demand, with the BLS predicting employment in this particular field to grow by 12% from 2020 to 2030.

Economists and social workers are among the most sought-after employees in the U.S., according to the BLS.

Social Science Wages

The BLS also reports that those with a social science degree generally command higher salaries than their peers. According to its research, the median wage for a social science graduate in 2019 was $64,000, which is slightly higher than the $60,000 average.

Obviously, salaries vary a lot, with some social science jobs paying much more than others. For example, in 2021, the median pay for an economist was $105,630, whereas a social worker earned $50,390.

History of Social Science

The origins of social science can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. The lives they led, as well as their early studies into human nature, the state, and mortality, helped to shape Western civilization.

Social science as an academic field of study developed out of the Age of Enlightenment (or the Age of Reason), which flourished through much of the 18th century in Europe. Adam Smith, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant, and David Hume were among the major intellectuals at the time who laid the foundations for the study of social science in the Western world.

Individuals began to take a more disciplined approach to quantifying their observations of society. Over time, similar aspects of society, such as linguistics and psychology, were separated into unique fields of study. Here’s more on the five key branches.

Anthropology

Anthropology, the study of the origin and development of human societies and cultures, has been a focal point for centuries but really got off the ground and gained importance during the Age of Enlightenment. During that period, there was a big focus on advancing society and knowledge, and the key to achieving that goal was understanding human behavior.

Economics

The history of economic thought goes back all the way to ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon. Their works laid the foundation of nearly all social science, economics included. As travel became easier in the 15th to 18th centuries, and more nations were able to partake in international trade, the economic system of mercantilism grew. The economic actions of many nations were suddenly motivated by the belief that a country should maximize exports and minimize imports.

This predominating school of thought was challenged by writers such as Smith, commonly known as the father of modern economics. Smith’s ideas, along with those of Rousseau and John Locke, promoted the idea of a self-regulating economy and introduced the concept of what is known today as classical economics. Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations is still studied today and admired by many politicians.

Two other important economists who have shaped the way we think of the subject today are Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. Marx famously challenged capitalism as an appropriate economic model by placing an emphasis on the labor theory of value. While Marx’s ideas are by no means widely endorsed by most of today’s politicians, his critique of capitalism has had a huge impact on many thinkers.

The Keynesian school of economics, meanwhile, is very popular among today’s economists. Keynesian economics is considered a demand side macroeconomic theory that focuses on changes in the economy over the short run and was the first to separate the study of economic behavior and markets based on individual incentives from the study of broad national economic aggregate variables and constructs.

Political Science

The origins of political science can be traced back to ancient Greece. Back then, the philosopher Plato wrote various dialogues about politics, justice, and what constitutes good government.

Plato’s early contributions would gradually take on a more scientific approach, led by thinkers including Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Marx, and Max Weber. Centuries of research into politics helped to boost democracy and assist politicians to make popular policy choices and get voted into power.

Psychology

Psychology is one of the fastest-growing fields of social science. It began as a medical field of study in the late 1800s and grew popular in the Western world throughout the 20th century, thanks in part to the work of Sigmund Freud.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2019, 20.3% of adults had received some form of mental health treatment. Although many still use psychiatric medicine to treat their mental health issues, more people in recent years are seeking alternative treatments, such as mindfulness and yoga in addition to traditional talk therapy.

Neuroscience, drug treatments, and a growing variety of approaches to psychotherapy are adding to the options for psychological treatment. Research on animal learning, social psychology, and economic psychology are other branches of the field.

Sociology

Sociology as a science developed in Europe in the mid-1800s, a period of rapid social change. Political revolutions and the Industrial Revolution drastically altered how many people live—and not always for the better—prompting early sociologists to wonder how to maintain stability when everything is shifting so fast.

By 1875, the first sociology course in the U.S. was taught at Yale University. In the years that followed, other colleges followed suit, and in 1911, the subject arrived in high schools.

What are the five major branches of social science?

The five major branches of social science are anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology. Some people also consider history, law, and geography to be core social sciences.

Why is social science important?

The social sciences are important because they help people understand how to analyze not only their own behavior but also the behavior and motivations of their peers. The social sciences also give us a better understanding of how to create more inclusive and effective institutions.

How do you become a social scientist?

Typically, the path to obtaining a career in the social sciences begins by getting a four-year university degree in one of the social science subjects. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in social work or psychology, these careers often require additional schooling, certificates, and licenses.

Which jobs can you get with a social science degree?

A degree in the social sciences can help land you a job as an economist, psychologist, or survey researcher, as well as open up opportunities in sectors such as law, government, and academia.

The Bottom Line

Social science helps us to gain knowledge of our peers and the society in which we live. Human behavior is important, and having a decent grasp of it should, in theory, lead to greater efficiency and quality of life for everyone.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
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  12. International Monetary Fund. “What Is Keynesian Economics?

  13. Washington State University, Open Text WSU. “History of Psychology.”

  14. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Mental Health Treatment Among Adults: United States, 2020.”

  15. OpenStax. “Introduction to Sociology 3e: 1.2 The History of Sociology.”

  16. Yale University. “Welcome to the Yale Sociology Department.”

  17. Michael DeCesare, via JSTOR. “The High School Sociology Teacher.” Teaching Sociology, vol. 33, no. 4, October 2005, pages 345–354.

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