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An Introduction to the Social Sciences

Focus
Definitions
How scientific?
The external environment
History
Problems
Information use

Quotes
"In the beginning, there were seven academic disciplines: logic, mathematics, geometry,
grammar, rhetoric, music, and astrology."
"Objective laws of social behavior may exist, bu there is much room for debate what they are
and whether the ones that are currently known provide much basis for making predictions. As
society changes, often in unforeseen directions, the social sciences find it difficult to keep pace."
~ W.S. Bainbridge
"Benefits from social science research are likely to be even more abstract, elusive, and hard to
measure than those in the natural sciences." Kenneth Brown
"This neither the best nor the worst of times for the social sciences, marked neither by great
optimism nor great pessimism. If current conditions continue, the social science of the next few
decades will have a modest presence on college campuses and the halls of government, but it
will have relatively little influence over society at large." W.S. Bainbridge
"It's gotten to the point where people think if it's not in Google, it doesn't exist." ~ Danny
Sullivan
"American social scientists constructed a special position for themselves in society, distant from
the compromising fray of both politics and the market, yet engaged in what seemed to be
disinterested service on behalf of social progress through science." ~ Lisa Anderson

Definitions
Which One?
There is no single, authoritative definition, and there is some controversy about whether or not
there is a single Social Science or simply a collection of disciplines that deal with society and
the human condition. The key element is a focus on human behavior and those disciplines that
explore human behavior in some detail. A secondary element is a focus on those institutions

which humans create and the culture related to the various ways that people live. Since the
social sciences should be "scientific," there is considerable emphasis on research that provides
verifiable evidence about human behavior. If research allows prediction, then the social sciences
would allow people to organize and order society for the better. A typical definition of social
science might be: "to identify, investigate, understand, interpret, and predict the phenomena of
social life in a systematic, objective way." Historically, Marxists viewed the humanities as part of
the social sciences because they deal with various aspects of human behavior, much of it social.
Religion and music might be good examples.
There is some question about the degree to which the social sciences can be genuinely scientific
and objective because of the nature of humans observing humans. Too, validity and reliability are
more difficult in measuring human behavior because so often data must be interpreted and
becomes more subjective. It is also true that different research studies on the same problem, for
example, the impact of increasing the minimum wage, may arrive at quite different findings and
conclusions.

Core Social Sciences


There is some disagreement about which disciplines and professions belong under the social
science umbrella. Here is one list:

Anthropology

Economics

Political science

Psychology

Sociology

Expert opinion argues that psychology and economics are the dominant social science
disciplines. Money and production certainly give economists something to measure in
sophisticated ways.Typically, they use research approaches closer to those popular in the natural
sciences. They also lend to other disciplines much more than they borrow. They usually cite
work from within their discipline. Although ranked lower, sociology also plays an important role
in developing research methodologies and models that are widely used in other social sciences.
Political science is most open to external disciplines and frequently borrows and cites research
from other disciplines. Sociology and geography are also heavy borrowers. Economics borrows
little, although there is some interest in political science topics as they impact economic
behavior.
There appear to be some natural relationships between social science disciplines:

Anthropology and sociology

Political science and sociology

Business and economics

Economics and political science

History and religion

Other Social Sciences


These disciplines are often included within the social sciences
:

Demography

History

Human geography

Linguistics

Social statistics

Hybrid SS Disciplines
Hybrids begin as fields on the frontier of two disciplines. Some will gradually become academic
disciplines with their own periodicals and professional associations. Boundaries are often fuzzy.
For example, where does historical sociology end and social history begin.
Here are a few social science examples:

Social psychology

Political sociology

Political anthropology

Applied Specialties [a few examples]

Industrial relations

City planning

Criminology

Like the hybrids above, these have broken away from larger disciplines and become autonomous.
Typically, they are more practical in their orientation. For example, criminology was once an
important part of sociology. Sometimes, the applied specialties are mission oriented and blend
insights from several academic disciplines. This is true of criminology, especially as it focuses on
law enforcement and crime prevention.

Social Science Professions


Again, there is some debate about which professions to place here. At least one author uses the
phrase social technologists to refer to these professions since they may apply the findings and
conclusions generated by social scientists. Here is a list of notable examples:

Business

Education

Journalism

Law

Public health

Social work

Boundaries
Over time, the boundaries between the several social science disciplines have become firmer, but
remain fuzzy. Separate disciplinary communities did not develop until the late 19th century/early
20th century. In recent decades, there has been a trend toward extreme specialization or
twigging . Each discipline is divided into many fields or specialties. Such fragmentation inhibits
the integration of knowledge, and is a notable barrier to the rational flow of ideas, the discovery
of common problems. Often, political scientists, for example, only communicate with others in
their own research and teaching area so there may be little discipline-wide sharing.

Social studies
Social studies are a recent development; they were developed in the 1920s to improve citizen
education via history, geography, and civics. Traditional political and military history of the
United States and Europe plus a focus on the community were the core of these studies. There
was little interest in the more controversial issues studied by social scientists. The purpose was to
encourage students to be:

Better citizens

Patriotic

Respectful of authority

Obedient to the law

Grateful and appreciative for our heritage

Able to participate in the democratic process.

