1 What are the social sciences?

Learning Objectives for this Chapter

After reading this Chapter, you should be able to:

  • understand what the social sciences are, including some fundamental concepts and values,
  • understand and apply the concept of ‘phronesis’ to thinking about the purpose and value of the social sciences.

History and philosophy of the social sciences

Some of the earliest written and spoken accounts of human action, values, and the structure of society can be found in Ancient Greek, Islamic, Chinese and indigenous cultures. For example, Ibn Khaldoun, a 14th-century North African philosopher, is considered a pioneer in the field of social sciences. He wrote the book Muqaddimah, which is regarded as the first comprehensive work in the social sciences. It charts an attempt to create a universal history based on studying and explaining the economic, social, and political factors that shape society and discussed the cyclical rise and fall of civilisations. Moreover, indigenous peoples across the world have contributed in various and significant ways to the development of scientific knowledge and practices (e.g., see this recent article by Indigenous scholar, Jesse Popp – How Indigenous knowledge advances modern science and technology). Indeed, contemporary social science has much to learn from indigenous knowledges and methodologies (e.g., Quinn 2022), as well as much reconciling to do in terms of its treatment of indigenous peoples the world over (see Coburn, Moreton-Robinson, Sefa Dei, and Stewart-Harawira, 2013).

Nevertheless, the dominant Western European narrative of the achievements of the enlightenment still tends to overlook and discredit much of this knowledge. Additionally, male thinkers have tended to dominate within the Western social sciences, while women have historically been excluded from academic institutions and their perspectives largely omitted from social science history and texts. Therefore, much of the history of the social sciences represent a predominantly white, masculine viewpoint. That is not to say that the concepts and theories developed by these male social scientists should be outright discredited. Nevertheless, in engaging with them we must understand this context; they are not the only voices, nor necessarily the most important. Indeed, it is crucial therefore that the history of the social sciences is continually re-examined through a critical lens, to identify gaps within social scientific knowledge bases and allow space for critical revisions that broaden existing concepts and theories beyond an exclusively masculine, Western-centric perspective. We seek to adopt such an approach throughout this book. However, to critique and question Western social scientific perspectives, we must first understand them.

Social sciences in the Western world

The study of the social sciences, as developed in the Western world, can be said to emerge from the Age of Enlightenment in the late 17th Century. Beginning with René Descartes (1596-1650), both the natural and social sciences developed from the concept of the rational, thinking individual. These early Enlightenment thinkers argued that human beings use reason to understand the world, rather than only referring to religion. Other thinkers around this time such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), M. de Voltaire (1694-1778) and Denis Diderot (1713-1784), began to develop different methodologies to scientifically explain processes in the body, the structure of society, and the limits of human knowledge. It was during this period that the social sciences grew out of moral philosophy, which asks ‘how people ought to live’, and political philosophy, which asks ‘what form societies ought to take’. Rather than only focusing on descriptive scientific questions about ‘how things are’, the social sciences also sought answers to normative questions about ‘how things could be’. This is one of the central differences between the natural sciences and the social sciences. This era of Enlightenment marked an important turning point in history that gave way to further developments in both the natural and social sciences.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is often regarded as one of the most influential philosophers for the development of the social sciences. In his work, Kant develops an epistemology that accounts for the objective validity of knowledge, due to the capacities of the human mind. In other words, how can we as individual people come to know facts about the world that are true for all of us. Social scientists, such as Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Max Weber (1864-1920) critically developed the work of Kant to explain social relations between individuals.

Émile Durkheim prioritised the validity of social facts over the values themselves, continuing the tradition of ‘positivism‘ (an ontological position that we discuss later in this Chapter). Durkheim argued that there is a distinction between social facts and individual facts. Rather than viewing the structure of the human mind as the basis for knowledge like Kant, Durkheim argued that it is society itself that forms the basis for the social experience of individuals. Social facts should therefore, “be treated as natural objects and can be classified, compared and explained according to the logic of any natural science” (Rose, 1981: 19). Durkheim developed his methodology using analogies to the natural sciences. For example, he borrowed concepts from biology to understand society as a living organism.


The following section contains content which may be triggering for certain people. It focuses on the sociology of suicide, including discussion of self-harm and different forms of suicide as it exists within society.

