Behavior is the mirror in which everyone shows their image.

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Welcome to HSP3U! Throughout this introductory journey into social science, you will study the fascinating world of human behaviour, from individuals to societies. You will learn why people behave in so many different ways and how social science research is helping to shape our future.

Social science is a very broad field of scientific research that focuses on many things, including the following:

  • the study of individual behaviour
  • the exploration of societies and social relationships
  • the role of history, civics, economics, and politics in shaping human behaviour

Acknowledgements (Opens in new window)

Why is social science important?

Why is social science important? To fix problems in society, you need to understand why people behave in certain ways and how their behaviours can be changed. For example, what is going on in this picture? Why are these individuals dressed this way? What personal, political, economic, and societal forces are they reacting to and why?

Answering questions like these helps you to understand how individuals and societies function. The answers can guide us towards finding solutions to the many social and political problems facing us today.

Chaotic scene with masked protestors in downtown Toronto during the 2010 G 20 Protests.

Downtown Toronto during the June 26, 2010 G20 Protests.

What you will learn

In this first learning activity, you will explore a variety of topics related to anthropology, psychology, and sociology to identify topics for research and inquiry.

After completing this learning activity, you will be able to

  • demonstrate considerable knowledge of key facts, terms, and definitions regarding the social sciences
  • demonstrate considerable understanding of ideas and practices regarding social science research
  • use graphic organizers to express ideas on social science inquiry with considerable effectiveness

What is social science?

How and why people behave the way they do is something that has always fascinated us. A quick look at the world around you reveals that humans live in a diversity of cultures and experience their lives in all kinds of ways. How did these differences arise? What makes them (and you) behave in certain ways? And are we really all that different from each other?

To an outsider, other cultures can seem mysterious. For example, what do you think is going on in this picture taken recently in a village in Malawi, in south-central Africa? What do you think it means?

African villagers dressed in grass costumes and masks.

Social scientists collect and analyze data used to help understand the personal, social, and cultural aspects of human beings.

There are three main social science disciplines:

  • Anthropology
  • Psychology
  • Sociology

Each discipline approaches questions of human behaviour from a different angle. You will learn how they do this as you go through the course. You will also learn that their answers are directly linked to human cognitive, emotional, physical, and social development.

What does each discipline study?

Anthropology studies human beings as a species and also as members of different cultures. It is divided into two sub-fields: physical and cultural anthropology.

Physical anthropology explores how humans evolved and how individuals develop physically over time.

Human skeleton in dirt

Cultural anthropology studies how culture influences human interaction (such as gender identity within different cultures).

A group of teens dressed up in Goth fashions outside a nightclub

Psychology focuses on people’s thought processes and behaviour. It is divided into two sub-fields: theoretical and clinical psychology.

Theoretical psychologists explore general rules that influence human thought and behaviour. They observe actions and theorize the mental processes that led to them.

Clinical psychologists study behaviour and emotions (especially anger, anxiety, and depression) to help treat psychological suffering.

Lego Heads showing different basic emotions

Sociology examines how people interact socially from small groups up to entire societies.

A busy street scene in India
  • It explores human relations within the social structures they develop.
  • It attempts to detect general patterns of human behaviour through actions and responses of individuals within group settings.
  • It studies how belonging to different groups (students, teenagers, males or females, brothers or sisters) influences individual behaviour, experiences, and attitudes.

Observation 1

Here’s your chance to start thinking like a social scientist. See if you can identify the discipline that most closely relates to the following questions:


  • Why are they dressed like this?
  • What do the hand signs mean?
Man and woman dressed in hip hop fashion making hand gestures

Observation 2


  • Why doesn’t anyone stop to help the homeless man on the ground?
  • What does this tell us about social attitudes?
Shoppers passing by a sleeping homeless man

Observation 3


  • Why is the couple sitting with their backs to each other?
  • What type of relationship do you think they have with each other?
A sad-looking couple turning their backs on each other

Human development and the social sciences

It’s obvious that we are not born as fully developed adults complete with all our behaviours and cognitive (reasoning) abilities. We develop our physical, emotional, social, and cognitive abilities in varying stages throughout our life. The way we develop them has a huge influence on our behaviour and social relationships.

