Perspectives on social sciences (1): What are the social sciences and why do they matter?

  • Guest Feature

Professor Sir Cary L. Cooper CBE FAcSS and Professor Jonathan Michie FAcSS 

Social scientists analyse and describe how society functions and develops.  This includes understanding the behaviour of those who make up society – individuals, families and communities; companies and other organisations; governments and regulators.  It also includes considering – and predicting and influencing – the results of those behaviours, from armed conflicts and forced migration, to the climate crisis and the relation between humanity and nature.

Within the social sciences, economists focus on the ‘wealth of nations’ – and how this is generated and distributed.[2]  Political scientists are concerned with ideas of power, justice, liberty and representation – and how these ideas get translated into policies that are then implemented at national and other levels.  Legal scholars analyse the rules by which rights are either asserted or protected, and the processes through which people and organisations are governed.  Organisational psychologists consider how people behave with one another, and how this changes individual and organisational behaviours, and how this will impact productivity and the health and wellbeing of employees.  Sociologists and social anthropologists are interested in groups, communities and cultures in society and between different cultures.  Geographers are concerned with geospatial differences and the interactions between people, places and environments.  Of course, these disciplines also work together – and collaborate both within the social sciences and beyond.

For example, dealing with the COVID-19 crisis relies on medical sciences to treat patients and develop vaccines.  Vitally important also is to understand the nature of globalisation, how to deal with risk, the approach of governments, the socio-economic, demographic and ethnic-related vulnerabilities and where those people are located, the reaction of companies and the use of patents, the behaviour of people during and after a lockdown, and so forth.

The national and global recovery from the crisis will depend crucially on how governments and other regulators can influence individuals, firms, consumers and investors; on how health, educational and other organisations learn, adapt and develop; on how social capital and the third sector can be maintained; and how lessons can be learned from these various aspects of societal behaviour to inform policy development and implementation in the future.

Similarly with the climate crisis.  Climate science is vital.  So too is an understanding of consumer psychology and behaviour, management decision making and corporate goals, legislative and regulatory debates, policy development and its impacts, and the longer term role of education.  All the climate science in the world will not change anything unless we get societal understanding, behaviour change, and policy action.  The social sciences provides research that helps us to motivate individual, organisational and political change – incentivising people to use less fossil fuels or buy more environment-friendly cars or use different modes of transport, and regulating and legislating to change corporate purpose and societal outcomes.

In short, to understand today’s world requires the social sciences.  As does effective intervention to shape our future.

The social sciences are continually developing and advancing.  As Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.  Thinking across the social sciences are brought together in an Academy of Social Sciences book, Why the Social Sciences Matter, which analyses a range of problems facing society, and considers possible solutions.[3]

Happiness and wellbeing; inequalities of income, wealth and power; migration and cultural change; globalisation and regional economic development; sustainability and governance  – social science is the process of analysing and understanding such matters, which enables appropriate policies and practices to be crafted and followed.

The need for evidence-based policy

Understanding the impact of laws and regulations is itself the subject of social science.  Thus, policies that may have been developed in response to breakthroughs in medical or climate science will require an understanding of the social sciences to be well crafted and effective.  That is why it is wholly misguided to think that a country should focus on the ‘STEM’ subjects (of science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at the expense of the social sciences; both working together so often offer the better solutions.  To understand those topics requires an understanding of the societies in which they operate.  Furthermore, public policy must be evidence based, and social science is necessary to gather, analyse, understand and present that evidence.  And to draw conclusions for more effective policy development in the future.

As a former President of the British Science Association put it: “There is a growing realisation that much of social science relies heavily on the backing of natural science, and much of natural science only makes sense in the context of social science.”[4]

The great challenges facing society today needs a strong social sciences community to analyse, educate, and advise.  Our future depends upon it.  Fortunately, the UK is at the forefront of social science research and scholarship.  But to retain that strength requires continued investment and support.


[1] We are grateful to Rita Gardner, CEO of the Academy of Social Sciences for inviting us to write this piece and for helpful comments.
[2] An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith was published in 1776.
[3] ‘This volume … illuminates why a social scientific understanding gives us a grasp on a topic that would not be provided by those working in the fields of science, humanities or the arts; in other words, this book makes plain what is distinctive and thus invaluable about a social science perspective”, Jonathan Michie and Cary L. Cooper (eds)(2015), Why the Social Sciences Matter, Palgrave Macmillan.
[4] In ‘That’s interesting, science is exciting‘, Anne McLaren, president of the British Association, invites young and old to come to Loughborough to join in the fun’, Independent, 5th September 1994.

About the authors

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, CBE FAcSS, 50th Anniversary Professor of Organizational Psychology & Health, Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester. Academy of Social Sciences Chair, 2009-2015

Professor Jonathan Michie FAcSS, Professor of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange, and President of Kellogg College, University of Oxford

The Perspectives on Social Science series invites personal views from eminent Academy Fellows on the nature of social sciences and their relevance to our contemporary world.