Durkheim and Suicide

Emile Durkheim’s 1879 text ‘Suicide: a Study in Sociology’ is a foundational work for the study of social facts. Durkheim explores the phenomenon of suicide across different time periods, nationalities, religions, genders, and economic groups. Durkheim argues that the problem of suicide can not be explained through purely biological, psychological or environmental means. Suicide must, he concludes, “necessarily depend upon social causes and be in itself a collective phenomenon” (Durkheim 1897: 97). It was and continues to be a work of great impact that demonstrates that, what most would consider an individual act is actually enmeshed in social factors.

In his text, Durkheim identifies some of the different forms suicide can take within society, four of which we discuss below.

Egoistic Suicide

Egoistic suicide is caused by what Durkheim terms “excessive individuation” (Durkheim 1897: 175). A lack of integration within a particular community or society at large leads human beings to feel isolated and disconnected from others. Durkheim argues that “suicide increases with knowledge”(Durkheim 1897: 123). This is not to say that a particular human being kills themselves because of their knowledge; rather it is because of the decline of organised religion that human beings desire knowledge outside of religion. It is thus, for Durkheim the weakening organisation of religion that detaches people from their (religious) community, increasing social isolation. According to Durkheim, the capacity of religion to prevent suicide does not result from a stricter prohibition of self-harm. Religion has the power to prevent someone from committing suicide because it is a community, or a ‘society’ in Durkheim’s words. The collective values of religion increases social integration and is just one example of the importance of community in decreasing rates of suicide. Isolation of individuals, for Durkheim, is a fundamental cause of suicide: “The bond attaching man [sic] to life relaxes because that attaching him [sic] to society is itself slack” (Durkheim 1897: 173).

Altruistic Suicide

Durkheim notes another kind of suicide that stems from “insufficient individuation” (Durkheim 1897: 173). This occurs in social situations where an individual identifies so strongly with their beliefs of a group that they are willing to sacrifice themselves for what they perceive to be the greater good. Examples of altruistic suicide include suicidal sacrifice in certain cultures to honour their particular God, soldiers who go to war and die in honour of their country, or the ancient tradition of Hara-kiri in Japan. As such, Durkheim notes that some people have even refused to consider altruistic suicide a form of self-destruction, because it resembles “some categories of action which we are used to honouring with our respect and even admiration”(Durkheim 1897: 199).

Anomic Suicide

The third kind of suicide Durkheim identifies is termed anomic suicide. This type is the result of the activity of human beings “lacking regulation”, and “the consequent sufferings” that are felt from this situation (Durkheim 1897: 219). Durkheim notes the similarities between egoistic and anomic suicide, however he notes an important distinction: “In egoistic suicide it is deficient in truly collective activity, thus depriving the latter of object and meaning. In anomic suicide, society’s influence is lacking in the basically individual passions, thus leaving them without a check-rein” (Durkheim 1897: 219). 

Fatalistic Suicide

There is a fourth type of suicide for Durkheim, one that has more historical meaning than current relevance. Fatalistic suicide is opposed to anomic, and is the result of  “excessive regulation, that of persons with futures pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline” (Durkheim 1897: 239). These regulations occur during moments of crises, including economic and social upheaval, that destabilise the individual’s sense of meaning.  It is the impact of external factors onto the individual, where meaning is thrown to the wind for the individual, that characterises fatalistic suicide.

Durkheim’s sociological study of suicide was a groundbreaking work for social sciences. His methodology, multivariate analysis, provided a way to understand numerous interrelated factors and how they relate to a particular social fact. His findings, particularly the higher suicide rates of Protestants, compared to Jewish and Catholic people, was correlated to the higher rates to individualised consciousness and the lower social control. This study, despite criticisms of the generalisations drawn from the results, has had a remarkable impact on sociology and remains a seminal text for those interested in the social sciences.

Max Weber was also influenced by the work of Kant. Unlike Durkheim, Weber “transformed the paradigm of validity and values into a sociology by giving values priority over validity” (Rose, 1981: 19). Culture is thus understood as a value that structures our understanding of the world. According to Weber, values cannot be spoken about in terms of their truth content. The separation between values and validity means that values can only be discussed in terms of faith rather than scientific reason. For Weber, only when a culture’s underpinning values are defined can facts about the social world be understood.

The philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) also greatly shaped the development of the social sciences. As argued by Herbert Marcuse (1941: 251-257), Hegel instigated the shift from abstract philosophy to theories of society. According to Hegel, human beings are not restricted to the pre-existing social order and can understand and change the social world. Our natural ability to reason allows human beings to create theories about our world that are universal and true.

