What Can the Social Sciences Contribute?

D.R. Wilson

“We are social creatures to the inmost centre of our being. The notion that one can begin anything at all from scratch, free from the past, or unindebted to others, could not conceivably be more wrong.” ― Karl Popper

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  – Genesis 2:18

I had my first experience with the sociology when I went off to college. Like most students, I had never heard of the discipline. My professor was passionate about each class she taught. The introduction class I was taking seemed to cover everything that life was about; families, religion, race, crime, etc. As I waded in deeper and deeper I saw that what I had gotten myself into was a class all about the big picture. What has gotten into me ever since then is a desire to help others understand how deeply we are social creations.

These days I spend most of my time trying to convince new college students that they are indeed social constructs. That means helping them to pay attention to and analyze much of what they take for granted. One of the first places to start is our family. Sure, each student is able to list some of the important contributions that their family has made in the creation of his/her self. But they tend to focus on concrete examples like food, clothing and shelter. Maybe a few will point out important lessons that were taught or even a central value like hard work. Every now and then, someone will point to their faith as having been passed down from their family. These are all correct answers, but, being “invented” by your family goes even deeper than that.

  • Physical and Social Survival Skills: Think about all of our taken-for-granted skills that families teach, how to speak, look others in eye, be responsible, tie your shoes, eat with a knife and fork…These are basic survival skills we all need once we leave and head off school. Once this happens, we will spend more awake time away from home than at home with our family – from then on. Once we leave home, other members of society begin to contribute ever more to this building project.
  • Social Placement: We are all born into families that have “placed” us into a social class. The neighborhood and schools we grow up in are not choices we make as children. These are important dimensions of our environment that our parents station in life hand to us.
  • Worldview: Our family shapes the way each one of us comes to understand and define the world outside – is it a place of opportunity and achievement or is it an environment filled with hostility and obstacles that one may never overcome? This will get even larger as maturity progresses. It will become an ever more complex worldview shaped by other social experiences.

The object is to help students to dig deeper and discover how important their families are in shaping their personalities and futures.

I believe the social sciences have much to contribute to each one of us in our search for explanations behind human behavior. Throughout my adult life I have become convinced of the tremendous benefits for us as citizens, employees, family members and even followers of Christ in the local church. Let me elaborate on three specific ideas that I introduce to new college students as they are taking one of their first social science courses and I hope becoming convinced of these benefits. I think these ideas are beneficial to all of us.

  1. We create a world that in turn creates us

The social scientist that helped to invent sociology, Emile Durkheim, used the term Social Facts to describe aspects of the context we live in that we ourselves create and that in turn influence how we think and feel, almost as if they were a force unto themselves. We get ourselves into trouble when we forget most of the ideas, actions and things that surround us and shape our lives are man-made. They can be reshaped if they get out of order and don’t work as they should. Of course, it’s always easier said than done. Examples of social facts include:

  • The suicide rate
  • The divorce rate
  • High school graduation rates
  • Percent of the population that claim to be Christian
  • Number of hours teenagers spend online

When we talk about this in class, my students always bring up the divorce rate in America. They express fears about their own marriages because they believe that divorce has always been on the rise during their lifetimes. Perhaps it’s contagious, like swine flu? The divorce rate is an example of a social fact – something we create by getting divorced which in turn influences our decisions about getting married.

If we could better understand social facts, we might make more wise decisions about our own lives and the organizations to which we belong. At the end of our discussion about social facts, marriage and divorce I always have to tell my students that divorce has not been on the rise – in fact, for most of their lives it has been on the decline. I wonder why we continue to believe in rising divorce rates? Why are we defining the situation like that?

The way that we think and feel is too often influenced by social facts. Our Christian faith teaches us to be careful about how we are influenced. “Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete.” (Romans 12:2, The Voice). This is easier to do when we understand what social facts are, how to get them right and what kind of influence matters the most.

  1. What do you believe is real?

The Definition of the Situation is a concept introduced by W. I. Thomas, a sociologist at the University of Chicago in the early 1900’s. Thomas described the power of social beliefs, the way people “defined situations” such as violent interactions between police and blacks in urban neighborhoods or legal and illegal immigration. Think about some of the beliefs that we have heard during our lives about other groups:

  • Men and women and how they should relate
  • Racial and ethnic groups
  • Religious groups, even the other Christian denomination around the corner
  • Political beliefs and differences

For Thomas, what was most important wasn’t just the facts about a given situation but also what people “believed to be real.” Our beliefs are powerful predictors of how we will act. Our culture is made up of religion, education, family structure and values. It is the source of most of our basic beliefs. It shapes the ways that we go about making sense out of our experiences.

