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The discipline of social sciences typically includes anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology—although psychology and history sometimes find their way into the mix. The social sciences and history, however, especially world history, are natural partners since both study the same phenomenon: collective human life.

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Scholarship and instruction at contemporary universities are organized into disciplines that are often grouped together into a comprehensive set of discipline types. In the United States, the division is often into natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. The social sciences typically include anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology but the boundaries are not fixed. Psychology inhabits a borderland between social and natural science, and history is sometimes grouped with the social sciences and sometimes with the humanities. For example, an article on some aspect of indentured service in eighteenth-century America could appear in an economics journal, a political science journal, a sociology journal, or a history journal. At the same time, each social science discipline includes many subdisciplines, each of which has its own journals, scholarly meetings, and often their own paradigms.

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Of all the social sciences, only history appears to go back to ancient times. But this is somewhat deceptive, because the social sciences existed in some form long before their modern names took hold, and history also went through a transformation in the nineteenth century. For example, Aristotle, Mencius, Li Si (Li Ssu), and Machiavelli were political scientists long before the term social science was coined, while the modern historical method dates only to the nineteenth century.

The Natural Sciences

The social sciences emerged as modern disciplines after the natural sciences and in imitation of them. In English, though not in other languages, the word science used alone generally refers to natural science, which tends to put the social sciences in the position of having to defend their right to be called sciences. Social science can best be understood in its dual aspect as an imitation of natural science and in contrast to natural science.

Humans have acquired knowledge about nature and about each other since before they were fully human. More systematic knowledge was developed by literate civilizations around the world in the last millennia BCE. In spite of the considerable achievements of the Arabs, Babylonians, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, and others, the natural sciences in their modern form did not emerge until the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.

Two remarkable characteristics of modern natural science are its high degree of consensus about method and the rapid advance in the creation of knowledge. Scientists are largely in agreement about what is known in their field, what the problems are, how to go about solving those problems, and what constitutes a solution. This consensus is now often called a paradigm, a term coined by the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

The social sciences do not generally operate within such agreed-upon paradigms. If a new disease appears in the world, scientists can usually figure out the cause, how it is spread, and some of the measures to take to prevent the further spread. By contrast, when war breaks out, the level of consensus among social scientists is far lower and the approaches they take to explain the war are much greater.

From Natural Sciences to Social Sciences

Newton’s success in formulating a universal law of gravitation made a great impression on thinkers in the eighteenth century, spawning numerous attempts to create an analogous science of human society. The philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) aspired to become the Newton of what he called the “moral sciences,” while the early nineteenth century utopian socialist Charles Fourier (1772–1837) believed he was the Newton of psychology. The most successful of these Newtons was Adam Smith (1723–1790), the founder of modern economics. In 1776, he published Wealth of Nations, which set out to explain the circulation of goods in human societies. For Smith, the force that moved goods was self-interest, just as gravity was the force that moved heavenly bodies.

The ever-increasing success of the natural sciences in the nineteenth century intensified the call for a science of society. Auguste Comte (1798–1857) was the most famous propagandist for a new social science. Comte argued that human thought went through several stages, culminating in a scientific stage. Different areas reached the scientific stage at different times. Now, Comte argued, it was the turn of sociology, a term he coined for the new science of society. Comte is often believed to have advocated that sociology imitate physics, but Comte did not believe that there was just one method for all the sciences. Instead, he believed that each field had to develop its own method. Physics was mathematical, but biology, Comte believed, had its own nonmathematical method, and he argued that sociology would have to develop yet another method.

Another important difference between the natural and the social sciences is that unlike physicists and biologists, social scientists may inadvertently change the humans they study. When an entomologist studies wars among ants, no matter what she learns, it will not affect how and when ants conduct war, but when a political scientist or sociologist studies human war, the results may alter human behavior and even negate the results of the study.