Karl Marx (1818-1883), often regarded as the founder of conflict theory, was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Hegel. For example, Hegel emphasises that labour and alienation are essential characteristics of human experience, and Marx applies this idea more concretely to a material analysis of society, dividing human history along the lines of the forces of production. In other words, Marx understood that labour was divided in capitalist society according to two classes that developed society through a perpetual state of conflict: the working class, or ‘proletariat’, and the class of ownership, or ‘bourgeoisie’ (we talk more about Marx’s conflict theory in Chapter 3).

Overall, the social sciences have a long and complex history, influenced by many different philosophical perspectives. As alluded to earlier, however, any account of the historical beginnings of the social sciences must be understood to be embedded within dominant systems of power, including for example colonisation, patriarchy, and capitalism. Indeed, any history of the social sciences is already situated within a narrative, or ‘discourse’. Maintaining a critical lens will allow for a deeper understanding of the genesis of the social sciences, as well as the important ability to question social scientific approaches, understandings, findings, and methods. It is this disposition that we seek to cultivate throughout this book. After all, as Marx famously wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

Defining Key Terms

Descriptive: A descriptive claim or question seeks to explain how things work, what causes them to work that way, and how things relate to one another.

Normative: A normative claim or question seeks to explain how things ought to work, why they should work a certain way, and what should change for things to work differently.

Labour: For Marx, labour is the natural capacity of human beings to work and create things. Under capitalism, labour primarily produces profits for the ruling class. (Please note, we return to the notion of labour in later chapters, and explore other understandings and definitions of this term.)

Alienation: Workers, separated from the products of their labour and replaceable in the production process, become separated or ‘alienated’ from their creative human essence. (Please also see Chapter 3 for a further explanation of the concept of alienation under Marxism.)

What are the social sciences?

Umbrella - with these words under it - Anthropology, Sociology, Criminology, DEMOGRAPHY, DEVELOPMENT STUDIES, Social work, Archaeology, Social policy, Political science, Economics, Human geography, LEGAL STUDIES.
The social sciences are made up of lots of different disciplines and sub-disciplines, which focus on different aspects of society

The social sciences are a ‘broad church’, including lots of different disciplinary and sub-disciplinary areas. These include, for example, sociology, anthropology, criminology, archaeology, social policy, human geography, and many more. At their core, they apply the ‘scientific method’ to the analysis of people, societies, power, and social change.

Before we move on, let’s touch briefly on what we mean by the scientific method. At its core, the scientific method is essentially a series of steps that scientists take in order to build and test scientific knowledge. These steps include:

  1. ObservationScientists observe the world around them, in order to better understand it. 
  2. QuestionScientists ask ‘research questions’ about how the world works.
  3. Hypothesis: Scientists come up with ideas or theories about how they think the world works, which they then seek to test through their research.
  4. Experiment: In experimental research, scientists use a specific experimental design (which includes a control and experimental group) to test hypotheses. This is not always possible or desirable in the social sciences, so social scientists tend to rely on a broader array of methods to collect data that can help them test their hypotheses about the social world. 
  5. Analysis: Scientists use various different approaches to analyse the data they collect; the approach to analysis depends on the kind of data collected, and what questions are being asked of the data. 
  6. Conclusions: Scientists develop conclusions, based on the results of their analyses. They consider how these either reinforce or further develop existing knowledge and understandings, as well as what there is left to find out (the latter of which informs future research endeavours). 

Over time, social scientists have developed their own ontological and epistemological leanings, which in many ways represent a departure from the typical positivist approaches of the natural sciences. While the natural sciences tend to assume there are objective ‘truths’ waiting to be discovered through, for instance, sensory experience (seeing, looking), social scientists tend to understand truth as being socially constructed. Thus, social scientists tend to adopt interpretivist and constructivist approaches to understanding the world, seeing knowledge as being co-constructed, rooted in context, and an important source/expression of power.

Consolidate your learning: ‘Introduction to the social sciences’ video

To consolidate your understanding of the social sciences, watch the following short video – Introduction to the social sciences (YouTube, 8:34).

Flyvbjerg (2001) referred to the ‘science wars’, by which he meant the ongoing battle between the natural and social sciences. Often in public and political discourse, the natural sciences are seen as being more ‘scientific’ and a source of ‘stronger’ or ‘more objective’ knowledge than the social sciences. However, the reality is that both have equally important but different things to offer. As Flyvbjerg (2001: 3) argued:

…the social sciences are strongest where the natural sciences are weakest: just as the social sciences have not contributed much to explanatory and predictive theory, neither have the natural sciences contributed to the reflexive analysis and discussion of values and interests…

As Flyvbjerg (2001) sees it, social scientists should not try to replicate the natural sciences but should instead embrace their ability to take a different ontological and epistemological outlook, which enables deep, reflexive, and contextualised analysis about people and societies as a point of departure for values-based action. He called this ‘phronetic social science’ (which we elaborate on later in the Chapter).