Much of the available evidence suggests that social studies were not challenging, interesting, or
particularly successful. The content of social studies, especially the degree to which it deviates
from traditional truths, remains controversial today.

Socialism
Socialists believed that the advancement of the social sciences, especially in economics and
sociology, would allow the creation of an advanced society that would be equitable for all.
Private property as we know it would be eliminated. Conservatives argue that the social sciences
and socialism were related so that social science research and social studies in school were seen
as agents of the dominant state and anti-religious. By definition, social science questions
traditional values and beliefs. Social science research often produces findings and conclusions
that counter traditional, strongly held beliefs. Many social scientists have been associated with
liberal causes.

Behavioral Sciences
Behavioral science can be used as a synonym for the social sciences or as a notably different
orientation or focus. Here individual behavior is the primary concern while the social sciences
are more likely to focus on institutions or people within a group. New discoveries on the
"biological basis of human behavior" may make behavioral science more visible and important.
Most scholars agree that behavioral science began in 1945 with the Social Science Research
Council's Committee on Political Behavior. It wanted social science to be more scientific,
objective, systematic, and cumulative. Like the natural sciences, the social sciences should
explain, understand, and predict. This is largely an American and contemporary approach. There
is general agreement that this movement has had a notable impact on the social sciences.
There are some negatives. There may be too much emphasis on what can be measured, too much
precision on trivial matters. Behavioral scientists are more likely to use jargon difficult for the
lay person to understand. Finally, there may be too little appreciation for earlier approaches.

Policy Sciences

Often, managers, administrators, leaders, and especially those involved in the political
environment make decisions based on hearsay, and opinion rather than objective evidence. Even
when such evidence is available, it may be ignored because it goes against what people want to
believe. For example, Max Weber told German leaders that unlimited submarine warfare would
bring the U.S. into World War I and lead to Germany's defeat. He was ignored and his prediction
came to pass.
Unlike business, government has no objective basis for making choices, no profit and loss
statement. Instead, decisions are often made subjectively and foolishly. For example, there is the
widely held notion that there is a "free lunch," that government can provide needed services
while reducing taxes and governmental expenditures. Some social scientists worked diligently to
encourage government decision-makers to use objective evidence gathered via social science
research to make better decisions. For example, social science research was used in Brown vs.
Board of Education to support the decision that separate but equal education did not work and
could not be equal.
The policy sciences hope to:

Understand societal change

Clarify appropriate goals

Understand a particular social problem and how to solve that problem by identifying
most effective alternatives

Aid in effective prediction

Deepen and broaden policy-maker's capacity for judgment

Counter the inadequate data often available to decision-makers

Until recently, the Federal appeals courts relied heavily on social scientists to define and measure
segregation and its impact. Social science research was used to attack racial stereotypes. The
most famous of these cases was Brown v. Board of Education where social science research
convinced the Court that separate could not be equal. A recent Supreme Court decision seems to
lean the other way[Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1].
However, social scientists and policy-makers live in separate worlds with different and often
conflicting values, reward systems, and languages. Research reports often use jargon that is
difficult for the lay person to understand. Normally, social science research takes too long to
answer today's problems (unless begun several years ago). Policy makers find research findings
too qualified and not generalizable enough to apply to large populations. Policy makers may find
research findings too radical, and they fear change in the social order. Research findings may be
counter-intuitive. For example, a considerable body of research has found that capital
punishment does not reduce violent crime and that stringent penalties for drug use do not lower
that use. However, most people trust intuition more than research. Too, policy makers may

encourage or adopt research that agrees with their opinions. They may also may encourage study
in an effort to avoid making a decision.
While the accumulation of research probably will influence policy makers, it takes considerable
time and effort, especially when research findings counter popular opinion. Since researchers are
rarely wholly objective, some researchers affiliat with a variety of political, economic, and social
advocacy organizations, including think tanks. The thoughtful politician can almost always find a
researcher to support a particular position.

Hard and soft


Here, hard refers to the degree to which a discipline or a profession uses hypothesis-testing
research and precise measurement. For the social science to be scientific is to assume that
"natural regularities" exist at the individual, the group or larger level and can be measured. Thus,
objective laws of social behavior exist and can be measured. Sometimes, substantial use of
mathematics is seen as a proxy for the hardness of a discipline. Hard disciplines are like the
natural science. Soft disciplines are like the humanities. The goal of hard science is accurate
prediction of what will happen when an independent variable is applied to a dependent variable.
Phenomena that repeat themselves allow broader generalizations and predictions. There is some
question about the degree that such phenomena are found in the social sciences. Typically,
economics (large data sets and rigorous analysis) and psychology (experimental method) are the
hardest of the social sciences.
But "real" science has not always been hard. In the past, German mathematicians have rejected
"Jewish" theories which were quite valid. Fraud and cheating indicate that numbers or
"evidence" can be fudged. Disagreement among expert witnesses in suits involving scientific or
technical matters has received considerable media attention. Natural phenomena can also be
complex, making predictions difficult. For example, weather forecasts are not always accurate.
Are the social sciences really scientific?
Clearly, there is considerable variation from discipline to discipline. The harder disciplines have
the greatest claim to being scientific. Certainly, outsiders are doubtful. They point to:

The large number of unique events

The large number of unique variables

Events which are not universal, but vary from culture to culture and time to time

The difficulty of being wholly objective and neutral

The degree to which observing or measuring impacts what is being observed

The poor predictive power of most social science disciplines

The greatly oversimplified model of the real world

Differences between natural and social sciences


The list that follows is not universally accepted, but is typically found in the literature.

