What is social science?

by Professor Iain McLean FBA

20 Nov 2018

Professor Iain McLean explores how we define social science and its associated disciplines – and why they matter. 

Social science is the scientific study of human beings. You may think this is impossible, but bear with me. Both wings of the British Academy ‘for humanities and social science’ are about human beings. What distinguishes the social sciences from the humanities is not so much subject-matter as techniques.

The divide is not hard and fast. As Diarmaid MacCulloch says in his companion piece, some humanities scholars use scientific methods in, for instance, statistical analysis of large bodies of data, or carbon-dating of archaeological remains. And some social scientists are interested in narratives, eg of the development of international institutions, or customs in traditional societies. Some disciplines happen to sit in social science departments but are more like humanities – an example would be one of my interests, the history of political thought. Some disciplines, like linguistics, sit right astride the division between humanities and social science.

So: the key difference is that humanities are (mostly) interested in the unique; social sciences are (mostly) interested in the general. Social statistics cannot predict how I will vote in the next election, but they can help to predict what most people like me will do. In economics and psychology, the core scientific methods are no different to those used by our ‘hard’ science, engineering, or medical colleagues in the other national academies.

When we tell narratives, we aim to make them ‘analytical narratives’ in a recent phrase. Not just ‘this happened, then that, then the other’, but rather ‘THIS happened as a reaction to THAT happening. Other things being equal, that adds to my confidence that when THAT happens again, THIS will follow again’.

But what about the problem of free will, you may say? Human beings are autonomous, thinking individuals, not to be analysed statistically as if they were physical particles or viruses. Well, we can’t predict how an individual human will behave (particle physics may say that about their subject, too) but we can make valid generalisations – about how most people behave in response to a price increase, or to a visual stimulus, for instance.

One important 20th-century development, game theory, now spreads across all the social sciences. Game theory takes human rationality as given, asking (just as in an ordinary game like chess or Noughts-and-Crosses) what is the best strategy you can play in answer to your opponent’s best strategy? Sometimes, as in Noughts-and-Crosses, there is a unique answer, which makes it an uninteresting game for adults. In chess, there is a unique best answer, but luckily for humans we don’t yet know what it is. In other human games, there is no unique best answer, but the theory gives precious insight into how humans interact, be they warriors, diplomats, or couples deciding where to go for dinner.

A close-up photograh of a chess board, representing the principles of game theory
"Game theory takes human rationality as given, just as in an ordinary game like chess or Noughts-and-Crosses"

Although for administrative convenience, the social scientists in the Academy are currently divided into six disciplinary sections (law; economics; psychology; sociology and related subjects; anthropology and geography; political science and related subjects), no division can capture the fluidity of social science and humanities. Many of our most interesting work crosses disciplinary boundaries, both within social science and between social science and humanities. We even have colleagues who publish in the hardest of hard science journals such as Nature and Science.

Welcome to the human sciences in all their inexhaustible variety!

Iain McLean is Chair of Section S5 (political science and related subjects) at the British Academy, and a Senior Research Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. His books include Aberfan: government and disasters (with Martin Johnes) and Condorcet: foundations of social choice and political theory (with Fiona Hewitt). He is also a singer and a steam locomotive driver.


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