Defining key terms

‘Ontology’: Ontology is the study of reality and being. When we refer to ‘ontology’, we are not just talking about people’s views of the world, but also their lived experience and actual being in the world, as well as their beliefs and claims about the nature of their existence. Some key questions are ‘what and who exists in the world?’ and ‘what are the relationships between them’?

‘Epistemology’: Epistemology concerns the origin and nature of knowledge, including how knowledge claims are built and made. Some key questions are ‘what is knowledge?’ and ‘how is knowledge acquired’?

Positivism: Positivism is an ontology that assumes there is an objective ‘truth’ waiting to be discovered. Positivism involves, therefore, the search for a universal/generalisable ‘truth’.

Constructivism: Constructivism is an ontology that assumes that there are multiple ‘truths’ that are subjective and socially constructed. Truths are not, therefore, universal but are instead rooted in social, historical, and geographical context. These ‘truths’ are also bound up with power. For instance, those who hold power get to say what is ‘true’ and what isn’t.

In addition to the above, Argentine-Canadian philosopher Mario Bunge‘s (2003: 285ff) glossary of key terms includes a range of ontological concepts used in the social sciences that are useful to think with:

“Definitions of Twelve Ontological Concepts

  1.   Ontology: The philosophical study of being and becoming.
  2.   Realism (ontological): The thesis that the world outside the student exists on its own.
  3.   Phenomenalism (ontological): The philosophical view that there are only phenomena (appearances to someone).
  4.   Constructivism (ontological): The view that the world is a human (individual or social) construction.
  5.   Dialectics: The ontological doctrine, due to Hegel and adopted by Marx and his followers, according to which every item is at once the unity and struggle of opposites.
  6.   Materialism: The family of naturalist ontologies according to which all existents are material.
  7.   Naturalism: The family of ontologies that assert that all existents are natural-hence none are supernatural.
  8.   Idealism. The family of ontologies according to which ideas pre-exist and dominate everything else.
  9.   Subjectivism. The family of philosophies according to which everything is in a subject’s mind (subjective idealism).
  10.     Holism: The family of doctrines according to which all things come in unanalyzable wholes.
  11.     Individualism: The view that the universe is an aggregate of separate individuals: that wholes and emergence are illusory.
  12.     Systemism (ontological): The view that everything is either a system or a component of some system.”

Source: Bunge, M. (2003). Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge. University of Toronto Press. Pp. 285ff

Reflection exercise

Take a few moments to think about what you have read above. Then, write a short (~100 word) reflection explaining:

  • primary ways in which the natural and social sciences differ, and
  • some things that the social sciences offer that the natural sciences cannot.

Why study the social sciences?

In their 2019 publication, Carré asked, ‘what are the social sciences for’? In response, they propose a framework for thinking about the different approaches and contributions of social science research, which encompasses three continuums: 1) return on investment versus intrinsic value; 2) citizen (societal) relevance versus academic relevance; and 3) applied research versus basic research (see the Figure below, adapted from Carré [2019: 23]).

Image shows an adaptation of Carré's (2019: 23) framework for the social sciences
Adaptation of Carré’s (2019: 23) framework for understanding the contributions of the social sciences

While Carré (2019) argues that social scientists move along these continuums, he also suggests that there is good justification for finding middle grounds between the extremes. For instance, while applied research will tend to focus on and find solutions for specific social issues (e.g. youth crime), ‘basic’ research tends to adopt a more high-level theoretical approach to shaping how we understand the world, which can lead to longer-term substantive change (such as changing the way we think about and understand youth crime). As Carré (2019: 22) explains: “either research is conducted to directly solve pressing social issues, or it takes a full step back from the social word, in order to reflect about it without directly meddling [and] being involved in its events and discussions.” However, both are incredibly useful for moving knowledge forward and making crucial contributions. Similarly, they can have important symbiotic relationships; applied research might be informed and guided by the knowledge created through basic research, and conversely, applied research studies might be meta-analysed (a type of combined analysis) to inform broader theoretical development that is often the purview of basic research.

Reflection exercise

A central question raised by Carré (2019) is, what should social science ‘give back’ to the society that supports it? Take a piece of paper and write down some responses to this, based on your own views and beliefs.

