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Social Sciences: What are They? The Complete Subject Guide
Social sciences are disciplines of academic study that examine different aspects of society. There are several branches of social science, all of which share the same aim of studying how people behave, interact and influence the world.
The term 'social science' covers a broad variety of subjects, including geography, law, psychology and many more. Social sciences tell us about how society works, helping us understand how to improve processes at a societal, community and individual level. As a result, studying a social science subject can open up a lot of opportunities and provide students with a wide range of valuable skills.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the social sciences, and discuss what it’s like to study a social science subject.Find postgraduate programs in the Social Sciences
What is social science?
In essence, social science is the study of human society. As subjects that examine and explain human behaviour, social sciences help us develop our understanding of the world beyond our individual experiences.
Social sciences can help uncover useful insights into society in a variety of ways - from understanding how minds work, to how societies as a whole function. Social science is vital for understanding important societal functions, such as economic growth and unemployment triggers, as well as what makes people happy.
This provides important information for governments, local authorities and organisations. Social science research has influenced a huge number of policies and practices.
Social science vs natural science
Social sciences are a separate field of study to natural sciences. The main difference between social and natural science is that social science examines the relationships between individuals and societies, whereas natural sciences focus on aspects of the physical world. Natural sciences include areas such as biology, chemistry or physics.
Why study a social science subject?
Studying a social science subject is a great way to develop your skills and knowledge in more detail. Social science students develop a broad range of transferable skills, making it a valuable subject choice for a variety of careers.
No matter which field of social science you choose to study, you’ll develop the ability to analyse and research complex issues, think critically, evaluate different solutions, understand different perspectives, and effectively communicate this information. You’ll also understand how to apply previously learned information to new situations, and how to engage with new concepts quickly.
For some, postgraduate social science study offers the chance to continue with the subject they loved as an undergraduate. This is a great way to develop your specialist knowledge in an area of social science that you are passionate about, or want to progress further within your career.
For others, the skills gained from a social science subject offers a unique edge in their planned career. In particular, subjects like Law or Economics are well suited to particular career goals, with some roles requiring a postgraduate qualification as an entry requirement.
Even with non-vocational subjects that are more open, your commitment to the subject and the work expected during a postgraduate course demonstrates your drive, passion and abilities; and it is something employers will take notice of.
Rachel, a masters student, explains, “I absolutely loved writing my undergrad dissertation, and wanted the chance to do more work like that...I wanted to do a masters because I didn't want to give up on my subject just yet.”
10 disciplines of social science
Social science encompasses a broad range of subject areas. There are many academic disciplines of social science, meaning there is lots of choice when considering whether to study a social science subject at postgraduate level.
Some postgraduate students may even choose to study a different discipline to their undergraduate degree, since there are several transferable skills and intertwined areas across branches of social science.
The top 10 disciplines of social sciences include:
Anthropology is known as the 'science of humanity'. Anthropologists explore topics relating to the human experience. This includes human behaviour, cultural relations, and how the evolution of humanity has influenced society's structure.
Anthropology is often described as being both scientific and humanistic, meaning it's well-suited for anyone looking to indulge passions for both kinds of subject. Anthropology research also involves exploration of historical human experiences, although there's plenty of chance to apply it in modern contexts too!
Archaeology is the study of humanity through material remains of past life and behaviour. Similar to anthropology, archaeology explores past life and cultures, although this relies much more on the evidence from material remains.
Whilst many people think of archaeologists as being like Indiana Jones, the truth is very different – though no less interesting. Archaeology involves excavation work, material analysis and surveying. Europe is an ideal place to study archaeology, with many archaeological sites of interest thanks to its rich history. There are many material remains from the Roman Empire, the Vikings, and other significant past movements.
Economics looks at the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. When studying economics at postgraduate level you can choose to take a close view or a broad one, but in general, economics involves looking at how the economic systems of the world work.
This knowledge can be applied both theoretically and practically, meaning the subject is well suited for anyone interested in the current economic world.
Though many of us may remember geography as the subject at school that involved maps, it goes beyond that – analysing population, the land itself, the relationship between the two and often linking to the earth sciences (such as geology). At postgraduate level, you'll be able to specialise in a particular branch of geography – such as oceanology, environmental management or tourism geography.