These are the four main areas of human development that relate to the social sciences:

Children playing hopscotch
  • Cognitive development – brain development, processing and reasoning skills, use of strategies for learning
  • Emotional development – emotional regulation, empathy, motivation
  • Social development – self-development (self-concept, self-control, self-esteem); identity formation (gender identity, social group identity, spiritual identity); relationships (peer, family, romantic)
  • Physical development – physical activity, sleep patterns, puberty, body image, nutritional requirements

Test your knowledge

Based on what you know about the three social science disciplines so far, which areas of development do you think appear most important in psychology? Why?

Explain how you think cognitive development could be important in anthropology?


Look again at the photo of the Malawi initiation ritual. Why do you think the boys are wearing masks? Why is this ritual only for boys? Which stages of development are most important in this ritual? How might each of the three social science disciplines approach these questions?

African villagers dressed in grass costumes and masks.

Figuring out how to answer such questions indicates that you are already thinking like a social scientist! But what methods do social scientists use to find out the answers?

How do social scientists conduct research?

The ability to observe and predict the behaviour of others is a skill that we develop over our lifetime. Each of us is a keen observer and predictor of human behaviour, even if we aren’t always aware of it. For example, predicting what others will do comes in handy when you need to navigate a crowded intersection!

Busy intersection with pedestrians, cyclists, and cars

One reason we can usually predict the behaviour of people around us is because each society develops unwritten rules or norms for behaviour. For example, it is a norm in some western cultures that people should take an open seat before taking a seat beside a stranger on a bus. Most people get irritated when someone breaks one of the norms, especially in the cramped conditions of public transit!

Think about an example of human behaviour you observed recently where you were able to predict the outcome.

What behaviour did you observe?

What do you think are the reasons for the observed behaviour?

Explain how you were able to predict the outcomes for the observed behaviour.

How do you know your explanation is correct?

You can’t always rely on your subjective observations to understand complex human behaviour. As you will learn, it is very easy to rely on false assumptions when making predictions about behaviour. Social scientists use a variety of research approaches based on the scientific method to reduce bias and uncertainty.

The first step is to create a research design for your question. This means you make it clear what you’re asking and how you are going to ask it. Let’s review at the main ways to design a social science study.

Research designs

There are three aspects to consider when designing a research project. Every research project is built from a combination of these three aspects.

  • Pure research is used to advance theoretical development in the field. For example, learning how addiction affects brain function.
  • Applied research is used to find a solution to a particular problem in society. For example, how to design better ad campaigns to stop teens from smoking.
  • Both types of research are valuable and the same researcher may do both kinds. Applied research often uses the results of previous pure research to tackle a particular problem.
  • Descriptive research is used to identify patterns in behaviour or society. It asks questions such as “What percentage of students have smartphones?”
  • Explanatory research is used to explain observed patterns. It asks questions such as “Why do students like smartphones so much?”
  • Qualitative data contains descriptions and observations using words. For example, consumers answering why they like one product more than another.
  • Quantitative data contains numbers such as counts, rates, and percentages.

Sometimes these distinctions between types of research design are not perfectly clear-cut, and there can be overlaps. For example, if data is collected through interviews (qualitative) and then analyzed to find percentage trends based on age or sex, it could be considered more quantitative.

See if you can identify the three features in the following summary of a research project:

How can we stop people from pouring environmentally toxic substances, such as used motor oil, into sewers that drain directly into rivers? This study will identify the main reasons why people pour material down the drain rather than have it picked up for safe disposal. A survey of 300 homes will be conducted using a questionnaire and interviews to identify the main reasons and to find potential ways to stop this behaviour.

