What’s so scientific about social sciences?

On the face of it, it seems easy to answer whether the social sciences are “scientific” or not. Like other scientists, social and behavioral scientists collect data, analyze and interpret it in light of theory, and reach empirically based conclusions that add to the total of accumulated human knowledge – in this case, knowledge about the nature of the human being.

Even so, we continue to find the question on the lips of, among others, lawmakers. In 2010, the American Anthropological Association stopped describing its activities as “science”, stating on its current website that it accepts the scientific method but also uses aspects of the humanities.

History, like anthropology, uses many social science strategies such as sociology and political science to learn about human society. However, it is generally classified with the humanities in university curricula. Communication studies also combine elements of social and behavioural sciences with knowledge of the humanities. And linguistics, the scientific study of the nature of human language, is often taught in literature departments.

In addition to the humanistic and scientific social sciences, there is also a link between the social sciences and the “exact” or “natural” sciences. Examples of these factors are the role of interpretation, the use of qualitative methods in addition to quantitative methods, the role of scientific objectivity, and – ultimately – the ontological status of the final conclusions.

Experts in social and behavioural sciences use “attitudes” and abstract concepts, e.g. “cultures”, as variables. They are not visible or tangible physical objects – although, of course, they can be measured and observed. And to some observers, the inherently reflective process of orienting science’s goal toward humanity may seem little more than subjective meditation.


Normally we consider “exact” or “natural” sciences fields such as chemistry, biology or physics, which study physical phenomena using what we know as the scientific method. This is usually understood as the hypothetical-deductive method in which a hypothesis is derived from the theory and then tested by collecting empirical data, usually with experiments of some kind in which the conditions understood to be outside the scope of the test are eliminated or controlled as far as possible.

An English dictionary defines soft science as “a science, such as sociology or anthropology, that deals with the human being, and therefore is not generally considered to be based on rigorous experimentation” (Collins English Dictionary, n.d.). At least, they define the social sciences as science (in a way). But it is a very problematic description.

First of all, if we stop to think about it, many aspects of the “natural” sciences are not based on rigorous experimentation either. If we ask a diverse group of people what science is, most of them will probably mention experimentation. Perhaps some of them remember their educational experiences, in which carrying out science projects was exactly that: carrying out some kind of experiment. However, this definition is very restrictive.

All modern sciences appeared from observation as well as from experimentation. In physics, the first researchers observed how things fell apart in the face of the theory of gravity. In biology, observations about the shape and behavior of animals produced taxonomic schemes and, later, complex theories about evolution and ecology. In geology and astronomy, even today, much of the work is based on observation and inference.

We cannot experiment directly with the Earth’s core or the chemistry of distant stars, but we can take certain ideas to the laboratory to experiment. We can’t even observe these places directly, but we can use theories, models, and observing-helped by our instrument-to try to understand them. New species, new strata, and new stars are not discovered primarily through experimentation.

Of course, primitive science based on observation also gave us alchemy and astrology, which turned out to be scientifically false. But this does not mean that observation is inherently “unscientific” or that it lacks interest as a scientific method, even today.

Human beings tend to organize themselves into groups: political parties, cultures and subcultures, religious or professional groups, hierarchical socioeconomic classes, families, clans, tribes, gangs, cliques and clubs. Our social institutions, such as nations, churches, schools, legal and political systems, corporations and companies reflect and perpetuate these groups.

The sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists who study these groups do so largely through different types of observation. Yes, it is also possible to experiment; we can say that psychologists who study individuals are the ones who use experimentation the most, but social psychologists who study groups also often use experiments.

In any case, not everything we have in social sciences can be taken to the laboratory, just as it happens in all other sciences. Relying solely on experiments rather than observations is not a fair criterion for deciding what we should consider “scientific”.

However, if we ask a dozen social scientists if they think they are being “objective” when they research, we will probably get a dozen different answers. Some will say “yes, of course. Others will be fully aware that objectively observing other human beings, especially in naturalistic conditions (i.e., in their daily lives) is difficult, perhaps even impossible.

The presence of the observer inevitably changes the observed. An ethologist (a scientist who studies animal behavior) has the opportunity to see and record relevant data more or less directly – imagine a field researcher with a clipboard, a checklist and perhaps even a stopwatch, parked in the savannah, or even sitting on a bench in front of the baboon cage of a zoo.

But much of what defines and drives human behavior is internal and cannot always be observed, let alone measured directly. Conversation is an important clue to inner life; however, what people say (assuming the observer knows the language) is not the same as what they do-or what they actually think.

Post Author: Marion A. Reece