According to Flyvbjerg (2001), and as also covered by Schram (2012), the concept of ‘phronetic social science’ can help bring social scientists back to the central value of the social sciences, rather than seeing them try to emulate the natural sciences and their search for universal and generalisable theories and truths. Instead, phronetic social science recognises that ‘truth’ is dependent on context, is in constant flux, and is bound up with power. This is not to say that we live in a ‘post-truth’ world where anything goes, but merely that we need to interrogate how knowledge and truth are created and how societies and social structures can play a role in this. Famous sociologist, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) referred to this as a ‘politics of truth’: something we’ll continue to discuss in greater detail over coming chapters.

‘Phronetic’ social science

Phronetic social science draws on the concept of phronesis, a term coined by Aristotle (384-322 BC) to refer to practical wisdom that arises from experience. Thus, phronetic social science “is designed not to substitute for, but instead to supplement, practice wisdom and to do so in ways that can improve society” (Schram 2012: 16). In terms of improving society, phronetic social science is then also concerned with praxis, or the practical application of knowledge to the betterment of society. Finally, phronetic social science is not attached to particular methods (e.g. quantitative versus qualitative), instead being “open to relying on a diversity of data collection methods in order to best inform attempts to promote change related to the issues being studied” (Schram 2012: 20).

Schram (2012: 18-19) presents four justifications for phronetic social science as follows:

  1. “Given the dynamic nature of human interaction in the social world, social inquiry is best practiced when it does not seek general laws of action that can be used to predict courses of action, but instead offer a critical assessment of values, norms and structures of power and dominance. Social inquiry is better when it is linked to questions of the good life, that is, to questions of what we ought to do.
  2. While the social world is dynamic, social research is best seen as dialogical. Social inquiry is not a species of theoretical reason but of practical reason. Practical reason stays within a horizon of involvements in social life. For Flyvbjerg, this entails a context-dependent view of social inquiry that rests on the capacity for judgement. Understanding can never be grasped analytically; it is a holistic character. Understanding also has intrinsic subjective elements requiring researchers to forgo a disinterested position of detachment and enter into dialogue with those they study.
  3. As the study of dynamic social life, dialogical social inquiry is best practiced when we give up traditional notions of objectivity and truth and put aside the fact-value distinction. Instead, we should emphasise a contextual notion of truth that is pluralistic and culture-bound, further necessitating involvement with those we study.
  4. Dialogical social inquiry into a dynamic and changing social world provides a basis for emphasising that interpretation is itself a practice of power, one that if conducted publicly and in ways that engage the public can also challenge power and inform efforts to promote social change.”

This concept of phronetic social science is a helpful means of understanding how the social sciences differ to the natural sciences, and can add value in different ways. However, it doesn’t tell us how to do social science, or how to be social scientists. What tools, for instance, might we use to undertake the sort of dialogical social inquiry that Schram refers to above? And how might we start ‘thinking’ like social scientists? We turn to these questions in the chapter that follows.

Defining key terms

‘Phronesis’: Described by Aristotle as ‘practical wisdom’, and juxtaposed with techné (‘know how’ of practice) and epistemé (abstract and universal knowledge).

‘Dialogical’: Exploring the meaning of things and creating knowledge through dialogue/conversation.

‘Quantitative’: A term used to describe research methods that typically involve measurement and counting of phenomena, regularly involving numerical data.

‘Qualitative’: A term used to describe research methods that typically involve understanding and interpretation of lived experiences (how people think, feel, act), regularly involving textual data.

Reflection exercise

Think about the concept of phronetic social science. Write a short paragraph (~30-40 words) to explain it in your own words. Then read back over the content in this chapter content to check your understanding.

Resources to support further learning

Relevant readings:

  • Gorton, W. ‘The Philosophy of Social Science.’
  • Flyvbjerg, B. 2001. ‘The science wars: a way out.’ In. Flyvbjerg, B. Making social science matter, chapter 1. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
  • Carré, D. 2019. ‘Social sciences, what for? On the manifold directions for social research.’ In. Valsiner, J. (Ed.) Social philosophy of science for the social sciences, pp. 13-29. Springer: Cham.
  • Schram, S. 2012. ‘Phronetic social science: an idea whose time has come.’ In Flyvbjerg, B., Landman, T. and Schram, S. (Eds.) Real social science: applied phronesis. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
  • Bunge, M. (2003). Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge. University of Toronto Press.

Other resources:



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to the Social Sciences Copyright © 2023 by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book