Data collection

Once you have decided what kind of data you need and what it will be used for, the next step is to figure out how you are going to collect your data. Are you going to just observe behaviour or will you conduct an experiment? Will you examine only one group in society or study a wide range of groups across many cultures? Will you get a little bit of data from a large number of people (surveys) or focus on getting a lot of detail from just a few subjects (case studies)?

student taking a paper survey
Woman interviewing a man

The dynamic nature of human values, behaviour, and interaction means that social science research requires a variety of methods to collect data.

Familiarize yourself with each social science inquiry method included in the “Data collection methods summary chart (Opens in new window)” by looking them up online and filling in the chart. Some parts of the chart have been filled in to act as a guide for your own answers. Once completed, it makes a useful study aid.

Test your understanding

You’ve learned a lot about social science disciplines and how they design research. In this section you can see how well you’ve understood what you’ve learned so far.

In this first activity, match each definition on the right to the correct term on the left.

Practise making a research plan

Next, here’s an opportunity to practise making your own research plan. Pick a behaviour or question you are interested in. It could be the behaviour you observed earlier in the learning activity or something new. Answer the following questions. Don’t worry too much about specific details. You are not going to do this research in the learning activity; you’re just practising your research planning skills.

Making a plan - diagram showing someone with a pen writing the questions where, when, why, who, what, and how

Remember to provide an explanation for each answer. Social scientists need to be able to explain the reasons for their research choices and it takes practice to do it well.

What is the main question you are seeking to answer?

Which social science discipline does your research question most closely fall under?

What type of research design is it?

Which method will you use to collect your data?

What do social scientists study?

The research topics covered in anthropology, psychology, and sociology are incredibly varied: everything from the colour of the cracker package that shoppers find most attractive to how to prevent wars and genocide. Many researchers today are interested in how society is changing as a result of new social networking tools and changing attitudes towards interpersonal relationships.

Teens texting

See for yourself. Do a search to find three research articles or stories about studies in the social sciences. For each article or story, identify what social science discipline it most relates to, the type of research it represents, and the main research method used. Use the following key words to locate three social science studies:

  • social science
  • anthropology
  • psychology
  • sociology
  • studies
  • articles

Record your findings in the “Summary of three social science studies (Opens in new window).”

Ethics in social science research

As you have seen, there is an incredible variety in the types of research questions found in the social sciences. But they all have one thing in common – they need to be conducted according to a recognized code of ethics.

Moral compass

Ethics are a system of rules and moral expectations that guide the conduct of social scientists in their research. Why do we need these rules?

Take a moment to think about and list some possible problems that a social scientist might encounter when doing research on human subjects.

Here’s an example to get you started: exposing volunteer research subjects to potentially dangerous conditions within the experiment!

Young man touching a large electric spark during an experiment

What other types of problems can you think of?

The use of human subjects in social science studies requires anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists to use extreme caution while conducting their research to be sure no one is harmed in any way. As a result, codes of ethics have been developed to guide the behaviour of social science researchers to protect the rights of their human subjects.

Each social science discipline has its own professional association that establishes and monitors the ethics of research behaviour. Most have similar codes. For example, these excerpts from the 2012 Code of Ethics from the American Anthropological Association nicely capture the main themes contained in all social science codes of ethics.

"A primary ethical obligation shared by anthropologists is to do no harm. It is imperative that, before any anthropological work be undertaken – in communities, with non-human primates or other animals, at archaeological and paleoanthropological sites – each researcher think through the possible ways that the research might cause harm. Among the most serious harms that anthropologists should seek to avoid are harm to dignity, and to bodily and material well-being, especially when research is conducted among vulnerable populations. Anthropologists should not only avoid causing direct and immediate harm but also should weigh carefully the potential consequences and inadvertent impacts of their work."