History is a broad social science subject that involves studying particular past time periods. Whilst postgraduate level study gives you a chance to specialise in a particular field of history, you'll still be using similar skills – interpreting sources, looking at current theories of the past, and assessing ideas against the available evidence. With Europe's long, well-documented history, there's the chance to get to look at the places you're studying first hand.
Studying law will give you the opportunity to look at a variety of legal systems, and to focus on a particular area – contract law, international law or criminal law, to name but a few. Doing further study in law is especially useful if intending to go into it as a career, although it is possible to study it solely for academic reasons. Visit LLMstudy.com for more information about studying law at a postgraduate level.
Linguistics is the study of language – looking at how human language is formed, processed and used in different contexts. Rather than learning to speak a particular language, this social science subject is more about how language itself works.
There are a broad range of study areas in linguistics, typical areas of study include syntactic analysis, language acquisition, sociolinguistics, phonology, and the evolution of language. With the EU having 23 official languages, and Europe itself having more than 60 indigenous regional and minority languages, what better place to study linguistics?
Politics affects every part of life, so it's no wonder it makes such a fascinating area of study. Often broken up into Political Philosophy, Comparative Politics and International Relations, a postgraduate course in politics lets you study both historical and current events.
Political science is a degree perfect for those aiming for a career in politics or local authority, as well as for those interested in pursuing further academic study. And, with the EU containing so many differing systems, it's a fantastic place to study it.
Both theoretical and experimental, psychology makes use of studying both social behaviour and neurobiological processes. With such a broad area of study – the human mind – you'll specialise in particular areas.
These can include child development, interpersonal relationships or social psychology. Europe has a long history with psychology, thanks to Germany's involvement in its development, so in studying here you'll be joining a long line of innovative scholars.
Sociology is the study of society, both on an individual and structural level. Covering topics such as class, religion and social mobility, there's a broad range to choose to specialise in.
Some sociologists work solely for theoretical purposes, whilst others intend to use their findings in policies or welfare. In such a multicultural continent as Europe, you'll find plenty to study, and with the amount of changes that have taken place in the past century, there'll definitely be an area of sociology to interest you.
Social science subjects: summarised
Of course, these subjects aren’t the only areas that come under the 'social sciences' umbrella. Each university will have a variety of different courses included in their social sciences department – for example, some will include subjects like international relations, media studies or even accounting in their social sciences faculty. These, and more, are among the social science subjects offered by many UK and European universities today.
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Plenty of students opt to study one of the social sciences at postgraduate level, gaining insight into people, places and various fascinating aspects of every day life. Use our course search to find your perfect postgraduate program in the social sciences.
How is social science taught?
Postgraduate study is a popular choice for social science graduates, and this trend is continuing to increase. This is likely to be due to the fact that a postgraduate social science degree can open up so many career opportunities. Plus, many occupations such as law, psychology and social work often require a postgraduate level qualification.
Studying social sciences at postgraduate level requires a high level of commitment. Most social science masters degrees are taught based, and are conducted in much the same way as an undergraduate degree – with exams, regular seminars, lectures and a dissertation. Whilst the teaching format will be similar to your undergraduate course, there is far more reliance on independent study, and you’ll have greater freedom of choice around your topics. There are many positives when it comes to studying a social science masters program.
Many social science courses involve elements of group work, whereby you’ll work in collaboration with other students for an assignment. Sometimes, you can choose not to do a dissertation and get a Postgraduate Diploma instead.
Lorna, who is a social science student in Sweden, says, “I've found that my motivation to participate in group discussion has skyrocketed since starting my postgrad course."
However, some courses are research based. A research based social science masters is far more like a dissertation overall – focused around producing a thesis with the help of a supervisor. These generally take around a year or two to complete full time, or longer part time.
A social science research masters involves a lot more independent study than a taught masters or than at undergraduate level. You will be writing on a particular area of study, and, over the course of the degree, working with your supervisor to come up with an interesting and well-founded research topic.
Dan, who recently completed his masters program, states, “It's sometimes intimidating to know you're now doing some of the research, not just as reading it, but it's rewarding when you make that link that hasn't been made by anyone else – knowing that what you're writing is your own, original work.”
Whether your degree is taught or research based, you’ll be expected to study independently and develop your knowledge through reading, theoretical and practical research. Postgraduate social science study is a challenge, certainly, but a worthwhile one.
Social science tuition fees
In the UK, the average fee for studying a postgraduate degree as a home student is £9,428. The exact fees will vary depending on the university. The figures here are intended to give you an idea of how much you might expect to pay.
