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Have you ever wondered what future generations will make of our culture? What do you think they'll dig up on the archaeological digs of tomorrow? Old Beanie Babies? iMac computers? Volkswagen beetles? If you've got a bit of the social scientist in you, you may be intrigued by the bit of history or the period of time those artifacts represent. The social sciences are a variety of disciplines and careers concerned with society, its development, history, institutions, and ideas. Anthropologists, sociologists, archaeologists, historians, genealogists, psychologists, economists, and political scientists all work in the social sciences. Historically, social scientists have focused on the past and on aboriginal cultures; today, the field of social sciences has expanded to include the business sector, the government, the environment, and many other concerns and segments of contemporary society.
Interest in the history of civilization, the age of the world, and the origins of humankind is practically as old as civilization itself. For many civilizations, religion attempted to answer the questions people had about life and death. From the fifth to the 15th centuries A.D., theories based on the Bible were not only promoted in Europe but excluded all other thinking. Those with differing theories about human existence were subject to imprisonment. These religious cultures of the past are a major area of study for some social scientists today who specialize in the development of religious belief and its impact on society.
Despite the centuries of curiosity, modern anthropology, archeology, and other areas of social science didn't become established disciplines until the 1800s. But the social sciences still had a way to go; European research of the time was greatly hindered by ethnocentrism. These scientists believed European people to be at the pinnacle of human development. Not only did they consider themselves biologically superior to all other people, but they also believed their society to be culturally superior, overlooking the poverty, crime, and other failings of their cities. This attitude helped European countries to justify their imperialism as they conquered peoples and cultures that they believed to be inferior and incapable of surviving and developing on their own.
By the 20th century, the social sciences became more enlightened, devoted to preserving and appreciating the practices of other cultures. But controversies do still arise. For example, some social scientists adhere to the belief that some Native American tribes practiced cannibalism, while other scientists argue that there is no real evidence to support such beliefs. Controversy also surrounds the removal of artifacts from their archaeological sites and the uncovering of ancient dwellings to be exposed to the elements. In Egypt, the pyramids suffer from the abuses of tourism and mismanagement. To prevent the loss of historical artifacts, social scientists of the 21st century focus on legislation, organizations, and technology that will preserve these cultural resources for future generations.
Social scientists, however, do not just concern themselves with the past. Today, they study and analyze current societies and look for solutions to social, business, personal, governmental, and environmental problems. Most social scientists spend much of their time in research, interviewing, surveying, analyzing historical records, conducting laboratory experiments with human or animal subjects, giving tests and questionnaires, and preparing maps and computer data.