Before debating what should and should not be labeled a science, we must first consider what academic disciplines actually exist and what they typically call themselves. In the natural or physical (or “true” if you will) sciences one finds biology, physics, astronomy, geology, anatomy, among others. In the social science camp, one finds psychology, sociology, anthropology, criminology, communication, linguistics, and a variety of other disciplines or sub-disciplines. You will note that I include quite a few more disciplines within the boundaries of “social sciences” than just sociology. The deciding factor as to what constitutes a “social” science seems fairly obvious. Social sciences have something to do with social phenomenathat is, with people and how they interact. The natural or physical sciences concern things (or with the physical components of peoplephysiology, for instance). We can further separate both social science and physical science from the humanities, which include disciplines such as art, drama, music, literature, foreign language, dance, history, and others.
It should be noted that historically of the three (humanities, science, social science) we can probably agree that the humanities have been around the longest (music, dance, art, etc.), followed by science (physics, astronomy, etc.), with the social sciences being a fairly recent development and an offshoot of science. Now the question is, “Are the social sciences really science?” Before we can answer this question, we must determine our criterion. That is, what constitutes a “real” science? You can find as many answers for this question as there are researchers. Common responses would suggest that any science must include adjectives such as “empirical,” “theoretical,” “predicting,” “methodic,” and “objective” among others.
Much social science research today follows standards set forth in rigorous scientific methodology. The qualms that some critics have regarding the ability of social scientists to make genuine predictions about anything so fleeting as human intention have more than been answered by substantive research that confirms the typicality of much human behavior. That is, Uncle Jim may not shake a person’s hand when he meets someone for the first time, but just about everyone else does. This is valuable information. I know, I know. There are no exceptions to gravity, but, so what? Is the purpose of science to discount all information unless it fits within very specific criteria or is the purpose of science to provide us with information that will help us answer important questions about our world and our lives?
Within the social sciences we have different types of research. We have different types of questions that are being asked. Some of these questions are fairly straight forward and demand simple answers that can be answered using the methods of sciencethe experiment, or more recent methods developed in the social sciencesthe survey, content analysis, or the focus group. Any of these methods will produce lots of data (hopefully meaningful). On the other hand, some social scientists have different questions. They are less interested in what, how, and why people in general behave in a particular way. They want to know why Charles Manson, for example, did what he did. They may care about one autistic child who is able to express himself using poetry. These researchers use a more interpretive methodologywhat researchers would call qualitative rather than quantitative research.
Are the social sciences really science? Yes, and then some. Social scientists have taken science and developed it and expanded it in a way that uses basic principles of science to help us learn about human behavior. Let’s face it. It’s great to understand gravity, and light years, and geological epochs, and many other scientific concepts, but if we are actually going to live in this world, it’s also important to understand people and why they do what they do.