Social scientists do not create testable theories so there are few established "answers.

The social science disciplines are less clearly defined and information on a topic is likely
to be scattered among several disciplines. Social science subject matter is less stable and
more complex.

Social scientists use a greater variety of research methods and information resources.
Qualitative research is somewhat popular in the social sciences while natural science
research is laboratory or field based and usually limited to the measurable.

Replication of research is most difficult because of change in the subject population as


well as the researcher.

Social science terminology is less precise and more unstable

Social science research may not travel well across social, political, and economic
boundaries. Typically, social science research takes longer.

The relevance of information is harder to assess.

The social science literature appears to be growing faster.

Non-periodical information is more important in the social sciences.

There is more gray literature in the social sciences.

Normally, it takes longer for social science authors to be published.

Typically, social scientists are much more likely to use older literature, perhaps because
there is not agreed upon, accumulated, structured progress on important topics.

Leading social science periodicals have much higher rejection rates than those in the
natural sciences (may be as high as 70 - 80% in social science versus 25 - 30% in the
natural sciences).

Social science researchers are much less likely to publish in foreign periodicals

More information products and services are available for science since scientists are often able to
pay for them. To some degree, this is also true of economics and business in the social sciences.
Natural scientists more likely to be early adopters of information technology. They are also more
likely to use digital and Net sources. Social scientists are more likely to use books, newspapers
and other popular media, and are less likely to use conference proceedings.
If the social sciences are different from the natural sciences, what does that mean? Does different
mean inferior? Regardless, only the social sciences measure human interaction. Limited
scientific knowledge is still better than ignorance.

Brief History
Youth
Since the social sciences did not emerge in Western Europe until about the 1870s and 1880s, they
are quite young both as academic disciplines and especially as sciences.
Most of today's social sciences are based upon political economy which was to be the science
of modern (industrialized) society. However, it did poorly in explaining and resolving the
problems from urbanization and industrialization. It was not until the 1920s, that the major social
science disciplines were professional, rather than amateur, in the U.S. Franklin Roosevelt's Brain
Trust certainly included socialists and economists and were active at the highest level of policy
making.

The 1940s and 1950s


Social science became popular in Europe after the Second World War, but as three separate
disciplines. Economics was to be the science of development and full employment. Political
science was to be the science of democracy. Sociology was to be the science of modernization,
creating an appropriate culture for the future.
As the European colonies became independent and the Cold War intensified, the U.S.
government gave increased attention to both Communist and developing countries. Before World
War II, few American scholars studied counties and cultures outside North America and Europe.
There were few area specialists. Now, federal government money was available for Area
Studies which brought together scholars from the humanities and the social sciences to study
what had happened, what was happening, and what was likely to happen in various regions of the
world. This was a new kind of multi-disciplinary research and teaching. Area studies research
tended to be descriptive and soft because of the disciplines, including some from the humanities,
represented. Language, literature, history, political science and anthropology were the major
disciplines involved. Most research universities added at least one area studies program. Areas
where the U.S. envisioned risk, e.g. the Soviet Union and China, received particular attention.
As the welfare state expanded in Europe and the U.S., the government required more information
to assist in policy and procedure preparation. Government hired more professionals to do

research in its own agencies and provided more funding for external research. Macro-economic
planning received particular attention.
By the 1950s, anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, and psychology had become
well-established academic disciplines. Some social science professions had become
professionalized: social welfare, urban and regional planning, management and business, and
education. In the 1960s, theory and methodology "triumphed over applied work."

The 1970s
Resources for social science research and teaching declined in the U.S. and Europe. While
considerable social science research is still funded by government agencies today, it requires
persuasive justification. U.S. Federal agency research is often in dire financial straits.
There appeared to be a decline in public respect for social science research, perhaps because
social science research did not deliver clear, easily implemented, and politically persuasive
solutions to notable problems. Social science solutions to problems such as racial segregation
were often unpopular. Too, some social science research seemed strange and worthless to the lay
person. A "golden fleece" award in 1975 to the Federal Aviation Administration for a $57,800
study of the body measurements of airline stewardess trainees is a good example.
Discipline boundaries weakened and it became less clear what the special role of each social
science was. For example anthropologists were doing cultural research in large cities (once the
domain of sociologists). Once, it was easy to classify the social sciences by:

Did they study the "civilized world" or the "primitive world?"

Did they study the past or the present?

Did they study the market, the state, or civil society?

