Social Science | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Social Science

Social science, in general, has come to refer to the specialized teaching and research conducted in disciplines characterized by their concern with human beings, their culture and their economic, political and social relationship with the environment.

Social Science

Social science, in general, has come to refer to the specialized teaching and research conducted in disciplines characterized by their concern with human beings, their culture and their economic, political and social relationship with the environment. Academicians generally categorize knowledge into 4 main areas: physical sciences, biological sciences (or natural sciences), humanities and social sciences, although others recognize only 2 categories - natural sciences and social sciences. Social sciences are included in various disciplines in different universities and there is no clear demarcation between a number of the member disciplines within these areas.


History of Social Science

The beginnings of modern social science can be traced to the 18th-century Enlightenment. The rise of capitalist society and attendant phenomena inspired social inquiry. In France, through the work of the physiocrats, economics was launched as an empirical science. Moral philosophy also made substantial advances, laying the foundations for modern sociology, psychology and anthropology. During the 19th century, social science became diversified, but some thinkers (Comte, Marx) in an opposing trend tried to construct a synthesis.

Five changes characterize the 20th-century advances in the social sciences. First, the development of modest theorizing and high standards of empirical testing; second, the recognition of the interdependence of social, political and economic forces; third, the rise of several branches of psychology important to the analysis of social behaviour; fourth, the improvement of quantitative methods; and fifth, the incorporation of social sciences into society.

In the 1950s the term "behavioural sciences" came into widespread use, usually in reference to anthropology, sociology and psychology. As an attempt to emphasize the method of scientific process, behavioural science concentrates on those aspects of the social sciences that can be explored, recorded and interpreted. Social scientists generally, however, are as much concerned with method as with results. English economist John Maynard Keynes, speaking of economics, described all social sciences when he said that "it is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique of thinking, which helps its possessor to draw correct conclusions." However, unlike much natural-science research, only a very small part of research in social science is conducted in controlled laboratory settings.

Social Sciences in Canada

The changes in higher education in Canada from 1663 to 1960 and the retarded development of social-science subjects relative to those closely connected with the humanities and natural sciences have been documented, but each of the social-science disciplines has its own history, its own periods of gestation, birth and growth to adulthood as a distinctive profession. Some, eg, history, economics, political science and psychology, were approaching adulthood while others, eg, geography, anthropology and sociology, were still in their infancy. These latecomers were not firmly established until the 1950s.

Social Science Research

Some social-science research is conducted for corporations, school boards, government agencies and other institutions; in such cases the client poses the questions. At the other extreme, research is generated by the scholars themselves, by universities, private foundations, or by a government-sponsored body like the SOCIAL SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES RESEARCH COUNCIL OF CANADA.Shortfalls in public funding for research generated by scholars on their own have fostered interdisciplinary research to satisfy the needs of the particular client agencies, government and otherwise, and the first for support of the corporate sector. This has meant the favouring of applied and mission-oriented research. If for a long time the relevance of natural science for business and industry has been obvious, the same cannot be said for social science. Except for ECONOMICS, the concerns of which have a direct bearing on business and industry, the perceived relevance to the latter sectors of social science has been minimal. That change is occurring is evident in the increased participation of the corporate sector in sponsoring the kinds of social science research which can be applied to a variety of problems. In 1990, on the 50th anniversary of its founding, the Social Science Federation of Canada organized a conference, the proceedings of which were published under the title Social Science Research in 1990s: Discipline or Issues Oriented? edited by Esbensen and Allard. Many of the trends noted above were discussed and debated within its pages.

Contributions to the Field

Contributions of social science to public policy are channelled through a number of streams, eg, the ECONOMIC COUNCIL OF CANADA and the Institute for Research on Public Policy. Social scientists of many specialties have played an important part on scores of task forces, committees of inquiry and royal commissions. For example, the Royal Commission on BILINGUALISM AND BICULTURALISM involved both English- and French-speaking demographers, economists, historians, linguists, political scientists and sociologists.

The spectacular growth in the social sciences in Canada is reflected in the number of national and regional associations and journals established since 1950, before which time fewer than 10 associations and no more than 7 journals existed. By 1995 there were more than 45 associations and at least 40 journals catering entirely or partly to the social-science community.

Individual social-science disciplines have developed an impressive capacity to organize, but less impressive has been the capacity for the social sciences to create and sustain a strong collective organization that transcends the boundaries of the discipline. The first attempt to bring together the various social sciences under an umbrella organization was the founding in 1940 of the Social Science Research Council (later changed to the SOCIAL SCIENCE FEDERATION OF CANADA). This voluntary association was organized by a small group of distinguished scholars to promote research, the training of social scientists, the publication of studies and the holding of conferences. Almost all of the funding for these activities derived from American sources - the Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller foundations. The council was able to function on only a small scale without government support.

With the establishment of the CANADA COUNCIL in 1957, government support for the social sciences as well as the humanities was instituted, although on a more modest scale than for the natural sciences. In 1978 the functions of the Canada Council relating to the social sciences were taken over by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, a federal agency. Its role is to promote the interests of the social-science community vis-à-vis the public and the state.

Growth in the Social Sciences

Growth in the social sciences was encouraged by the recognized need to resolve or understand the many problems associated with the increasing size and complexity of Canada and its institutions. Outside of Québec, much of the growth during the first 40 years of this century was promoted by spokesmen who argued that universities should provide training for the expanding public service, as well as for institutions in the private sector. In contrast, the first Québec social-science programs in the 1930s were sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church in an attempt to shape the changing society according to the social doctrines set forth in the papal encyclicals; the orientation stressed social service in the interest of French Canadian society as a whole.

The social sciences helped prepare the way for the formation of co-operatives, credit unions, workers' syndicates and other institutions. The social sciences in Québec have since been secularized, but they remain strongly committed to participation in the shaping of Québec society. Differences between Québécois and non-Québécois social scientists in the themes of their work have been often noted in SOCIOLOGY, and according to one study published in 1988 by Brooks and Gagnon such differences occur in other social sciences as well.

From 1945 to the early 1960s, earlier gains made by the social sciences throughout Canada were consolidated. Many new departments in universities were founded and older ones expanded at a steady rate. Unfortunately, in most of the social sciences, graduate study programs were only feebly developed so that it was impossible to meet from within Canada the surge in demand for professional social scientists that occurred in the 1960s. Many prospective social scientists had to leave Canada to earn their professional degrees elsewhere, particularly in the US.

The tidal wave of students that engulfed the universities in the 1960s and early 1970s had an enormous impact on the social sciences. There was also a growing demand for the teaching of social-science subjects in community colleges and high schools. Within many universities the growing strength of social-science disciplines was accompanied by their fusion into divisions or, in some universities, into faculties of social science. The increasing importance of social science is reflected as well in the application, both directly and indirectly, of its perspectives and methods to many areas in society. Although a large number of social scientists teach in universities, thousands work in the private sector and in government and in their jobs apply social-science knowledge and methods of research. Furthermore, social-science theories and findings are applied by many who do not have advanced social-science degrees, eg, by those employed in such fields as administration, commerce, education, health, leisure and social work.

Social scientists are primarily concerned with research, although it is true that social-science research does not have the impact, prestige or the same degree of financial support as research in the natural sciences. As well, the findings of social-science research do not reach a very wide audience and are often difficult to understand because they are couched in jargon. Those it does reach may be disappointed and frustrated with the contradictory and biased analyses, and lack of certainty in the predictions, which often reflect the difficulties and uncertainties of human life itself, and not the failure of the discipline.

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