If we want to understand why groups of people do what they do, we need to find out how they are “defining the situation.” One way we learn about beliefs is by conducting surveys. We see them all the time reported in the news. In a recent Pew study, about two-thirds of the public say they are “very sympathetic” (23%) or “somewhat sympathetic” (42%) toward immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. Now, what will those “sympathetic” feelings look like during an election, political debate or the next family reunion? How are people defining that term “sympathetic”? That’s the important follow up question in this kind of survey. What will our feelings lead us to do or not do?

“We love because He has first loved us. If someone claims, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother or sister, then he is a liar. Anyone who does not love a brother or sister, whom he has seen, cannot possibly love God, whom he has never seen. He gave us a clear command, that all who love God must also love their brothers and sisters” (I John 4:19-21 The Voice). Our Christian faith calls upon us, no commands us, to redefine our situations. We do this by reclaiming relationships with people, even with strangers. If we understand that beliefs about reality are powerful forces in shaping action, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad, then we can more carefully reflect on the source and accuracy of our own system of belief and what is truly real and really true.

  1. Why do people act like that?

During our interactions with others we often work to attribute cause for other people’s actions. Why did he do that? Sometimes even, why does he always do that? The social sciences can help us to understand the context of our interactions as we try and attribute cause. When we make mistakes about attributing cause, humans tend to favor dispositional explanations. The reason he keeps doing that is because of his personality or his mood. Instead, I’ve learned from my study of the social sciences, both sociology and social psychology, that people are just as likely to do what they do because of situational causes – bad traffic on the way to work caused that bad mood, stress from missing deadlines trickled down to become unkind remarks to colleagues and looks like inherent grumpiness.

When we are trying to understand why people do what they do, we are trying to decide if the reason is something internal like their personality or external like a critical spouse. When we think about this here’s how it works:

HIGH: Everyone is late to work HIGH: Sara is always late to work HIGH: Sara is only late when she comes to work EXTERNAL: Traffic is terrible in Houston!
LOW: Only Sara is late to work HIGH: Sara is always late to work LOW: Sara is late everywhere she goes INTERNAL: Sara needs to work on her punctuality

Harold Kelly (1967)

Was it her fault or not? Something he should be able to control or not? We think about how common this behavior is, does it keep happening and is it something unique to this particular person.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of making an error when we go about attributing cause. When we are explaining our own actions, especially failures, it’s easy to attribute them to external causes. But when we don’t really know any better, when we are trying to figure out the reason behind someone else’s poor behavior, we usually err on the side of internal causes. This is what used to be called the Fundamental Attribution Error. My bad mood is caused by economic stress, yours is probably caused by a flawed personality. See how this can cause problems?

I had an academic dean who was a wonderful model of how NOT to do this. We would all sit around and blame our bad fortunes on all the bosses making terrible decisions. These superiors were just foolish, mean or blind to reason. He would always reflect a bit (he was a Quaker), and point out all of the external factors that could be causing these circumstances we so quickly complained about. We would stop, think, feel ashamed, and realize how wise he was. We were probably making attribution errors. How could such smart people make such mistakes like that? It’s because none of us are as conscious of how we think about other people as we would like to be.

Research tells us that people who suffer with depression often make attribution errors because they tend to believe that negative experiences are due to their own internal personality faults and that positive experiences happen only because of temporary external factors, like good luck. You can see how this attribution mistake can turn into a self-defeating belief – I can’t control the positive experiences and the negative ones are a part of who I am.

What social science contributes to help solve these kinds of errors is a more deliberate awareness of the context and environment – the situational factors that contribute to our actions. Our history of past interactions and our current social environment are powerful forces that contribute to who we are, the ways that we make decisions and the tone of our social connections.

The New Testament is filled with instructions about how to live with others and how to do it the right way. Social Science helps us to understand how we can often make errors in our judgement about why other people do, say and think the ways that they do. These are common mistakes that all of us make, attribution errors. That’s kind of liberating to know. I think about my dean from long ago and try to stop and not rush to judgement about others, to not make so many errors. The Apostle Paul encourages us to make errors on the side of grace and mercy so that we can live in peace.   As a prisoner of the Lord, I urge you: Live a life that is worthy of the calling He has graciously extended to you.  Be humble. Be gentle. Be patient. Tolerate one another in an atmosphere thick with love. Make every effort to preserve the unity the Spirit has already created, with peace binding you together (Ephesians 4:1-3 The Voice)

[Editor’s Note:  Science and Faith image from 2014 Hubble WFC3/UVIS Image of M16, by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), found at Wikipedia Commons.]


  1. R. Wilson is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Law and Society in the School of Humanities at Houston Baptist University. Dr. Wilson’s teaching focus is on introducing college students to the field of sociology and to social thinking. His area of specialization is in the study of religion. His writing and research interests include: worship, religious education and the intersections of faith and learning. Publications and professional presentation have included work on religious organizations, social theory, curriculum design, active learning, and religious education.