Characteristics, Problems, Trends


Employment characteristics
As you might expect for employment that is largely academic, educational requirements are
among the highest of all occupations. The PhD is the minimum requirement for many positions.
MS prospects are limited, but are better outside academe. There are few positions available for
those with the BA or BS degree in a social science discipline or profession outside of business or
education. Intellectual curiosity and creativity are fundamental personal traits. Training in
statistics and mathematics is essential for most social scientists today.
The job outlook is problematic because of the budget problems facing higher education. Social
science employment outside academe is expected to grow faster than average because of so
many social problems, including an aging population. Psychology is expected to grow the most,

then economics, marketing research and urban/regional planning. At present, over half of all
social scientists are psychologists. Here, typically, the Ph.D. is the minimum requirement. In
general, most social science positions will be replacement ones with a substantial number of
retirements expected soon. There is considerable competition for academic positions.
Half of new PhDs in the social sciences are earned by women. In psychology and cultural
anthropology, the majority of new PhDs are women. In economics, less than 25 percent of the
new PhDs are women. Some worry that if a "field feminizes too much the consequences could be
lowered prestige and lowered earnings."

Everyone Knows About the Social Sciences


While most Americans feel that they know little about chemistry or biology, almost every
American feels that she "knows a lot" about politics, business and economics, individual and
social problems. While the public tends to defer to natural scientists, they trust their intuition and
core beliefs when dealing with the social sciences so that there is less respect for the social
scientist.

Changing Environment
Some social scientists believe that the public environment for social science is more hostile today
than before. Politically important groups and organizations do not welcome research that
challenges the status quo. Thus, it is more difficult to obtain funding for social science research,
especially since federal government support has been reduced. Political leaders are less
interested in the social sciences as policy science. The "Golden Fleece" awards, critical of social
science research on Serbian tombstones or why people fall in love, may represent a majority
opinion.
We "live in a relentless blizzard of ads, messages, symbols, stories that skew reality in all
directions." Disinformation, especially on the web, can be overwhelming. Information and
entertainment are increasingly intermixed in the mass media.

Controversial Questions
Social science deals with a variety of difficult and contentious problems. In addition, most
people intuitively feel strongly about how these problems should be solved and see little need for
social science research. Examples might include:

Are certain races genetically inferior?

What is the best way to move people from welfare to employment?

How can drug use be reduced?

Does capital punishment reduce violent crime?

What can be done to reduce divorce?

To what degree has information technology increased productivity?

Social problems are complex, involve many difficult to measure variables, and may involve rapid
change. Research may be limited to small samples and a relatively few variables. Often, the
research report is not easily understood by lay people and may contain few conclusions or
recommendations that can easily be implemented by government or other organizations.

Twigging or Fragmentation
Twigging is the division of larger subjects into smaller ones where each division has a smaller
audience, association, annual meeting, and periodicals. Carried to an illogical extreme, twigging
could result in subjects with an audience of one. Affordable information provision, especially
hard copy publication, is a function of audience size. Periodicals, for example, with few
subscribers cost much more than those with a large audience.
Specialization and differentiation have been a notable trend in the social sciences since the
beginning. It has led to new professions, as when social work split off from sociology, and new
disciplines such as criminology (also from sociology) and international relations (from political
science).

Interdisciplinary
The social sciences are intrinsically interdisciplinary. Typically, interdisciplinary research does
not mean that a researcher is an expert in two disciplines. Rather, it means that the researcher is
familiar with a topic common to two disciplines and can apply methodologies and insights from
both.

Mission-oriented research has also had an impact by encouraging a variety of academic


disciplines and professions to join together to solve a problem. For example, solving problems
involving violent crime may involve law, economics, sociology, political science, and
psychology. Crime studies and welfare studies are good examples of mission-oriented research.
Problems related to urban transportation may involve scientific, technological, and social science
disciplines. When disciplines work together to solve interesting problems, there is the potential
for new hybrid disciplines like political anthropology.

Pure - Applied Relationships


In the natural and physical sciences, there is a strong, close relationship between pure or basic
research [research for research] and applied research [take research and create
products/applications.. Many scientists are involved in both to some degree. In the social
sciences, there is some doubt about what is pure research and there seems to be little linkage
between research and development.

Few Authors
Although dated, use and user studies suggest that 90 percent of the social science literature is
written by five percent of those in the disciplines and professions. This means that the average
social scientist is not actively involved in research and publication.

Social Science Research


Where?
Many universities and non-profit institutions have research institutes which collect, analyze,
interpret, and share findings and conclusions. Often, machine-readable data is made available for
further analysis. The Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) is
the leading repository for these digital archives. UT is a member.
While often associated with research universities and Federal government agencies, social
science research is also done elsewhere:

Non-academic non-profit research institutes

Business and industry research units

Professional organizations

Trade unions and political parties

Media

Research is important in the political process; consider all those polls. In selling or marketing
products of all kinds, many organizations use social science research techniques. If evaluation is
included, even more organizations conduct research involving social science techniques or
topics.
Many advocacy organizations have research "institutes" as universities have for several years.
These institutes conduct a wide variety of research, often designed to present policy solutions for
highly visible problems. Since this research is often combined with substantial political
persuasion, it can have considerable impact on policy via the creation of laws and regulations.

