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Taking your first steps into higher education
Taking your first steps into higher education

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Week 4: Introduction to social science


Welcome to Week 4 of the course. The first week divided the range of subjects that it is possible to study at university into three broad areas:

  • arts and humanities – these included the topic that this course explored in the last two weeks
  • social science – your focus for this week and next
  • science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, which includes science and maths.

In the following video, Jonathan Hughes, the author of the social science parts of the course introduces Week 4:

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Social sciences until the early nineteenth century were really part of philosophy. However, as countries like the United States, France Germany and the UK moved from being agricultural to industrial societies there was a greater need to address the problems and issues that came about from this change. This led to a number of disciplines like sociology, economics and psychology separating out. To take sociology as an example, the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology (Abercrombie et al. 2000) points out that sociology literally means ‘the study of the processes of companionship’. Although people have always been interested in how their society worked the actual term ’sociology’ was first publicly used by Auguste Comte in 1838. According to Abercrombie et al. (2000),

Comte thought that sociology was a science employing observation, experimentation and comparison, which was specifically relevant to the new social order of Industrial Europe.

Many of these issues are very similar to those faced in the early twentieth century by countries like China and India as they become industrial nations.

This approach to social science is referred to as positivism and seeks to develop general laws to explain how societies work. This approach has been subject to different sorts of criticism. In particular there is a lot of debate within the social sciences as to whether it is possible to explain events or whether a more realistic goal is to try and arrive at a more rounded understanding. Another important criticism has been that positivism does not really take into account the intentions or motivations of individuals.

One really fascinating aspect of the social sciences is that we are all social scientists – we have to be to manage our everyday encounters with other people. Just walking down a busy street requires a high level of understanding of what people are likely to do.

This might sound like a rather grand claim. However, we all need to know how other people are likely to behave in different social situations if we want to get through each day without too many bumps and bruises.

We are also social scientists in everyday life because we have ways to deal with social encounters.

This week you will:

  • start to identify the subjects grouped as social science
  • begin to think about how social science can be used to think about everyday events
  • understand and apply the concepts of identity and stereotyping
  • explore aspects of cultural identity and group belonging
  • understand how using a spider diagram can develop your study skills.