Social Science and the Liberal Arts

Technically speaking, social science has no place in the classical liberal arts.  The social sciences, as we know them today, were not part of the trivium or the quadrivium.  The social sciences do not emerge until the 19th century and are intrinsically modern inventions. In fact, they arise in response to many of the social, political, and economic transformations that often go by the name “modernity.”  Furthermore, seen from one perspective, the very methods and techniques of social science—reducing complex social life into generalized patterns and averages, further narrowed into variables and algorithms that attempt to rationalize and predict human behavior—might undermine the “big questions” of meaning and purpose at the heart of a Great Books program in the tradition of the liberal arts.  We might see social science and its quantitative methods as reducing the person to variables and equations and computer models, which could have the effect of crushing the very soul the liberal arts seek to set free.

But if we look just below the surface of this reductionist view, we may find a more nuanced story.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the social sciences can be many things to many people.  

The social sciences can be, and sometimes are, reductionist and thoughtless applications of the scientific method to the social world.  But they can also be more than this. I think of myself broadly trained as a humanistic social scientist, which means my own approach to the discipline is historically, theoretically, and philosophically informed.  In this sense, I see my own discipline of sociology as a lens through which we seek the same timeless and essential questions found in the humanities: What does it mean to be human? What is a good life? What might a good society look like? (Put in the language of the classical liberal arts, what is the true, the good, and the beautiful?)  These are rich and textured questions that no one “art” or discipline—modern or ancient—can fully exhaust.  

At their best, the social sciences can offer a critical tool to address these fundamental questions, and they can do it in a way that complements the humanities and classical liberal arts.

Pierre Bourdieu referred to sociology as a kind of “fieldwork in philosophy,” suggesting that it seeks to combine philosophic work with empirical inquiry.  We can build from this insight and suggest that sociology can add an empirical perspective to questions about the nature and meaning of human life, ideas, and relationships.

The empirical investigations of sociology have a twofold purpose: to describe the social world and to understand it.  

In some sense, a good novelist or poet or even a philosopher is doing a similar task.  It’s just that a sociologist goes about this task with the help of empirical data. For example, in very simple terms, a philosopher or theologian might explain “marriage” in its ideal or theoretical form, a novelist might offer an imaginative account of the challenges and benefits of a marital relationship, and a sociologist will examine actual marriages to look for patterns of successes and failures.  All might offer insight on the institution of marriage and the meaning humans make of it, but the social science perspective adds the empirical lens. It gives real experience to the ideals of the philosopher or theologian, and it gives a greater context of larger trends to the novelist’s account. As it seeks to describe, in this case, the empirical realities of marriage, and to understand them in a particular time and place, social science can be a helpful complement to the traditional humanities and liberal arts.

Peter Berger says that “every human society is an enterprise of world-building.”  Humans are, in some fundamental sense, makers. The social world—including human culture in its material and ideal forms—is a result of this world-building. The Christian tradition understands this human capacity as part of the imago dei and understands that—since the fall and until its final redemption—this humanly constructed social world will include good and evil, beauty and ugliness, truth and falsehood. But humans not only give the social world shape and meaning, they also emerge from and are constrained by inherited forms and structures.  We build the social world, and it builds us. (The quip about architecture attributed to Churchill gets at this same process: “We shape our buildings; thereafter our buildings shape us.”)

The great opportunity social science can offer us is the chance to investigate what the social world makes of us, and thus what we make of ourselves.   This intriguing dialectical process stands at the heart of human experience and thus at the heart of a good liberal arts education, and the perspective of social science can give us eyes to see it.

Dr. Jeffrey Dill received his undergraduate degree in English from Wheaton College, an M.A. in New Testament Studies from the Biblical Theological Seminary, and a Ph. D. in Sociology from the University of Virginia. He teaches a course on Modernity in the Templeton Honors College, and is currently researching the effects of homeschooling culture on moral and civic education.