Greater use of numbers


Since World War II, the social sciences have become more like the natural sciences. Hypothesistesting research and greater use of larger data sets have become common. Data archives are
extremely important. First, floppy disks, then CD-ROMs, and now the Internet bring large data
sets directly to the researcher's desktop. Most data archives are independent of research libraries,

but libraries could play a more important role in providing intellectual access, especially to
subscription-based archives.
"The borrowing of statistical methods and techniques is not always beneficial. Many social
scientists that use quantitative methods extend the borders of knowledge. However, others are
motivated mainly by an interest in technique rather than substance. They routinely build
unverifiable models, over-quantify, and over-model."
As more powerful and less expensive computing power becomes available to academics, there is
increased interest in modeling social phenomenon via computer simulations to see how society
might function. Enthusiasts claim that such simulations will do for social science what the
laboratory does for the natural sciences. Critics argue that social phenomenon are too complex to
be modeled by computers.
Historically, research training/education has often been inadequate, especially in statistics and
information technology. That has changed in recent years. Still, not all social scientists are
comfortable with the current research environment.

Social Science Research Often Not Used


Often, social science research has had little impact on society. That may be because the research
itself is usually narrowly focused with small samples and may offer few applicable solutions.
Too, most social science research is full of jargon and statistics that make reading and
understanding difficult for lay people. When presented, solutions that threaten a popular notion
or the establishment may not receive a fair hearing. Most political leaders are not particularly
interested in making research-based decisions. However, the opposite is true for those in
business, and in politics when the research is related to popular opinion.
Some social science research has been useful and has had considerable impact. Examples often
mentioned in the literature include:

Monetary and fiscal policy

Psychological testing for employment or job suitability

Public opinion research in the media

Best practice in public administration, especially in state and local government

Ethical problems in research


As you might imagine in a research field involving human subjects, there are a variety of ethical
problems for social science researchers. Today, government regulations insure that most not-forprofit research is done according to strict guidelines with the fully informed consent of the
subjects. That has not always been the case. At least a few earlier social science research projects

have taken advantage of subjects. Because of fear of behavior modification , there is still some
popular fear of social science research involving psychology. Many people are also fearful that
data gathered by researchers will be used to invade privacy or to support inappropriate ends.
A few examples of research that may involve ethical problems:

Market research used to encourage consumers to buy inappropriate products

Jury research used to prepare litigation approaches, including disallowing jurors likely to
have certain values or beliefs

Polling research used to create candidate platforms and marketing approaches

Research conducted by "house" researchers to demonstrate that something is not really a


problem (wide-spread gun availability is not really a problem or legalizing gambling is a
social good)

As more academic research is funded by corporations, the researcher may be limited in what can
be shared with others. The sponsor decides what is to be studied, how it will be studied, and who
will know the results. Given the declining governmental funding for research and limited internal
funding, the university research agenda may be set my large multi-national corporations.
These same corporations may attack research and researchers that they disagree with via law
suits. While the researcher is likely to win, few have the resources to tangle with a powerful
corporation and then wait several years for the outcome. Thus, researchers may decide not to
study corporate behavior.

Major problems
Below appear a variety of problems faced by the social sciences. They do not appear in any
particular order.

Scatter
Social science information such as working papers and reports, particularly those produced
outside the academic environment, is scattered and often difficult to identify and retrieve. Many
items are now available on websites, but may not be easy to find. Bibliographic control is poor.
There is little synthesis or attempt to integrate and evaluate the body of literature on a particular
problem or topic. With minimal replication , it is difficult to know when research findings and
conclusions are generalizable. Those who need social science information are often frustrated
and many users do not know how to find and evaluate the information they need. The availability
of many on-line data bases and web sites have added to the information overload problem. The
amount of disinformation on the web is substantial.

Limited Resources

There is a continued shortage of research funding, especially for basic research. While
foundation and corporate founding remains good, Federal government funding for research,
including basic statistical services, has declined notably during the past few years. There are
fewer advocates for social science funding in the Congressional leadership today. There are also
many critics of almost any kind of governmental research, especially on the right. Funding
sources may skew research priorities since researchers are likely to study the problems where
the money is. Most academic social science research is done with little or no funding. This
means that research is limited and often takes several years to complete. A social science
research career is much more difficult than that in the natural sciences because of limited
external funding.

Limited Perspective
Unlike the natural sciences, the contemporary social sciences have been dominated by
researchers from North America, and then the United Kingdom. English-speaking social science
rarely cites foreign language material. Until the 1920s, European scholarship was seen as the
model for the social sciences. Since the 1950s, the United States has produced the models and its
research universities have been envied throughout the world. By definition, a science should be
global in its application. To some degree, social sciences have developed differently in different
countries according to culture, resources, and political imperatives. Social scientists in the U.S.,
in general, appear to have little interest in social science abroad. This is quite a contrast to the
natural and physical sciences.

Literature Creation
Authorship
Following the scientific model, nearly half of the social science research reports now have
multiple authors. The move from solitary to team research in the social sciences is most acute in
the harder disciplines, but seems likely to spread. Of the social scientists, historians are least
likely to collaborate in their research.

Social Science Information Use


In the Past
Historically, social scientists have been slower to respond to information problems and are often
less familiar with information sources and systems than natural scientists. As a consequence,
information sources and systems in the social sciences are less developed. This may be because
social science has not had the funding available to natural science to develop sophisticated
information systems. Too, many natural scientists and technologists work in environments where
there is both enthusiasm for and money for information technology. That is often NOT the case
in the social sciences.

