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Social Science Disciplines

English 127
Research Writing

Human knowledge and the study of the world and everything in it have developed over thousands of years.  More recently, over only the last two centuries or so, accompanying the rise of industrialization and imperialism in Europe with parallel developments in the United States, new methods, claims, assumptions, theories, and practices of knowledge production have emerged through the rise of specialized fields, usually referred to as disciplines.  These disciplines can be further grouped together under broad umbrella categories:  Humanities (Literature, Philosophy, Classics, Fine Arts, Film Studies, Communication, Foreign Languages, Linguistics, among others), Math and Sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc.), Engineering, Business, and Social Sciences. 

The Social Sciences can be said to be the study of human systems.  There are various disciplines within this broad classification, all of which have developed their unique approaches over time, though with significant overlap.  Five major disciplines are listed and described briefly below; additional ones include Economics, Education, Geography, Criminal Justice and Law (sometimes a branch of Sociology at the undergraduate level).  Some fields, such as Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, American Studies, and Environmental Studies, are inter-disciplinary, which means that they draw their questions and methodologies from several disciplines, both from the Social Sciences and the Humanities.  When thinking about research topics, it is helpful to consider this range of approaches for at least two reasons:

        It deepens our appreciation for the complexity of a topic.  We tend to discover possibilities we otherwise could have ignored when we ask, for example, “How would a psychologist approach this issue differently than an historian?”

        It helps us choose and set up more successful research projects by limiting the scope of those projects. For example, it would not be realistic to try to understand all the issues affecting students of color at GRCC through one research project.  However, we might be able to take a sociological approach that examines what social groups (formal or informal) they affiliate with, how they interact within classroom environments, and when/if they feel excluded from certain group interactions.

The guide below is just that, a guide.  The work of scholars in all of these fields covers a wide range of territory.  This guide is meant to give you an idea of the difference in approaches and emphases, not to define fully or absolutely the work of anyone in these fields.

Psychologists:  emotional and cognitive impacts of environments and relationships, and the reactions of human systems to emotional and cognitive changes.

Sociologists:  how we become members of groups, move between groups, and how being in different groups affects individuals and the groups in which they participate.

Political Scientists:  how we identify ourselves as citizens of a particular nation, how we participate in our political structure, how it affects us, what motivates us to affiliate ourselves with certain points of view or parties.

Anthropologists:  the rituals and beliefs of a community, their function within a community, what they reflect about communities, and how they affect the members of that community.

Historians:  the interpretation of the past, how it affects our views of the present, understanding trends or the lack thereof in the past.

Your reflections:  Here are some questions to think about and mull over, though you don't have to answer them just now.  What have been your attitudes towards knowledge?  Had you thought about human knowledge being organized according to disciplines, which themselves are placed under broad categories like the Humanities and the Social Sciences?  What might be the consequences of this kind of classification?  Can you think of any dangers or limitations of thinking about knowledge production this way?  Who is granted authority in this scheme?  Are there risks that some voices get excluded or marginalized?  Think about how knowledge is produced through research.  What problems do you think might occur as researchers try to gather and interpret data in order to make truth claims about the social world?