Professionalization and Specialization in Social Sciences

In the nineteenth century, the sciences became increasingly specialized, professionalized, and institutionalized. Men, and it was almost always men, became fulltime physicists, chemists, or biologists. Departments were set up at universities, and journals specializing in a single discipline were founded. The modern scientific disciplines were born, and as the twentieth century progressed, subdisciplines multiplied. Scientific knowledge, both theoretical and practical, increased rapidly. Science became one of the pillars of modern industrial civilization. The social sciences followed the same course as the natural sciences. By the end of the nineteenth century, various fields of social science—anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology— had achieved the institutional form we now typically encounter as departments in colleges and universities.


Anthropology is usually divided into physical anthropology and cultural anthropology. Physical anthropologists, who study the physical characteristics of human beings in all their variability, generally reject race as a biological category and concentrate instead on complex genetic variability. This can be very useful to historians—for example, DNA evidence can help trace human migrations for which there is inadequate documentary evidence.

For cultural anthropologists, culture includes all the ways humans learn to behave. They are best known for studying the culture of “primitive” peoples—small, nonliterate societies. Among their discoveries is the finding that the people who live in these simpler societies are quite complex in their ways of life. In the latter part of the twentieth century, as isolated small societies became scarce, anthropologists began to adapt their techniques to more modern societies, and the anthropological definition of the term culture entered into common language, as in “Latino culture” or “corporate culture.”

The findings of cultural anthropologists are of great interest to world historians, who are interested in the progression from one type of society to another. By looking at hunter-gatherers now, or in the recent past, historians can catch a glimpse of how all humankind lived before the development of agriculture. By reading studies of autonomous horticultural societies and of larger chiefdoms they can see how more complex politics developed as sovereign units became larger.


As Adam Smith said, economics is the study of how goods and services circulate. Most economists study market or capitalist economies in which exchanges of goods and services are largely voluntary, and even when economists study non-market phenomena, such as taxes and government services, they use techniques adapted from studying markets. Of the social sciences, economics is the most like a natural science. Economists use mathematics extensively and most work within an agreed-upon paradigm.

Economics is usually divided into microeconomics and macroeconomics. Microeconomics is the study of markets for individual goods and the behavior of individual economic units, including both individuals and companies. Macroeconomics is the study of whole economies, usually at the level of a country, but including international economics. Macroeconomics is more relevant for historians, who often want to include a discussion of the economy in their studies.

History and economics meet in the well-established field of economic history, a subfield of both economics and history. Economic historians study one of the most important aspects of the human past, economic changes, using techniques of both economics and history.

Development economics, which studies how some countries became more developed than others and as a result have higher standards of living, is a related subfield. The questions it asks is of vital importance to the poor of the world, but also crucial to understanding how the world developed in the last two centuries.

Unfortunately there is no consensus among economists on the necessary and sufficient causes of economic development. Economic historians can teach us a great deal about how Britain became the first industrialized nation, but do not agree about why Britain, not France or China, was the first to industrialize.

Political Science

Political science, the study of how people are governed or govern themselves, goes back to Confucius and Mencius in China and Plato and Aristotle in Greece. These ancients were concerned with how the state worked and, more importantly, with how the state should work. The tradition of examining these questions continued with such familiar writers as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), John Locke (1632–1704), and James Madison (1751–1836). The intellectual descendants of these political theorists continue to work within the field of political science, and their subfield is called political philosophy. As its name implies, political philosophy is close to philosophy in method and content. It is also close to intellectual history, but there is a difference. A political philosopher and an intellectual historian may look at the same subject—for example, James Madison—but the political scientist will tend to look at Madison for what he can tell us about politics, while the historian will try to show how Madison’s thinking is a product of his time. The modern field of political science emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. As the name implies, many of the new political scientists wanted to make the discipline more scientific. They wanted it to be more relevant and more empirical so it would be better able to study the state as it worked in reality. Most contemporary political scientists belong to this tradition and carefully study various aspects of present-day politics in a democracy, including voting behavior, the influence of lobbying, and the relationship of state and local governments. Some political scientists use mathematical techniques and, as in other social sciences, there is a lively debate within the field about just how scientific political science is. For the study of world history, the most important subfields of political science are political philosophy, international relations, and comparative government.


