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Social Sciences – The Definitive Guide to Getting Started

The complexities of human relationships and social interactions lead to a field of science unlike most others.

If you study this field of social sciences, you will notice that societies around the globe have formed in various ways that are sometimes very distinct, yet often share many characteristics. You might start to wonder how it all led to where you are today. I sometimes think back to powerful ancient societies and wonder how different—and how similar—they were to what I live today. The social sciences can help us answer these questions, and more.

The social sciences consist of anthropology, economics, education, geography, psychology, sociology. These sciences aim to understand how human society functions through analysis of various facets from culture and communication to individual psychology and sociological relationships. It uses tools from the natural sciences as well as social critique and symbolic interpretations. This means the results can vary and lead to some very interesting discussion.

Materials that I propose here on the various branches of the social sciences will cover everything from the history of these topics to their modern changes and advancements. Through them, I aim to help you get a firm foothold in the subject, or climb further up a path you have already started.

What are the Social Sciences?

Two of the things that make humans unique include our brain and our relationships with one another. Our brains give us incredible capabilities (at least compared to most of the animal kingdom) to communicate and to study the world around us. And this includes studying ourselves! In the social sciences, the brain essentially studies itself in order to understand how people work and how societies function through complex human interactions. We study that magnificent brain, the way we use it to communicate, and the things we create with it. Doing so is actually quite important for creating a better living environment. for that reason, the field of study has a long history, and today it forms a vital part of our culture and progress.

What Subjects Are Included in the Social Sciences?

This particular area of study encompasses a broad array of fields, including anthropology, economics, education, geography, psychology and sociology. They discuss human behavior, financial interactions, learning, spacial distribution, thought, and social interactions, respectively. I will discuss each of these branches in greater detail below.

Science vs Social Science

Social science is a branch of scientific study that includes the same methods as other branches. However, pure science is the overarching field that also includes other (i.e. all) scientific topics not included in social sciences. Pure science is the method of observing and experimenting to gather data which is then used to analyse hypothesis and draw conclusions. In addition to the social sciences, this method is applied to natural sciences such as biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as formal sciences such as logic, math and computer science.

In the branch of science known as social sciences, there is not as much focus on math, physical phenomena, experimentation, and technical analysis. But I don’t mean to say that they don’t exist at all in the social sciences. Rather, you will see a wide range of methods and techniques used, depending on the specific sub-field in question. Some fields like economics or archaeology use more scientific methods and statistics. Other fields use more critical analysis and interpretation of observations. This can include both quantitative and qualitative research.

What Does a Degree in the Social Sciences Entail?

A degree in this field can help you gain many transferable skills and engage with new concepts in new situations. You will become very familiar with reading, writing, critical thinking, communication, and professional interaction. And with the developments happening today, you will also likely learn how to apply other sciences to the field.

For instance, experimental psychology and the mathematics of language allow us to understand these topics at a much more profound level than in previous centuries. Once you find your niche, you will probably write a thorough dissertation on it or conduct your own final project.

Foundations of Social Science

If you are new to the social sciences, you may want to start with articles that cover the branches of anthropology, psychology and sociology. These are fundamental in social science theories and methodology. The next three sections I cover will give you a rundown of each of these fields. I will also include various materials and links for further learning.

A man looks at a skull on an old wooden table


As humans try to understand themselves, they first look to the past. Anthropology looks at the origin of the species with both physical and cultural perspectives. Professionals in the field study physical remains and written texts from the past to determine why humans like you and I turned out the way we did. Topics of study include evolution, language, culture, and similar overlapping areas.

When I discuss looking at the entirety of human existence, from the origin of the species to its impact on the world, I am looking at the world from an anthropological perspective. Anthropology, thus, is the pinnacle study of man. I will highlight how the field pulls not only from the social sciences but also from the humanities and natural sciences to build and prove theories. Thus, I think it might be helpful for you to look at articles outside of the social sciences in order to supplement your learning. Below are some sub-fields of anthropology that you may be interested in:

Materials for Further Reading in Anthropology

You can read more articles about these Fields of Anthropology and the History of Anthropology online. You might also look into books that go more in depth. Overall, the large range of topics may sound like a lot to take in. But anthropology books such as The Art of Being Human: A Textbook for Cultural Anthropology start readers off with foundations of anthropology as a whole.

