social science, term for any or all of the branches of study that deal with humans in their social relations. Often these studies are referred to in the plural as the social sciences. Although human social behavior has been studied since antiquity, the modern social sciences as disciplines rooted in the scientific method date only from the 18th cent. Enlightenment. Interest at first centered on economics, but by the 19th cent. separate disciplines had been developed in anthropology, political science, psychology, and sociology. The 19th cent. was characterized by the development of wide-ranging theories (e.g., the work of Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer). Developments in the 20th cent. have moved in these directions: the improvement and increased use of quantitative methods and statistical techniques; increased use of the empirical method, as opposed to general theorizing; and the direct practical application of social science knowledge. Social science departments are now firmly established in universities, and social scientists are increasingly called upon to advise industries and governments for future planning.
See C. M. Bonjean, ed., Social Science in America (1976); T. L. Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science (1977); R. S. Lynd, Knowledge for What? (1939, repr. 1986); R. D. Luce et al., ed., Leading Edges in Social and Behavioral Science (1989); D. Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (1991).