Applied social sciences

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Applied social sciences are those academic social science disciplines, professions and occupations which seek to use basic social science knowledge to make an impact on the daily life of communities, organizations and persons. Social science knowledge comes particularly from sociology, economics and political science, and to a lesser extent psychology, social psychology and anthropology. Some authorities include portions of economics, and in particular economic analysis and economic planning, as applied social sciences, whereas others tend to see economics not as a social but as natural science, more comparable in some respects to physics.

Social work, public health, urban planning, and public administration may have been the original applied social sciences in the U.S. All arose out of social reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Management, community organization, social planning, policy analysis, epidemiology, community medicine, and strategic planning are some of the many related applied social sciences to arise from this base.

Urban planning, along with landscape architecture and architecture, can be considered applied social sciences to the extent they are concerned with the effects on humans of the built environment. In each case, applied social science concerns (in particular, the use of social research findings) are intermixed with technical, engineering, aesthetic and other concerns and questions.

The practice of politics is an applied social science only to the extent that political action seeks to apply the insights of political research or theory in practice. The use of survey research techniques in estimating the impact of political campaigns for elected office is one such application in widespread use.

At various times, engineering has also had a major impact on applied social sciences. Following the success of Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor with scientific management, a broad spectrum of social science based management approaches arose. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Thorstein Veblen made what Edwin Layton called "one of the strangest predictions in social theory" when he suggested that engineers were the most probable revolutionary class in America. "The chances of anything like a Soviet in America," Veblen wrote, "are the chances of a Soviet of Technicians" ([1]).

During the Depression, for example, social engineering was a frequently discussed topic in numerous fields, based on the work of Stuart Chase and others. Also, during the 1930s, social science research played a fundamental role in the emergence of the human relations approach to management through the work of Elton Mayo and his associates. Later, a vast complex of organizational behavior, organization theory, organization design and other social science approaches to the fundamental problems of organization developed.

In the 1950s and into the 1970s, a number of engineers were prominent in discussions of general systems theory as it applied to the social sciences in the analysis of social problems, urban redesign and even problems of welfare and health care reform.

Approaches to applied social science are highly variable in degrees of generality or specificity. For example, in 1996 Cambridge University Press published a volume on the theory of institutional design which sought to bring together design perspectives on new institutionalisms in social, political and economic theory. [1]

Public relations, advertising and marketing are other management- and organization-related disciplines with substantial applied social science knowledge bases at present.

For much of the twentieth century, fundraising was a practice-based profession without a systematic theory base or concern for research support. Since the 1980s, this has been changing as a growing body of social science based research is developing to inform practice.

To some extent, the applied social science categorization can be located on both sides of the Aristotelean distinction between praxis and techne, with some applied social sciences tending more toward broad social action and others toward narrow technical prowess. This distinction is evident, for example, in differing approaches to social research as substantive and theoretical or statistical and methodological in nature. Both these practical and technical concerns can be differentiated from theory, also sometimes distinguished from the applied as "basic social science".

  1. Robert E. Goodwin. The Theory of Institutional Design. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1996