I recommend this particular book because it has an accompanying online course if you want an extra thorough experience. The course is by the same author of the book, so you know the material correlates. But if you want to try exploring the minds of various different anthropologists, then I would say An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology is a good place to start. It includes a collection of essays from multiple authors around the globe. This social sciences book makes a great introduction for beginners looking for some variety in anthropology.

Highly Rated Books and Courses on Anthropology

The cornerstone of anthropology is differentiating animals from humans. This is in part because we often think we are very different from animals—special even. But I venture to say we can’t be so sure, and you can see what I mean by reading the book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? In it you’ll learn some surprising details about what separates your mind from that of an animal (and what doesn’t).

Mean Genes also gets down to the primal side of our genetic makeup. Reviewers say it will have a “tremendous impact” on how you see yourself and your behaviors that come from a long path of evolution. And speaking of evolution, I also recommend Blueprint: The evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. It combines anthropology, sociology, genetics, economics, and more to explain how society has evolved.

For a more interactive approach, I suggest checking out some online courses. Courses like Interactive Introduction to Anthropology specifically aim to engage the student. There is also Interactive Anthropology: Exploring Research if you think research might be an area you would enjoy. And for an all-inclusive look at the field, I recommend Exploring Cultural Anthropology.

Social Sciences Psychology classes for a group of women using drawing techniques.


Studying the mind requires numerous approaches. As such, the social sciences materials that I cover here encompass several psychology fields that intend to help you understand behavioral and mental processes.

I will outline how these fields draw from different perspectives and methods in order to both understand these areas and use analysis to enhance people’s lives. Because of this attribution, many perceive psychology as a field to treat mental illness; but that particular field is classified as clinical psychology. However, as a branch of the social sciences, psychology contributes to a larger realm of knowledge.

Although psychology generally aims to explain the impact of the brain on the individual and his or her behaviors, it does relate to other fields. When paired with neuroscience and biological studies, psychology becomes neuropsychology. This sub-field considers physical neural activities in relation to their mental effects and subjective behaviors. Other examples of psychology beyond the clinical setting include the following:

  • Behavioral studies and therapy
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Educational psychology
  • Industrial-organizational psychology
  • Mathematical psychology

Psychology Materials to Get You on Track for Learning

In the materials I present here, I narrow in on the human mind. I aim to provide resources to help you understand mental processes and how they influence behavior. This often leads to treating mental illnesses, but that’s just one small part of the field. Other areas of psychology relate to different fields like neuroscience, biology, education, and development.

A good social science book that I believe can get you started in this field is Introduction to Psychology. It starts with the basic concepts everyone should know, accompanied by real-life examples. Professors, too, will find that this book offers a great resource for putting together a class syllabus. Similarly, Principles of Social Psychology clears a path for instructors wanting to teach this interdisciplinary topic. It covers topics such as religion, race, sexuality, family, and more in ways that aren’t overwhelming for teachers or students.

Highly Rated Books and Courses on Psychology

For something more applicable to your daily life, The Happiness Hypothesis helps to apply ancient wisdom to modern problems. I hope anyone who reads it finds the same great insight that many of its reviewers tout. Similarly, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard can help you overcome difficult aspects of your own mind so that you can really get things done.

Turning away from the self and towards others, I recommend Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It will help you understand what influences other peoples’ decisions and their reactions to you. You will be able to better understand important social and psychological concepts like reciprocation, commitment, consistency, and authority.

These concepts are the very ones that many industries use to engage and connect with customers. For example, I urge you to take a look at the online course Gamification: Motivation Psychology & The Art of Engagement. It shows how psychology is the underpinning of behavior in all areas, including what makes us want to continue using something. In this case, online products and services can get more people to use pretty much anything if they make that thing have characteristics of a game.

