social sciences vs. humanities

05Aug07

I had coffee yesterday with a graduate student in the English department at my university. Her project has involved some archival work and so she talked with some of the history faculty about applying for a fellowship tailored to the social sciences. Some of the professors that she talked with expressed some surprise that she would put herself in consideration for a social science pot of money, which surprised me for two reasons. First, shouldn’t she be able to apply to whatever grant she wants as long as the funding organization deems her eligible? And, second, since when was history so solidly in the social science camp??  Now of course, history straddles the line between the two approaches and some strains of historical investigation seem closer to social science than others. But to me history is a discipline of the humanities. After all, writing (and the quality of it) remains more important than it might in sociology, anthropology, or political science. Narrative, and the crafting of it, is still the most important way historians convey their analysis. So the question is: is history part of the humanities or is it a social science and, at any rate, what differentiates the two?

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2 Responses to “social sciences vs. humanities”

  1. 1 douglas

    Although nearly 5 years old, this post strikes a chord with a similar recent experience of mine. Having studied economics and law (which appear to be solidly social science) and literature (apparently solidly humanities, and tainted by structuralist indeterminacy) I was stunned to hear that social science aspires to a positivist view of the world, with which literature (humanities) is out of touch. Post university experience has convinced me that economics is far from a positive science, and that lawyers invented indeterminacy before literary theorists ever thought of it. When it comes to that, I doubt science itself is quite so positive as we are led to believe, so for non-scientists to aspire to elevate their discipline to a science is a conceit we may have to forgive, while in the meantime we have to watch our language, depending on whose company we are in.
    To answer the question, in reality nothing differentiates the humanities from the social sciences except the aspirations of the respective participants.

  2. 2 Anonymous

    the humanities do have a way of making us humble before the mystery of existence.


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