By Donovan Makus
As the end of the semester draws near, we have the opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned over the past months. As final projects and essays are completed, the last midterms written, and summer plans made, we may even have the time to reflect on the actual meaning and grounding of the discipline we are studying. For some, this is a clear reflection; mathematics and chemistry are long-standing fields with an extensive history of scholarship.
However, for other newer fields, there isn’t this same history to fall back upon. For social science majors, there may be some apprehension; the social sciences are sometimes described as “soft” sciences, in contrast to “hard” sciences like chemistry. This is a weak distinction, though, as the social sciences have a great deal to offer us in our search for knowledge.
Now I should be clear, I’m not a social science major trying to justify my major choice. Far from it–my home faculty is the Faculty of Science, not Arts, but this distinction is not as clear as we may first think. When asked to describe “Science,” how would you describe it, and what examples do you use? If you’re like most people, your description of “Science” comes from the natural sciences, from disciplines such as biology, chemistry, or physics, rather than fields such as psychology or sociology–yet all of these are scientific fields! While the natural sciences have existed for much longer than the social sciences (or, at least, as recognizable distinct fields), “science” isn’t limited to describing the natural world. Science is about the pursuit of knowledge, and this includes knowledge of our societies and human behavior. When we say science, we shouldn’t use it to refer exclusively to natural sciences, as if those are the only sciences. Instead, we should focus on the core of science: the scientific method, which is multidisciplinary and can be applied to many different fields, from anthropology to sociology.
Social sciences are legitimate sciences which use scientific methods to observe human behavior and society. However, it is this description that gives rise to one of the reasons there is some apprehension towards the social sciences; we think we already know a fair amount about these areas. The average person doesn’t have a particularly deep knowledge of chemistry or physics, yet as a reasonably well-socialized human, we feel comfortable making motivational attributions and group judgements due to our personal experiences. When we read social science research, it seems familiar; we can understand the terms even if we don’t always understand the methodology or findings. Compare this to a chemistry or biology research article and the difference in the required background knowledge is clear. Familiarity can lead us to undervalue something, and this tendency hurts the study of social sciences. Examining ideas and relations that are closer to our daily lives than theoretical physics doesn’t devalue studying those areas–far from it. It makes them far more salient to our everyday lives. It is precisely this human factor that also plays a part in the unfair devaluation of the social sciences.
Humans are complex and hard to predict or study. This human factor complicates the social sciences; unlike chemistry, we can’t always use formulas to predict someone’s actions and then experimentally verify those formulas. When two specific molecules collide, with the right activation energy and orientation, they should react; there is no element of cognition involved in this. Yet when placed into seemingly identical settings, different people will react differently, as we don’t merely react automatically. Our advanced cognitive abilities, as a species, make us human, while at the same time adding a level of complexity; our behavior is a product of the “black box” atop our necks. However, our imperfect understanding of the human mind shouldn’t be a negative aspect of the social sciences, but rather an inspiration to continue studying, to determine what it means to be human and to interact in social settings.
Finally, the social sciences suffer from extra scrutiny for studying ourselves as human beings. No one has a great deal of emotional energy invested in different chemical reactions, yet when social sciences deal with pressing topics such as inequality or bias, there are heated political debates colouring these exchanges which furthermore leads to attempts to weaponize social science, be that via selective interpretation or shoddy research design. Given the choice of accepting evidence that contradicts a core belief or attacking the evidence, the social sciences tell us we have a tendency to fall prey to confirmation bias, yet again hurting the case of the social sciences.
The value of the social sciences is vast. While some have criticized them as hiding common sense observations in a cloak of confusing terminology, the social sciences have contributed greatly to our understanding of ourselves. One example of the great, although ethically dubious, social science studies with applications across disciplines, is the Stanford Prison experiment. I won’t retell this tale, a staple of many introductory sociology and psychology classes, but merely restate the findings. Normal people, when entrusted with some power and emboldened in groups, have the potential to become quite authoritarian and behave aggressively toward to other people. These findings have profound implications for our understanding of history–and of ourselves–and are just one example of the knowledge we can gain from the social sciences.
A notable physicist once noted this: “Understanding physics is child’s play compared to understanding child’s play.” This is something we should consider before labelling the social sciences as “soft.”