Another course that exposes some influential techniques in the world of business is Marketing Psychology: How to Become a Master of Influence. With this course you will be able to draw in leads, increase, sales, and write killer advertisements. But I also want to include a course that’s more on the academic side. The course Learn Social Psychology will help you understand research in the field, perform better in classes, and more.

Social Sciences Sphere made of squares with people`s portraits. Concept for diversity, community, social networking, and teamwork.


“Soci” is a derivative of the Latin term socious, which loosely translates to society. When paired with the “ology” suffix, we achieve “the study of society”. Sociology, thus, studies societies, including individual relationships, interactions in the larger world, impact of difference within societies, social action, and social interaction.

In the articles I detail here, you will find that studies in this social science branch rely on observation and analysis. Because there are numerous approaches, the field hosts a variety of epistemological perspectives, frames of inquiry, and methods for analysis. Moreover, these approaches change and modernize based on current cultural, political and generational persuasions. New thinkers emerge and question “old” theories through new lenses. As such, sociology tends to engage frequently in critical theories and scholarship.

I also want to show how sociological research pulls from diverse research methods spanning quantitative and qualitative data capturing as well as empirical processes. Various scientists rely on elements of observation, survey research, direct interviews, focus group interviews, and model construction. Thus, the applicability of findings in this field and its sub-divisions is quite large. Politicians, educators, medical professionals and others draw upon sociologists’ work to enhance work in their own fields.

Useful Materials for Further Exploration of Sociology

The materials I cover here look at society as a whole. Although this includes individual relationships, a big part is also the differences and interactions between larger groups. The methods in this field count on observation and analysis, of which there are a variety of approaches. I will include materials here that explore these methods and how sociology looks at both new and old theories.

Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World also gives an introductory look at sociology, but with some added features. It looks more at how learning outcomes apply to current events and theories in the field, making it more relevant to the world around us.

Highly Rated Books and Courses on Sociology

Another book that makes strong connections to the world around us is The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology. I recommend it for those students who want to see the relevance of sociology in relationships, jobs, and future goals. And Essentials of Sociology also covers real-world characteristics such as globalization, critical thinking, technology, and cultural diversity.

If you’re a student, on the other hand, you may want to check out Introduction to Sociology 2e. It fits the structure and content of the average first-semester sociology course, so it makes a great supplement to classes. I think it is a great tool made for introductory sociology students and curious minds that lays everything out in a clear way. You will learn about the factors that shape society in the same trajectory that most standard intro sociology classes follow. The same goes for the online course Introduction to Sociology, in case you are a more visual learner that could use the video content.

Online courses also offer material specifically designed to help with specific exams. For example, A-Level Sociology Revision (Short Course) helps students prepare for the A-level exam. But online courses aren’t all about exams and university classes. You can find pretty much anything, including specific topics like Introduction to Criminology. I highly suggest browsing the selection to see what they have available.

Modern Applications of Social Science

The concept of economics and education have been in existence for hundreds of years. They form part of social science that applies various parts of the field to real-world events and metrics. However, formalized areas of study are somewhat recent. And globalization has made economics a hugely complicated matter. The world can’t really be treated as one giant economy as the interactions between all of the sub-economies leads to many unforeseeable changes. But this is precisely why research in the area continues on. Below I will detail some of the modern areas of research that you may find an interest in.

Mature economist showing paper with report to young colleagues and listening to their opinions


You will find that money and economics go hand and hand. This is because economics is the science used to describe and analyze how wealth circulates. Studies in this branch of social science look at how wealth is produced, distributed, and consumed within different social parameters.

Within economics, the concepts of scarcity and alternatives are largely at play. Scarcity means that resources are limited, which causes us to need to think carefully about how to use them. This can cause prices to go up for those with higher demand. It can also cause people to divert their choice to an alternative that is cheaper due to more available resources. Because these two dynamics are constantly interacting and dictating patterns and trends, they are fundamental to the field. You will see these concepts come up in many of the materials I provide here.

Economics has two major areas of study: micro- and macroeconomics. In microeconomics, the individual delegate (i.e., household, company, person) is the analyzed unit. Macroeconomics, on the other hand, looks at economies as a whole for analysis.

