What is the Difference Between Social Science and the Humanities?

Updated: Jun 29

Social science and the humanities both fall within the category of liberal arts in the Western higher educational system along with the natural sciences and the arts. And both owe their lineage to the humanist tradition which focuses on humans as the subject of inquiry. The difference between the social sciences and humanities has more to do with their approach and methods rather than subject matter. The Humanities study and interpret human artifacts, history, and creations and rely heavily on interpretation and descriptive methods. Social sciences are empirical and seek to answer questions about human behavior through scientific methods. That is, they seek to test theories or hypotheses that generalize about human behavior.

Here are a couple of tables of the major disciplines within social science and humanities including a description of the field, the number of graduates annually, and the average salary for those in the workforce with those degrees.


As you might have noticed from the descriptions there are some similarities between the two, and both can fall under the title of “social studies” in K-12 education. You also may notice from the table that the salaries for those with bachelor's degrees are relatively comparable with a slight edge to the social sciences. Keeping in mind that the average salary for a full time American worker is around $37,000, having a bachelor’s degree in either social sciences or humanities seems to confer a $20k-35k in extra salary, which is well worth the cost of getting the degree in the long run. Many people underestimate the salaries of people with these degrees, but the statistics aren’t lying here. The trope that Humanities majors are all serving coffee at Starbucks simply is not true based on these numbers. It's possible though, that in a competitive economy, many liberal arts majors will not make these salaries straight out of college, which is probably what contributes to the stereotype. The numbers above reflect averages, and include those who are mid and late career.

A Computer Science Major Makes you a Coffee

How do people make money after studying something academic such a philosophy or political science? There are some jobs that are specific to these majors, but the main way most are doing it is by parlaying their education as a measure of skill acquisition rather than knowledge and expertise. Also, job experience goes a long way. If you are able to study Plato, you probably are able to learn quickly how to perform a white collar job.

Many erroneously believe social science is statistical while the humanities are qualitative. While there is some truth to this, this is incorrect. A historian, for example, might include a statistical table to illustrate the growth of railroads in 19th century United States. A political scientist might employ qualitative methods that rely on comparing historical developments of two states to determine outcomes in terms of democracy. The key differences are their purpose in choosing these methods. Humanities scholars seek to describe and explain significance of human events but are limited in their ability to test theory. Theory-testing is the defining characteristic of social science. Statistics are used widely to test theory in social science and have been mostly borrowed from the physical sciences but they are not the exclusive method for social scientists.

One may object that historians have theories as well. There is a theory that JFK was assassinated by the CIA or a theory that had the Japanese not bombed Pearl Harbor, much of Europe would be speaking German today. Yet these theories are not theories by scientific standards. They are conjectures about specific events that cannot be tested. A social scientist seeks to broadly explain human behavior. These are known as generalizations. Generalizations are the goal of social sciences. Does raising a lot of money from political action committees help candidates win election? It likely does and this theory is testable. Here is one that isn’t pitched at a generalizable level: Did raising a lot of money help Senator X win election?

We might be interested in that question about Senator X’s election, but it isn’t really a social science question. Social science may contribute to the answer in an interesting way, but the specifics of that election do not necessarily matter to a social scientist, unless of course it is part of a more organized, usually broader study of phenomenon.

Another example, many economists generalize that high taxes slow economic growth. One might object, Clinton raised taxes in the early 90’s and the United States economy nonetheless grew at breakneck pace. For a social scientist, the latter would be rejected as sufficient as evidence. There may have been specific variables that intervened that led to the growth. A social scientist may seek to control for that variable to test the broader theory by either expanding the number of cases or finding another case that would be suitable for comparison.

Social science theories tend to be probabilistic rather than deterministic. That reflects the complexity of social world especially regarding free will of human beings. That is how social science is distinguished from the physical sciences, which oftentimes develop deterministic theories.

The modern social science tradition has been around since the beginning of the 20th century with people such as Durkheim, Freud, and Max Weber being the early pioneers. However, the idea of studying the social world through a scientific lens is not at all new and can be traced to Axial Age philosophers such as Socrates and Plato. It has endured since in various regions of the world, whether in East Asia, India, the Islamic Golden Age and the scientific revolution in the West.

So which type of major should you select? Well, based on salary, be an economist but note that the average salary of an economist isn't much higher than the other majors on the list. I will tell you to major in Political Science, but I am biased. My advice is always that you should major in what you are most interested in. Being intrinsically motivated leads to better performance as far as GPA is concerned and will ensure that you graduate on time (see how I couched my answer in social science research?). Another answer, and this is the Humanities side of me speaking, is that college education should be about you exploring your interest. High school is over. Blaze your own path!

After graduating with a liberal arts degree, some gear switching to thinking about employment is necessary, but DO NOT think that just because you majored in something academic you don't have options. The research shows that you do! But you will need to adjust your expectations. Chances are, you are not the next Sigmund Freud. In fact, nobody will be. You might need to branch out and get experiences that make you worth hiring. Or you will need to apply to grad school. But don't get despondent about doing a stint at Starbucks. You will find your way. Trust the numbers.

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