As for the rest of Europe, countries such as Finland, Greece and Norway – do not charge EU students at all. Some universities in Europe charge students tuition fees per semester – for instance, the postgraduate tuition fees at German universities are around €500 a semester.
Others have registration fees, rather than tuition fees. As you can see, the expenses are varied. Bear in mind, this is only the tuition fees – there are also living expenses to take into account. Funding is also available to postgraduate students, although it might require some research to find.
Some notable examples are scholarships given by individual universities, and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).
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Entry requirements for social science subjects will vary depending on the university, and which country you are studying in. But generally, they require a 2.1 or equivalent in your undergraduate degree, or some professional experience in the area.
It’s best to look at each course individually to find out exactly what you need to get. With postgraduate courses taught in English, if you are an international student you will also be required to either have an IELTS score of 6.5–7.0 or equivalent, or to have successfully completed your undergraduate degree in English.
Social science careers and prospects
Studying a social science subject can open up a whole world of opportunities due to their non-vocational nature. No matter the subject you choose to study, you’ll develop highly valuable skills by studying a social science.
Some of the top professional jobs that social science graduates go into include:
Secondary education teaching professionals
Primary education teaching professionals
Welfare and housing professionals
Other career paths in social science involve working as an economist, social worker, writer and legal work, as well as government or law official work. Career options can also include working in non-profits and academia.
Catherine, who did an area studies postgraduate program, says, “I knew that a number of options would open themselves up to me as a result of doing the masters, making new contacts and writing a dissertation.”
If you find studying a postgraduate degree only makes you love your subject more, you may consider moving into academia – either with further study, teaching or research.
Still, if you’d rather leave the academic life behind, you’ll find a social science postgraduate degree prepares you for anything involving some level of knowledge of society, human behaviour, governmental work, economics, or law. You could move into psychology, advertising or go into social work.
According to the Luminate Prospects What do graduates do? 2021/22, social science subjects have a higher than average further study rate. For example, almost 29% of law graduates choose to continue their studies with a postgraduate degree, and so do almost 27% of psychology graduates.
There is a range of options when it comes to further study for social science. Most graduates choose to continue their studies with a masters course. This can be studied full time, but some prefer to study part time alongside employment.
There is also the option to study a postgraduate diploma, which takes less time to complete than a masters degree since it does not require a dissertation – this might be a more suitable option for anybody looking to step into a professional career.
Beyond a masters degree, it’s possible to take your social science studies further with a PhD degree. This is a suitable choice for those who wish to progress into an academic profession, such as higher level teaching.
Skills you’ll gain with social science study
The skills gained during a social science postgraduate degree are broad enough that you could apply them to many fields and be successful. You'll develop a variety of practical, academic and professional skills.
Key skills gained in social science courses include:
Jamie, another recent graduate, says, “My degree didn't just teach me about my subject, but how to write clearly, think for myself, and analyse information – skills that have subsequently helped getting into my chosen career.”
With a postgraduate degree in the social sciences, the possibilities are endless.
UK and European Study
The social sciences are a vital part of today's culture and touch on all areas of life. The UK and Europe have a long history with them. Today, three out of the top five universities in the world for the social sciences are UK based:
University of Oxford
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
University of Cambridge
Many UK and European universities specialise in the social sciences – as seen through places like the London School of Economics and Political Science or the Sciences Po, Paris.
Even those that don't specialise in social sciences, yet excel at them, include places like the University of Amsterdam, founded in the 1600s, or the University of Copenhagen, the oldest university in Denmark.
UK and Europe have long led the progress of these sciences, as seen through Germany’s contributions to experimental psychology, or the Swiss' influence in structural linguistics. This history of innovative thought makes the UK and Europe perfect for studying these subjects today.
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Social Science bursary winner & funding opportunity
Ross Montgomery is a 27-year-old student studying an MSc in Psychological Studies at the University of Glasgow. The Scottish student chose this postgraduate course because of his desire to understand the fundamentals of psychology before going on to study a counselling diploma. Ross was delighted to be awarded one of our Postgrad Solutions Study Bursaries worth £500. Speaking about his financial award he says, “It’s such a helpful weight off my mind – I’m very grateful for the support.” We have x5 Postgrad Solutions Bursaries for 2024 – and this time they are worth £2,000 each.