To go more in depth on the matter, these fields break into positive and normative distinctions. The first, positive economics aims to explain and predict phenomena within economic structures. The latter, normative economics, uses somewhat subjective criteria to categorize actions and choices. These are topics that will typically be found in the more advanced social sciences materials that I detail here.

Economics Materials for Further Reading

Additionally, social sciences books on economics will generally cover more technical topics compared to some of the materials I discuss in other sections of this guide. They get into the applications of math and finance in the economic systems of the world. Production of goods, distribution of them, their consumption, and all the transactions that allow those processes to occur are the main focus. Thus, in addition to materials I list here, I also suggest looking into additional materials on the topics of math and finance.

As far as pure economics, I think a good book to start with is one that emphasizes the real world applications, such as Economics (Theory Through Applications). It is designed for readers with little to no experience in the field, and made to relate economics to their own lives. Books such as Principles of Economics then help students move up into intermediate studies. The first half of the book reviews important basic concepts, while the second half covers more intricate concepts like income inequality and government policies.

Highly Rated Books and Courses on Economics

A popular book that covers, well, pretty much everything when it comes to the basics of economics is The Everything Economics Book. It gives a brief introduction to a huge number of topics, making some reviewers recommend it “without hesitation”.

I also suggest The Theory of Economic Development if you want to get a firm grasp of classic economic thought. This book, published in 1911, still provides useful insights into how our current economic society came to be. Similarly, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition covers how economies have changed so much over time.

If you prefer courses, I would suggest some online Udemy courses. They come in all shapes and sizes, from general to subject specific. For example, courses like Behavioral Economics and Neuromarketing focus in on an area that you might find useful. These courses can even help you prepare for big exams like the CFA. The CFA Level 1 Bootcamp and CFA Level 1- Complete Economics are great places to start for this kind of study.

Social sciences lecturer in university.


From teaching to counseling to curriculum development and more, education embodies the art and science of learning. As a social science, education branches across several fields of applied and theoretical research pertaining to how people learn, how people teach, and the spread of knowledge and cultural wisdom. You will find that disciplines including anthropology, philosophy, psychology and sociology feed into this area of knowledge.

Studies in education are often broken apart by age. In this manner, as a student you may be grouped with peers that are not of the same level as you. This could benefit you if you can learn from the many more advanced students surrounding you, but may hinder you if you are significantly ahead of other students. Other areas within the field consider what to teach and how to teach, looking more at curriculum development or how to enforce standards through education policy.

Furthermore, within education research, the impact of various individuals and sociological elements is important. When children begin to learn about the world, and how that view is sculpted, it is critical to understand not only the learning process but other cultural elements. Moreover, the impact of a child’s place and time of birth, or where they were born and when in history, will have an impact on their ultimate educational success. Educators strive to develop standards of equity in consideration of these factors to provide all students equal learning environments and opportunities.

Educational Materials on Education

Below, I will outline how this field contains many facets that embody the art of learning. Social sciences books that I present here can help teachers better educate their students, or help students improve their own learning abilities and experience. For example, Blueprint for Success in College and Career is a great tool for students looking to help themselves in learning and potential career choices. It gives advice on work ethic, efficiency in learning, and time management. I also think that Education for a Digital World can help students as they adapt to modern tools for learning, but especially help teachers. It provides a solid guide to digital teaching tools such as those used for online courses and resources.

Highly Rated Books and Courses on Education

A highly popular book based on research for smart teaching is How Learning Works. It presents seven learning principles that clear up a complicated topic. And if you’re interested in pure research itself, I recommend Introduction to Educational Research. In it you will learn about proper research methods and the most modern developments.

But teaching isn’t just for teachers. Professionals in many fields need to “teach” people during presentations, through their website design, or on their blog. Design for How People Learn gives anyone the tools to captivate an audience and effectively transfer information to them.

The online course Train the Trainer Foundation uses similar techniques to help employers effectively teach their employees learn. And Outcome Based Education & Academic Quality Assurance can help maximize student learning outcomes. But maybe you don’t have employees or students, and you just want to teach yourself. There’s a course for that too: Mastering Personal Education.