Google

Omnipresent and omniscient Google has altered the information-seeking habits of most students
and even some faculty. Using library collections and services may seem less important. Library
catalogs may seem stiff and difficult to use in comparison to Google. Selecting and reselecting
websites as well as promoting library collections is a major challenge for reference librarians.

Invisible College
The invisible college is important for all academic disciplines, including the social sciences. The
Internet has created new opportunities for the isolated and less affluent social scientist to
participate (exchange information) via email, web sites, and news groups. Historically, the
invisible college has been of particular benefit for the elite.
The younger, less experienced researcher is less likely to be involved in the invisible college,
unless doctoral work was done with a leading scientist. Informal communication is dramatically
faster than formal communication. It may take more than a year for an article or a book to be
published and much longer for it to appear in an index. Thus, first disclosure on the web creates
an opportunity for comment sharing, visibility, and improving the product. Informal
communication is especially important for know-how information [methods] which is much less
likely to be found in the formal communication system. Scientists are more likely to speculate,
discuss errors, and share preliminary findings in informal communication. Feedback and
encouragement make a world of difference. However, much informal communication is unstable
and temporary with no permanent and public record. Some informal communication on the
Internet is captured, but there are doubts about long term preservation when compared with hard
copy records.
Historically, informal communication has been expensive. Money is required to attend
conferences, travel and make long distance telephone calls. Thus, some scientists have much
greater exposure than others. While the Internet has the potential to democratize informal
communication, those at leading institutions still have more and better networking opportunities.

Considerable Borrowing and Lending


As mentioned above, most social science disciplines--political science, anthropology, geography
and sociology--require literature from other disciplines and professions. This complicates the
identification and retrieval of needed information in a world that has traditionally relied on
discipline-based information systems.

Abstracts and indexes


These are more likely to be used for current awareness than for comprehensive literature
searches. Most scholars are not entirely comfortable with the data base literature search and feel
that they are missing something useful. The time lag may also be a problem. The typical
researcher does not have the time or interest to become comfortable with these tools. However,
SDI services matched to research interests would be popular.

Conferences
Only about 25 percent of social scientists find these to be of substantial value, and then for the
personal contact [networking] rather than the presentations. Thus, access to conference
presentations/proceedings may not be important.

Foreign languages
About 33 percent of social scientists use foreign language material. Some suggest that the
average social scientist has less foreign language competency than the average natural scientist.
In general, the typical social scientist has poor reading fluency in foreign languages. Some times
the assumption is made that the important literature will be published in English. Much research
done abroad is published in English, but certainly not all.

Obsolescence
Obsolescence varies notably by social science discipline, but a good general estimate might be 9
years for monographs and 6 years for periodicals. Geography, psychology, statistics, history, and
sociology are more likely to use older material.

Popular Formats
Social scientists (as a group) use a wide range of material:

Personal documents such as correspondence

Agency records, including government statistics

Reports made after an event

Observations

Field data

Interview data

Experimental data

Ephemera can be important.

Empemera includes:

Advertising circulars

Company reports

Computer programs

Conference presentations

Manifestos

Newsletters

Newspaper cuttings

Obituaries

Photographs

Press releases

Questionnaires

Survey reports

Broadcast transcripts

Annual reports

Broad sheets

Leaflets

Pamphlets

Posters

Today, statistical data in large data sets is especially important. With inexpensive, wide-spread
computer power most social scientists can manipulate relatively large data sets at their desktop.
Gray Literature
Gray [ or grey] literature is often important to social science research. Gray literature consists of
intellectual content that is not commercially published and is often missed by bibliographical
control resources. Examples include, technical reports, working papers, and a wide variety of
ephemera. Today, a considerable amount of grey literature appears on the web. This makes it
easier to find, but preservation remains an acute problem.

University Presses
While periodicals gain in importance for first disclosure, books [both monographs and
collections] remain important. University presses have some impact. The leaders are:
1. University of Chicago [the largest]
2. University of California
3. Princeton University
4. Harvard University Press
5. Oxford University Press.
These great university presses make a major contribution to research and publication.
Digital Reference Collections
Digital reference collections, such as those provided by Oxford University Press [Oxford
Reference Online], provide seamless access to collections of reference books via a web portal or
gateway. Such collections are growing in popularity and provide benefits for users with the
single search.

Comparisons With the Natural Sciences


There seems to be some agreement that information use from non-social science disciplines and
professions is not comparable. There may be little basis for applying natural science information
use findings to the social sciences. Too, there may be substantial differences in informationseeking behavior between social science disciplines. As social science, in its research methods,
becomes more like the natural sciences, it should be more reasonable to generalize about
information seeking behavior in academic research and across the social sciences.

Use and User Studies


Until the 1960s, there were few use and user studies. These became somewhat popular in the
1960s and 1970s. There is much less interest today. The best known studies were done in the
U.K. in the late 1960s and early 1970s as part of the Information Requirements of the Social
Sciences Project.Maurice Line, the PI (principle investigator), found that no general conclusions
could be drawn from the studies reviewed and evaluated because they were typically restricted to
a particular discipline and limited to a small sample of users or source characteristics. Still, we
may conclude that about 10 percent of the users of the social science information system account
for 90 percent of the output. Only a few both create and consume social science information. The
needs of the producers differs from those of most consumers.
Current Information

Although there have been a few notable research studies in the past, there is relatively little
current information on the information needs or information seeking behavior of the social
scientist. We do know that many social scientists make minimal use of university libraries and
on-line data bases. Chaining or pearl fishing or developing a literature search by following a
few recent citations backward is common.
There is some question about the utility of much of the literature because it is limited by time and
place so that social science research may not cumulate well and does not lead to broad
generalizations across cultures.
User Psychology
Knowledge of user psychology was felt to be the most important factor in provision of
information services. For example,

How much search time can be tolerated?

