Updated: Aug 11, 2020
“Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world, following a systematic methodology, based on evidence”
“Sociology as a science is a study of the natural process by which personality is formed and cultural continuity maintained. Biology is a study of the organic process by which individuals are produced and species continuity maintained. Social change is gradual and cumulative; organic change is sudden and selective.”
Societies complex interconnections
Your parents give you little nuggets of wisdom to prepare you for that grand moment you will (finally, for them!) fly the nest. In the same way, my sociology lecturers prepped us on the ongoing debate and subsequent divide in the natural and social sciences. Regardless of where or if you stand in the debate it is always worth exploring these kinds of discussions, even if no conclusion is reached, it will at least encourage better understanding of both the sciences. And understanding one another is always valuable. Being the first of the social sciences articles, I can’t think of a better way to begin, than with addressing the elephant in the room. But first let’s get familiar with both the natural and social sciences.
So what actually are natural sciences?
Now I’m no expert but going through the school system, I’m pretty sure you would have heard of chemistry, physics and biology. These are referred to as natural sciences.
Abstract scientific art piece
Chemistry includes the study of matter, its properties and the ways in which substances react to one another. Interestingly, there are 5 different branches of chemistry: organic, analytical, biochemistry, inorganic and physical. The investigations of substances and their reactions are useful in attempting to create new substances. These new substances can be anything from essential ingredients in everyday products such as hand soap, toothpaste and that Fenty highlighter. Even though we may not be constantly aware of it, we are in contact with chemistry everyday. The digestion of food in our stomachs is all down to chemical reactions that take place between food, enzymes and acids.
The word physics derives from the Ancient Greek term for ‘knowledge of nature’. This is quite befitting as the science, studying matter and energy, develops significant knowledge on the basic principles and laws that predict and govern the behaviour that occurs throughout the natural and physical world. This knowledge, though not limited to, spans from motion and energy to heat and the solar systems. The discoveries of planets, stars and galaxies is owing to physicists. Physics has had a vital role in the production of everyday appliances such as computers and televisions, as these were brought to us as a result of electromagnetism. As unfortunate as natural phenomenons can be throughout the world, the knowledge attained through constant research allows for not only predictions of such events but also appropriate and swifter responses. A few examples of natural phenomenons include tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruption.
The word biology actually derives from the words ‘bios’, meaning life, and ‘logos’, meaning study, which gives you and I the study of life and all living organisms. The study of life is not just limited to humans, it includes all living things including plants, animals and bacteria. It explores the characteristics, transformation and origin of living organisms. The natural environment that we live in is in constant need of balance and biologists' investigations of conservation ensures we are aware of the necessary species for the survival of the ecosystem. The value of biology is also evident through our knowledge of the changes our bodies go through (like puberty), illnesses we may experience and how best to maintain our bodies, such as exercise, so for anyone putting off that 14 day abs challenge you can do this!
So then, what are the social sciences?
In the same way that natural sciences test and conduct research and produce knowledge to better understand the physical world in which we live, social scientists conduct research and produce knowledge that aid to better inform about the social world we all partake in. All humans are social. Yes, some more than others appreciate their alone time, because let’s face it socialising gets exhausting. But regardless of location, we communicate and socialise at least to get by in day to day life and therefore it is important to understand the way humans interact, engage in relationships and interact with institutions and systems we develop. Let’s quickly go through a few social sciences.
The term sociology was coined in the 19th century by French philosopher Auguste Comte. Sociology explores topics such as inequality, family, globalisation and migration, that not only highlight the ways in which we engage with each other but also with the world around us. Individuals are the foundation of society, however we have created various institutions and systems that impact the ways we navigate society and are constantly developing. It is no secret that there are issues throughout the social world and the only way we will ever be able to form solutions to said issues, is through social research. The valuable information about the social world that we gain from sociologists equips us to better predict the direction of society and to formulate relevant responses.
The systematic study of human life in the past, present and possible future directions encompasses not just the cultures and societies we create but also the biological evolution of humans. Anthropology consists of several sub-fields; linguistics, socio-cultural, archaeology and biological. Delving into understanding the development, continuing transformation of cultures and the processes involved is exactly what the socio-cultural sub-field observes. Biological anthropology takes an integrated approach of the natural and social sciences, as it combines the study of fossils and human evolution to develop expertise on how humans have continued to adapt to their environments. Last but not least, archaeology. Archaeologists not only collect and observe historical items and places but they are preserved for continued study and have also given us historical sites we can visit. Being able to visit incredible sites such as Bargala in North Macedonia, Pompeii in Italy and Glanum in France is owed to the impressive work that is carried out by archaeologists. It is always surreal to visit these kinds of sites because it's a little peek into what societies looked like and how they operated centuries before us.
Bargala, Shtip. Captured by asantearien.
Scottish economist Adam Smith, defined economics as inquiring on the nature and causes of wealth in a nation. It involves the investigation into how wealth is produced, consumed and shifted throughout society. It is no secret that the world's resources are not infinite and therefore it is of great importance that we not only find alternatives but that we preserve the resources we still have, for as long as feasible. Economists across the world concern themselves with exactly that, the scarcity and allocation of resources. In order to effectively manage resources, it is imperative that we are making wise decisions and this decision making-process is another significant topic of research for economists. The knowledge of how we make decisions also makes economists an integral part of developing public policy.
The debate: Should social sciences be classified as a science?
Now that we understand more about what the natural and social sciences are, and a few of the different types. We can question: what is the dispute between the two?
From my time studying social sciences and the discussions that occured in lectures on the debate, it became apparent that the issue was less about what social scientists research and more about the way they research. It seems as though more of modern social research uses qualitative research methods, meaning that less math is involved, affecting the credibility of the data produced. How do we know that the methods used by natural sciences will allow for authentic results? After all, humans are not just stationary and passive objects, we are very much dynamic. In this way, the use of qualitative methods is an attempt to adopt research methods that capture the ever changing human interaction within the social world, in its entirety. To understand the full complexity of the existing natural universe, we must also understand the science of our societal structures and human interactions. For we are also part of nature. I do think that it is important in social sciences that the research methods be very well justified and attempt to deliver the most reliable data possible, but I also think that where the natural sciences critique social science research methods, an opportunity arises for joint efforts towards progress.
To neglect the interrelationship between the natural and social sciences would create limitations in our understanding of the applications of both sciences within our universe. Instead of separating the subjects, we should try and use them to define our universes characteristics, with human consciousness being an important way of us being able to define our position further. I have always believed that the integration of the social sciences would have a great impact on the research produced, as different perspectives and understandings could establish valuable answers to a lot of social ‘mysteries’. In this article we have discussed the definitions and the differences between the natural and social sciences, but I think it is safe to say there are also similarities. Where it is applicable and feasible, I think the same integration could be done with all sciences. Biology explores the natural characteristics of humans and this could be useful in providing additional insight and background to social research questions and methods for human interactions in the social world.
The same can be said visa versa.