Miniature group of students walking to the big world

Geography as a Social Science

Geography often falls within the realm of Earth science, a natural science. However, you will find that the branch has many fields with more critical (or social) perspectives. Human geography is the primary form of geography within social science. It looks at how humans impact their environment, including how they build their societies, how they view the world, and how they manage their physical environment. Interestingly, human geography draws on its sister science, physical geography, in considering the central tenant of the relationship between physical markers and human understanding of space.

Within this field, there are several elements I want you to consider. Physical environment is perhaps the most primary component impacting humans. For example, where they live dictates what resources are available, which in turn determines the emergence of cities and culture. The interaction of these features then gives rise to political workings, public health, military considerations, etc.

Beyond physical geographic elements, geographers consider social elements. This may include looking at how culture dictates the movement of peoples or the spread of languages. Social geography considers societal tendencies and interactions.

Geography also contributes to applied fields. For example, it is a large component within urban planning and design. Moreover, geography borrows from formal sciences like statistics and computer science to enhance data informing theories and analytics within the field. For this reason, I also suggest looking into materials on these areas outside of the social sciences.

Reading Materials for Geography

The social sciences materials I cover here look at how the distribution of land and societal features affects the planet and people. Books such as World Regional Geography provide introductory material for students. It starts with basics such as human activity and globalization. Then, it moves on to other aspects of different land masses, habitats, and cultures.

I then recommend books such as Essentials of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) which hone in on specific tools that help the modern-day geographer. In this case, GIS use computer programming to help create maps and manage data in new and useful ways. This technology and others like it are so widespread that being familiar with them is critical for working in the field.

Highly Rated Books and Courses on Geography

Since an interactive course may be better when it comes to learning something like GIS, I also recommend the popular online course Learn geographic information systems (GIS) with QGIS. It has fourteen classes of video tutorials and explanations to guide your through. Statistical Problem solving in Geography covers similar topics, but with some added applications of statistics in various areas.

But if you’re not quite ready for something like that, there are more basic introductory materials for beginners. Where on Earth and Prisoners of Geography both give an interesting look at the world and how its layout affects humanity. The online course The Geography of Globalization does the same, but with a focus on the increasing connections of people on Earth today. And I suggest something like Cracking the AP Human Geography Exam to give you the specific help you might need to tackle upcoming exams.

Social Sciences Frequency Asked Questions

Below, I outline the answers to the main questions presented in this article. I cover each of the topics in more detail in the above material, so check out the whole guide if something piques your interest!

What subjects are included in the social sciences?

The social sciences study how humans interact and form societies. Thus, the main topics covered here are anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics, education, and geography.

What does a degree in the social sciences entail?

Degrees in the social sciences may be narrow or interdisciplinary. All will include core classes on a range of topics, and will later focus more heavily on topics specific to social sciences. Expect to do a lot of reading, writing, and interaction with peers.

What is the difference between social science and formal science?

Social science is the study of people and their interactions in society. Formal science, on the other hand, involves the application of logic, math, and language to data in order to organize and communicate it.

What jobs can you do with a degree in a social science?

A degree in one of the social sciences can lead to many common jobs and careers. Examples include market analyst, research assistant, therapist, social worker, and even coordinator.

Social Sciences Books - An array of young people


The social sciences really dig deep into a wide range of topics on human behavior and interaction. Society is hugely complex, especially when you take into account the thousands of years that it has been forming and changing. If you take the advice and read the material I discussed above, I am sure that you can understand, appreciate, and even contribute to this rich field.

If you’re a curious reader or someone trying to figure out a college major, try one of the introductory books or an interactive online course. And if you already have more experience in the field, take a look at one of the items that goes into a narrow subject in your area of specialization to help you gain more skills. On the other hand, you could intentionally aim for material outside of your comfort zone to help widen your breadth. However you decide to do it, the first step is to just do it!

Was there a topic here that you didn’t previously think of as a social science? What do you think people should become more familiar with when it comes to the social sciences?

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