How does the user normally search and find?

How does the user normally capture found, useful content?

What is the preferred form of search product?

What do we know about the scholar's work habits?

What do we know about the scholar's prior knowledge of the topic literature?

Notable Variables
Many variables affect information-seeking behavior. Some of the most notable include:

Age

Research experience

Literature searching experience

Familiarity with, comfort level, and interest in information technology

Background, qualifications

Alone or in team (single authors are decreasing)

Discipline

Motivation

Independence

Willingness to risk trying the new

Foreign language competency

Cost
Cost has largely been ignored in studying social science information services. We need to know
more about the "total" cost of providing the document or information as well as the cost when the
document is not provided or is not provided promptly. Note that cost includes time, effort,
frustration, anxiety and other variables. It is not merely the delivery cost of a particlar item.
How often is research duplicated unintentionally because of a flawed literature search?
When the social sciences are placed together, monographs and periodicals are of equal value.
The "harder" the discipline, the more important that the serial becomes. This is a problem
because of the price inflation associated with the serial literature. Information produced by
government agencies is especially important in the social sciences.
The major concern of social science scholars appears to be the identification and location of
material created by leading authors. These cites can then be used to identify the important
literature in a topic. Citation searching is likely to be easier and more productive than subject
searching [libraries often do poorly with subject descriptors]. Too, the citing provides some
preliminary evidence of utility and quality [validation]. Backward chaining or following starter
citations is the key literature search strategy. Still, abstracts and indexes can be very useful for
graduate students and scholars working outside their own discipline. Libraries tend to be used as
a source of supply for previously identified items. Finding citations by chance is quite common
so browsing is more important in the social sciences.

Success?
There is little evidence, but what is available suggests that the existing information system works
for some social scientists most of the time. In general, there is limited use of on-line sources but
growing use of digital databases found in university libraries. In particular, needed access points
for the scholar are often missing. Disciplinary oriented files do not meet the needs of the
interdisciplinary or problem centered scholar. The search interface for most files is not
comfortable or intuitive for the social scientist.

Libraries and Users


Popular subjects

A 1996 survey looked at popular information needs. Here are the top five popular information
needs in many public libraries:
1. Health, wellness, medicine
2. Computers and technology
3. Travel
4. Business and economics
5. Personal finance.
Three of these are social science topics.
A 2001 survey of academic libraries resulted in a list of the top circulating subjects:
1. History
2. Literature
3. Social science
4. Psychology
5. Education
6. Health/medicine
7. Business
8. Arts
9. Science
10. Computers
11. Religion
12. Performing arts
13. Political science
14. Fiction
15. Economics

16. Philosophy
17. Biography
Seven of these are social science subjects.
Who Goes There?
Libraries are a place where graduate assistants go to retrieve known items. There are exceptions.
Scholars in history often spent hours in the library working with circulating, reference, and
special collections. Secondary publications are much less used. The way libraries organize and
provide intellectual access to collections is not intuitive or pleasing to many social science
researchers.
Social science questions are popular in public libraries and the audience is varied. Many
questions can be answered by web sources or the traditional ready reference sources such as an
unabridged dictionary, the World Book encyclopedia, the World Almanac, Encyclopedia of
Associations, Statistical Abstracts local phone books, the local newspaper, and quick access to
Consumer Reports.
Classification Schemes
Library of Congress subject headings, reflecting a 19th Century view of knowledge, are often
inconsistent, illogical, lack clarity, and include poor documentation. Social science topics are
often scattered. What is included in H (the primary social science class) and what is not is quite
subjective. There is a persistent lack of precision or clarity. For example, the economics of a
place are in HC but the commerce of a place is in HF. Rural sociology is in HT, but rural
conditions of a place are in HN. History of a presidential election in U.S. history is in E while the
history of a political party is in JK. Planning cities is in HT, history of cities in D-F, economic
conditions of individual cities in HC, social conditions of cities in HN and governance of
individual cities is in JS. Although the Library of Congress changes its subject headings each
year, change has lagged far behind the use of descriptors in academic disciplines [and found in
subject specific thesauri]. Aged descriptors can be controversial in public libraries. There are too
few subject added entries for new items.

User Types
Policy makers
The typical policy maker has little interest in social science research except studies from major
think tanks, especially those with a political perspective. Popular media accounts, newspapers
and news magazines still have much impact, if social science developments are of interest. Some
policy makers are beginning to use the web as an information source, especially for late-breaking
current awareness. Typically, the policy maker needs information of the executive summary
variety--highly distilled and with a few easily understood (and persuasive) policy options. She is
often interested in the political implications of recent events/problems. If the social sciences are

ever to become "policy sciences," much more of an effort will be made to get academic research
[translated into policy speak] to policy makers. The leading think tanks have had an impact and
they provide a useful model.
Think About
Identify three think tanks likely to issue studies of interest to politicians. Briefly discuss the
nature of their research. How would you characterize their point of view?