Psychology, the study of both the mind and the brain, belongs to both the social and the natural sciences. Although the focus of psychology is on the individual, not the group, it is considered a social science because the individual is embedded in one or more groups. Psychologists, like other social scientists, apply their knowledge to human problems, ranging from mental illness to career choices, and a large proportion of psychologists work outside of the university. Many aspects of psychology are of interest to historians. The study of the authoritarian personality can throw light on dictators and their followers; the study of the effects of stress on individuals and groups may help explain historical circumstances. Some findings of social psychology suggest reasons why human groups are sometimes vicious and sometimes altruistic. Psychohistory, a subfield of history, uses psychology’s insights to illuminate the personalities of major historical figures such as Martin Luther (1483–1546), Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948), and Adolph Hitler (1889–1945), as well as to analyze political movements. For students of world history, one interesting and controversial question is: how much has human psychology changed over time? Neither historians nor psychologists are agreed on whether, or in what ways, the human psyche is different now than it was two hundred or two thousand years ago. Here psychology meets anthropology and we can ask to what extent human psychology is the product of culture.


Sociology is the study of human groups from the very small to the very large. Unlike anthropologists, who generally study small traditional communities (Gemeinschaft), sociologists tend to study modern, relatively impersonal urbanized societies (Gesellschaft). They study myriad aspects of these societies, from marriage to bureaucracy to social mobility. In the nineteenth century, the founders of sociology formulated grand historical theories. Among the main practitioners of this proto-sociology were Comte (the inventor of the word sociology), Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), a social Darwinist who popularized sociology, Karl Marx (1818–1883), and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859). Each of these thinkers explained historical change, mainly European historical change, in terms of a different but broadly evolutionary general theory. In the late nineteenth century sociology became an academic discipline because of the work of men like Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) in France and Max Weber (1864–1920) in Germany, who retained a broad historical outlook while abandoning the interesting but unproven grand theories of their predecessors. A classic example of the use of sociology to illuminate historical trends is Weber’s famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which shows how the Protestant mentality contributed to the rise of capitalism.

The nineteenth century saw numerous attempts to understand the problems of society: poverty, crime, race, social conflict, and so forth. At the same time, more systematic ways of examining such problems were undertaken and governments began to publish more systematic statistics. In the twentieth century, as sociology became a profession, sociologists began to develop more rigorous approaches to the study of society, and especially of social problems. Sociology, as it developed in the twentieth century, can be contrasted with economics. Economists assume a society made up of rational individuals, each of whom is trying to maximize her or his personal well-being. For sociologists, economic interactions are important, but sociologists are interested in how they are embedded in wider social interactions. Economists generally believe voluntary exchanges between free individuals are mutually beneficial. Sociologists, on the other hand, emphasize that free exchanges are not so free because they are constrained by all sorts of social conditions such as the inequality of power and social norms. Sociologists stress that people are not poor or “deviant” because of their personal deficiencies. They are interested in the fact that some individuals and groups have more power than others and in the way they use their power to dominate and gain the material and psychic advantages available in their society. Not surprisingly, sociologists are often critical of society as it is.

A Natural Partnership in Social Sciences

The social sciences and history, especially world history, are natural partners since both study the same phenomenon: collective human life. Unfortunately, much of the time they travel in separate compartments. This is partly due to the high level of specialization of modern scholarship. It is difficult to keep up with the main developments of even one discipline, and keeping up with several is beyond any person’s capacity. Interaction between fields of study is also difficult because different disciplines have very different ways of approaching how humans interact. But it remains important for world historians to learn from and use all the social sciences.


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