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

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:

Download this video clip.Video player: he1s_1_wk4_640x360.mp4
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Jonathan Hughes - Author
Welcome to Week 4. For the previous two weeks you’ve been looking at poetry and at modern art, but this week, the focus moves to social science. I'd like to make three main points.
First, what subjects are included under the broad heading of social science? Well, my personal list would include sociology, psychology, politics, economics and education. I'd include sociology because I think that’s pretty fundamental. It looks at the main divisions that underpin society, things like race and gender. Politics is also important. That focuses on how we’re governed. Economics is also really fairly significant. It affects who has a job and who doesn’t, and whether we can afford to buy the things we want to buy. The other two are much more personal for me, psychology and education; they're both subjects I've studied.
However, if you look at other lists, they're much larger than that, I found a list that included 23 different subjects, including things like history, which I think of as a humanities subject rather than a social science. That might just seem like a big muddle, but I think what it does show is that it’s quite difficult to assign individual subjects to the broad categories we’re using. But we’re going to go on using them, because it’s just a way to try and make sense for you.
The second aspect I want to talk about is that social science is always in the news. For example, recently there was a story about a new treatment for advanced skin cancer. Now that sounds like quite a scientific story, but if you start thinking about it from a social science perspective all sorts of issues start arising. For example, how’s this new treatment going to be paid for? Another example might be who’s going to get priority for this new treatment? Once you start thinking about issues like this from a social science perspective, there are very few where understanding can't be deepened and improved.
Thirdly is the issue of actually we’re all social scientists. That stems from the fact that we, none of us lives individual isolated lives, we all live in dynamic and complex societies, and we all rely on other people to be able to live our lives. Every single interaction, everything we do involves social science knowledge. So for example if I want to buy a loaf of bread, I need to know what sort of places sell bread, I need to know how money works, I need to be able to talk to the people that run the shop. It’s all using social science knowledge.
So I think social science is a fascinating area of study, but I'm going to leave you to get on with it.
End transcript
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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.
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