As we move further into the twenty-first century, we are continuing to see rapid and significant societal and global shifts that have dramatic and deep effects on our lives, and which have ripple effects through our societies and across nations. The thrusts of globalisation, (neo)colonialism, neoliberalism, unfettered capitalism, hyper-incarceration, digitisation and more, as well as recent significant global events like the Covid-19 pandemic, have continued to rock the foundations of our being. They point, yet again, to the continued need for humans to ask ourselves serious questions about our lives and the societies we live in: ‘what makes a good society?’, ‘what is important for achieving social justice?’, ‘how can we tackle global inequalities and poverty?’, ‘how can we end racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and more?’, ‘how can we reorganise ourselves in ways that prioritise wellness and happiness?’, ‘how can our political systems be fairer and more inclusive?’. These are all questions for social scientists.
The social sciences, as we elaborate on throughout this book, are a broad church. They cover many different disciplines and sub-disciplines that focus on different aspects of society (e.g., politics and governance, the economy, the family, education, and more) from lots of different perspectives and lenses (e.g., using different theories, as we talk about in later chapters). What they have in common, however, is that their core focus is upon people, societies, power, and social change. In sum, social scientists are interested in how people live, interact with one another, organise themselves in different ways, exert and respond to power, and/or how they effect social change. The social sciences are interested in the ‘big’ or ‘macro’ bits of society (e.g., social institutions, like the family, the economy, and more) as well as the ‘smaller’ or ‘micro’ bits (e.g., self-identity, interpersonal relations, and more). Social scientists are also adept at considering both ‘agency’ and ‘structure’; as we discuss later, they use their ‘sociological imaginations’ (a term coined by sociologist, C.W. Mills) to consider how social issues fit within broader social, historical, spatial, cultural, and geopolitical contexts, as well as how these contexts shape and influence such issues. It is these concepts, and more, that we set out to introduce and encourage our readers to reflect on throughout this book.
The focus of this book
In this book, we attempt to set out a broad introduction to the social sciences. We address what they are, and how they can help us to think in different ways about the world. In later chapters, we also provide some short introductions to key areas of study within the social sciences, including the environment, development, health, and work. We conclude the book by considering what it means to be a (good) social scientist; that is, the kind of dispositional qualities that effective social scientists have, and how this translates into social science practice.
It is our intention in this book to provide an introductory overview only; we do not pretend that this book covers all topics or perspectives that fall within the remit of social science disciplines. In this regard, it is most suited to entry-level university social science students. Nevertheless, in writing the book, we have primarily sought to:
- further democratise social science knowledge (e.g., by publishing this manuscript as open access, and also ensuring that many of the resources referred to within are open access — rather than locked behind paywalls),
- contribute to making the social sciences more inclusive (e.g., by weaving through non-Western social scientific perspectives and approaches, to destabilise the oft-Western-centric accounts that tend to litter texts of this nature), and
- encourage budding social scientists to get excited and passionate about what the social sciences have to offer!
We write this book from three different perspectives: as a criminologist who primarily researches social policy and who teaches into the introductory social sciences (Staines), as a political anthropologist who teaches introductory social anthropology (Hoffstaedter), and as an undergraduate social science student (Binnie). These different perspectives have enabled us to build different types of expertise into this book, which we have sought to reflect in varying learning and reflection exercises, case studies, and more. It has also enabled us to — primarily through the valuable perspective of Binnie — bring what we hope is a relatively fresh lens to social science theory, topics, and concepts. As Binnie reflects:
Beginning to study concepts within the social sciences opens up the possibility to reconsider the world as it appears to us. Already thoroughly embedded within our particular social formations, this learning is never undertaken in a vacuum. By engaging with the social sciences, we all seek to understand the broad questions of ‘how does it all work?’, and ‘why do we do what we do?’, which we hope will provide some greater meaning to everyday life. The social sciences are for everyone – but especially for those of us who hope for a more free, more equal society for all. It is this act of ‘dreaming a new world into existence’ that captures the necessary essence of the social sciences.
Never before have the social sciences been more important than today. We are excited to have you engage with us on this journey through the social sciences, and hope that in reading this book, we can also impart some of the passion we feel for social scientific research and practice onto you as our readers.