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The social in social science
The social in social science

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2 Facing the challenges in the social sciences

2.1 The challenge of change

We are living in a very complex and rapidly changing world. Social science does not exist in a vacuum: by its very nature, social scientific study directly considers those things in life which are close to our concerns as human beings – how we produce things, communicate with one another, govern ourselves, understand our varied environments, and how to solve the problems we face in the organisation of social relations and processes. The social sciences offer a way of dealing with all of these issues. However, the ways in which we produce, communicate, organise and so on vary enormously as well, and they are themselves constantly undergoing processes of change. Social scientists need to produce convincing explanations for these changes and identify appropriate responses to them. To do this we have to deal with the wide range of theories and methods available. In short, studying social existence with some degree of success involves recognising and responding to a series of challenges.

The challenges facing the social sciences as bodies of knowledge and as practical guides to action are much more difficult today than previously. The institutions and social processes (such as the state, the national economy, the human personality, the environment and societies) which served as traditional objects of analysis have all undergone or are presently undergoing dramatic transformation, and in some cases are being superseded by new objects and new ways of investigating them. To demonstrate this challenge, let's consider briefly three interrelated processes: globalisation, environmental change and the communications revolution.

  • The precise character and dimensions of globalisation are still open to dispute. However, the spread of networks between businesses, academics, political movements and so on seems to operate without respect for national boundaries. This raises questions about attempts to explain these changes in terms of concepts which are focused upon national environments in isolation from wider patterns of human activity.

  • The relationships between social and physical environments are also barely understood, which makes understanding environmental change even more difficult. The problems which have emerged, from global warming and ozone depletion to acid rain pollution, have led many social scientists to forge new interdisciplinary links and to reassess the role of the natural sciences in contributing to the study of environmental problems. In addition, environmental ethics have led some social scientists to think more carefully about the instrumental attitudes to natural things.

  • The transformations in communications (the Internet, interactive television, electronic information and transnational media companies using satellite technology to transmit programmes beyond the control of any particular nation-state) are notable for their global impact and for forcing us to rethink the relationship between technology, language and social relations, as well as opening up new opportunities for communicating over vast distances.

These three processes are clearly interrelated, for globalisation would make little sense if it did not involve consideration of global communications and environmental problems. These examples illustrate just three of the many significant challenges to the social sciences in defining the things which should be studied.