Practitioners
Practitioners are professionals in such fields as business, geography, and social work that are
involved in some sort of practice. Often, their terminal degree is the BA/BS or MA/AM/MS.
They rarely see the primary literature, but may read summary versions in association periodicals
or hear about research in conference presentations. There is little interest in the scholarly
literature because it does not help them on the job. They want solutions to current problems.
They do not have the time nor the inclination to read widely. They want "how to do it good"
literature.
Think About
Identify and characterize a periodical likely to appeal to a professional in a SS profession of
interest. Any evidence of research?

College and University teachers


Here teachers are those who teach but who are not actively involved in research. As an aside, it
should be noted that a majority of those who teach (with the PhD) in colleges and universities are
not active researchers. Teachers are more likely to use the library, use a greater variety of
materials, and are interested in current findings/conclusions. Their major problem is that there is
too much literature and they may need help in identifying the genuinely important new literature.
They do use ILL, but often find it troublesome many items requested turn out to be irrelevant.
State of the art review articles, sytheses, and bigger picture books are popular.
Think About
Identify and characterize a [SS of your choice] periodical likely to appeal to a college teacher
who needs synthesis and an interesting summary of new developments? Is there such a
periodical?

K-12 Teachers and Students


The key words here are likely to be "social studies" and the focus is more likely to be on
whatever is mentioned in the state standards [you need to have access to those] rather than the
social sciences as a whole. History and geography receive some attention. Government is more
popular than political science. Psychology and economics receive little attention. Sociology is

largely ignored, but many of its topics, pre-marital sexual activity, drug use, gangs and violence
interest. The present emphasis on testing reading, writing, and math leaves little room for social
studies.
They need material that is reasonably current and accurate while still being interesting and
engaging. Books and periodicals need to have colorful graphics to attract and summarize key
points. Multi-media items are useful for class viewing and to serve as discussion vehicles. Since
the social sciences are often controversial, the collections need to be balanced and not so
controversial as to attract negative attention from parents and other community members.
H.W. Wilson's Social Sciences Full Text does a good job of providing older students and
teachers with access to selected scholarly literature. InfoTrac OneFile or similar full-text data
bases are likely to be popular because their coverage is reasonably comprehensive and full-text is
much better for most users.
Think About
Identify and characterize a social science topic of interest to K12 classroom teachers [select
grades]. What sort of content would be helpful?

The Thoughtful Layperson


Each of the social sciences will have some appeal to the thoughtful adult. Some may be interest
in learning more about the background of current events, including biographies of leaders.
Others will want to improve the quality of their lives by learning how to do new tasks and adding
to their knowledge. Again, the key is to balance popularity and accessibility with authority and
accuracy.
Often, people will need factual information. Fact books and WWW sites with accurate, current
facts are always in demand. The Statistical Abstract, the World Almanac, and the CIA World
Factbook plus your favorite encyclopedia will answer many queries.
Think About
Review two weeks of the New York Times best seller list. Which books, if any, deal with social
science topics. Which topics seem to be the most popular?
Selection problems
Unlike the natural sciences or technology where many feel that they know little or nothing, in the
social sciences everyone is an expert. Often, the lay person feels that he knows as much as the
subject specialist or even that the subject is not worth knowing. Many social science topics are
controversial and arouse passions. How much propaganda, dogmatism, polemics, partisanship
and personal bias is acceptable? It is very difficult to achieve balance and represent disgusting
points of view For example, consider "research" that argues the Holocaust never happened or

that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to other Americans. This means that social
science material is more likely to generate complaints or censorship requests.
Finding popular treatments that do not oversimplify or distort can be a problem. Scholarly work
is rarely really readable and interesting for the lay person or the undergraduate student. Both
jargon and the use of statistics, tables, and figures may be troublesome. Popularizations are
needed which are readable enough for the lay person but reasonably acceptable to the scholar.
Most experts find popularizations simplistic so this is a difficult task.
Because the human condition is in a constant state of flux, currency is always a problem. There is
substantial interest in current awareness information. Trends and fads create popular books with
little intellectual content or value. This is especially true in areas like pop psychology where
mediocre "self-help" content is popular. However, for the scholar of a period, a movement, or a
cultural phenomenon, ephemeral material may be needed in the future. Popular culture research
casts a wide net.
In selecting authoritative material, it is difficult to establish the difference between what is
genuinely authoritative and what is merely established. What is authoritative today may be seen
as foolish or discredited tomorrow.

Discussion
One
Construct and be able to support a definition of the social sciences. Add to that a list of academic
disciplines and professions that should be included under the social science umbrella.

Two
Support the notion that the social sciences can be scientific.

Three
Support the notion that the social sciences can never be truly scientific.

Four
Identify and discuss issues or problems in the current news where research findings might find
an unwelcome reception.

Five

The evidence strongly suggests that most social scientists make minimal use of the research
library. What might you suggest to increase library use and to make library collections and
services more valuable to the social scientist?