Social Science

Division of Social Science Banner Image

The social sciences engages broadly with the study of human society and social relationships.  At Harvard, the Division of Social Science embraces a number of diverse and highly interdisciplinary fields including:

Department Websites Concentration Websites
African and African-American Studies African and African-American Studies
Anthropology (Social Anthropology and Archaeology) Anthropology (Social Anthropology and Archaeology)
Economics Economics
Government Government
History History
History and Science History and Science
Psychology* Psychology*
Social Studies Social Studies
Sociology Sociology
Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies

*Though it is administratively housed in the division of Social Science, Psychology's faculty and curricular offerings bridge both Social Sciences and Sciences, including a track that is part of the Life Sciences cluster of concentrations.

The ten social science concentrations study individuals, relationships, processes and institutions in human societies. At Harvard, the Division of Social Science embraces a number of diverse and highly interdisciplinary fields including:

  • African and African American Studies
  • Anthropology (Social Anthropology and Archaeology)
  • Economics
  • Government
  • History
  • History and Science
  • Psychology
  • Social Studies
  • Sociology
  • Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies

These concentrations consider big questions about peoples and societies past and present, and investigate phenomena large and small — the minds and brains of socially situated people; groups like families, communities, organizations, and governments; and large-scale patterns of international trade, alliance, and conflict. Several social science concentrations engage vital normative questions about timeless issues — such as the relationship between freedom and morality, or the responsibilities of citizens in a democratic polity — by examining and debating classical and contemporary ideas in social thought and political philosophy.

In some concentrations, an overarching perspective or theme applies to diverse subjects. Economics postulates that social phenomena result from interactions among goal-oriented people attempting to make the best use of their resources such as money and time. Reasoning this way can aid understanding of not just markets and economic growth but also politics, education, and the family. Central themes in Government are power and politics — in the formal institutions of governance as well as other domains of social life.

Other fields are more eclectic. Sociology studies structured social inequality — differences in race, ethnic, and cultural origins, socioeconomic position, and sex and gender; forms of social organization from small groups through nation-states; and change in human populations through births, deaths, and immigration. Social Anthropology seeks a holistic appreciation of societies, stressing interdependence among language, culture, and institutions and a comparative perspective to sensitize students to distinctions and similarities between societies. In the interdisciplinary Social Studies program, concentrators acquire a firm grounding in social and political theory and then create an individualized “focus field” that integrates several social science disciplines to better understand local, national, or world problems.

Three social science concentrations center attention on the past. In History, concentrators study diverse subjects — for example, the economy, politics, law, the environment, culture and ideas, race and gender, or urbanization — in particular times and places. History and Science highlights ideas and institutions in contemporary science and technology, conditions under which they arose, and the ways they shape today’s world. In its Science and Society track, students combine historical inquiry with substantial study in a physical or life science field. The Archaeology program within Anthropology also examines the human past, emphasizing knowledge drawn from material remains left by ancient peoples. It investigates the origins of human settlement patterns and the emergence of complex societies from earlier subsistence forms.

Two social science concentrations focus on fundamental dimensions of human social life: race/ethnicity and gender/sexuality. African and African American Studies (AAAS) examines the history, culture, and social institutions of peoples of African 30 descent, on the African continent and throughout the world; students opt for either an African Studies or an African American Studies track. It provides a cross-cultural standpoint on contemporary debates about race and ethnicity. In Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (SWGS), concentrators learn about the omnipresence of gender and sexuality, how these combine with other social differences, and variations in gender-sexuality norms across space and time. Both AAAS and SWGS are highly interdisciplinary, including arts and humanities subjects like art, literature, and religion as well as social science fields like history, political science, and sociology.

Concentrators in Psychology focus on the mind and mental life, including perception, emotion, cognition, language, memory, and attention. Contemporary psychology involves some study of biology, particularly interfaces between the mind and the brain. Psychologists examine the evolution and co-evolution of brains and minds, the developmental pathways for acquiring mental capacities, and the social settings and cultures that shape individual psychology. They link these mental processes to diverse phenomena including happiness, intergroup attitudes like bias and prejudice, and mental disorders. Other social science disciplines study the mind, too: behavioral economics asks how cognitive and emotional factors shape economic choices and decisions, while political psychology considers the influence of these factors on political participation and voting. The social sciences offer students multiple opportunities to learn about and prepare for citizenship in the increasingly globalized twenty-first century world, including comparative or regionally-focused courses on history, politics, societies, and cultures, and studies of international trade, conflict or global governance. A semester or summer of study abroad enriches any undergraduate’s College experience, but is especially valuable in an internationally-oriented concentration. Living elsewhere supplements learning in formal coursework. With careful academic planning, most social science concentrations can accommodate a semester abroad, and some actively encourage it. Additionally, Harvard’s many international centers offer undergraduates numerous opportunities: seminars and colloquia, research support, travel grants, and internships abroad.

Social scientists study their subjects systematically by conducting a wide variety of empirical research. They acquire data using ingenious methods, including laboratory experiments, field experiments that intervene in real-life settings, sample surveys, documentary evidence, and administrative data from record-keeping systems for tracking taxation, health care utilization, social media usage, and other transactions. They employ more qualitative methods like participant observation, in-depth interviewing, and ethnography to elicit an interpretative understanding of what social events and phenomena mean from the standpoint of research subjects.

By learning the research methods used in their fields, social science concentrators prepare themselves for a variety of post-College futures. Most professional education requires the ability to distill conclusions from complex bodies of information; many rewarding careers have similar requisites. Concentrating in a social science field helps students to gain such skills, along with critical reading, clear expository writing, speaking articulately, and learning to synthesize diverse perspectives and ideas. A senior thesis research project — an option in all social science concentrations, and a requirement in Social Studies — is a rewarding experience by itself, and an excellent way to combine and enhance these skills. Participating in a laboratory group or serving as an assistant to a faculty project can also help to develop them. No social science concentration offers pre-professional training, but all offer an excellent liberal arts foundation for post-graduate study in education, law, management, medicine, and other professions. Social science concentrators also enter careers in business, journalism, and public service, and a few opt for research careers in university or non-academic settings.

Connections among social science fields are increasing, not only in interdisciplinary fields like History and Science, AAAS, and SWGS, but also across disciplines — as illustrated by courses on cultural economics, cultural history, economic sociology, political economy and political psychology. Subjects like gender, intergroup relationships, organizations, politics, race and ethnicity, and religion can be studied well using numerous disciplinary lenses, so one should consider several options before selecting a concentration.

You should look across as well as within divisions when deciding what to study in depth. As noted, several social science concentrations reach into Arts and Humanities. Likewise, Arts and Humanities concentrations like East Asian Studies or South Asian Studies can involve social science. Furthermore, some social science concentrations involve natural or physical science; psychologists use neuroscientific methods to investigate brain-mind relationships, while some archaeologists and historians apply physical science and engineering techniques to understand evidence about the past. Science Division concentrations having important social science elements include Environmental Science and Public Policy and Human Evolutionary Biology.

Division of Social Science