"Researchers who mislead participants about the nature of the research and/or its sponsors; who omit significant information that might bear on a participant’s decision to engage in the research; or who otherwise engage in clandestine or secretive research that manipulates or deceives research participants about the sponsorship, purpose, goals or implications of the research, do not satisfy ethical requirements for openness, honesty, transparency and fully informed consent. Compartmented research by design will not allow the anthropologist to know the full scope or purpose of a project; it is therefore ethically problematic, since by definition the anthropologist cannot communicate transparently with participants, nor ensure fully informed consent."

"Anthropological researchers working with living human communities must obtain the voluntary and informed consent of research participants…. Minimally, informed consent includes sharing with potential participants the research goals, methods, funding sources or sponsors, expected outcomes, anticipated impacts of the research, and the rights and responsibilities of research participants…. Normally, the observation of activities and events in fully public spaces is not subject to prior consent."

"Whether working in academic or applied settings, anthropologists have a responsibility to maintain respectful relationships with others…. Anthropologists may gain personally from their work, but they must not exploit individuals, groups, animals, or cultural or biological materials. Further, when they see evidence of research misconduct, they are obligated to report it to the appropriate authorities."

Pushing ethical boundaries: The Milgram experiment

One of the most famous social science studies is the “Behavioural Study of Obedience” by psychologist Stanley Milgram, published in 1974. His experiments provided a powerful and disturbing look into the power of authority and obedience. It also pushed the boundaries of research ethics quite dramatically.


Stanley Milgram researched the effect of authority on obedience. He wanted to know why ordinary people, especially during the Second World War, did such terrible things to other people. He hypothesized that our need to obey authority could override our morals about hurting others. Milgram’s controversial experiment revealed that ordinary people are reluctant to confront those who abuse power, even if it means hurting others in the process.

Milgram’s method

Milgram recruited test subjects for his experiments from various walks of life. The subjects were told the experiment would study the effects of punishment on learning ability. They were offered a cash award for participating. Although subjects thought they had an equal chance of playing the role of a learner (L) or a teacher (T), the process was rigged so that all subjects ended up playing the teacher. The role of the learner was actually played by an actor working with the experimenter (E).

In the Milgram experiment, an experimenter (E) monitors a teacher (T) who delivers electric shocks to a learner (L) if they answer questions incorrectly.

The “teacher” (T) was told to push buttons to deliver increasingly severe electric shocks to the “learner” (L) sitting in another room if the learner gave wrong answers to questions. In reality no shocks were being delivered, but the actor playing the role of the learner could see what voltage the teacher had selected and would pretend to be shocked accordingly.

Set-up of the Milgram experiment. An experiment monitors a teacher who delivers electric shocks to a learner if they answer questions incorrectly.

Shock levels were labelled from 15 to 450 volts and also given word descriptions ranging from “slight shock” (15 volts), “moderate shock” (75 volts), “strong shock” (120 volts), “very strong shock” (150 volts), on up to “Danger: Severe Shock” (285 volts) and, finally, “XXX” (450 volts). In response to the supposed jolts, the learner (pretending it was real) would begin to grunt at 75 volts; complain at 120 volts; ask to be released at 150 volts; and let out agonized screams at 285 volts. At 450 volts, the learner was to scream loudly and complain of heart pain.

If at any point the teacher hesitated to inflict the shocks, the experimenter would pressure him to proceed, saying things like, “The experiment requires that you continue.”

What Milgram found

Some “teachers” rebelled and refused to continue with the shocks early on, despite urging from the experimenter. This is the type of response Milgram expected as the norm. But Milgram was astounded to find those who questioned authority were in the minority. The majority (65%) of the “teachers” were willing to progress to the maximum (dangerous) voltage level!

The test subjects were debriefed after the experiment and showed much relief at finding they had not actually harmed the learner. One cried when he saw the student alive and explained that he thought he had killed him. The results of Milgram’s experiments amazed many people. It showed that obedience to authority is so strong in us that it can lead good people to do bad things. The experiment also upset many people because they thought it severely violated ethical boundaries for research on human subjects.

More on Milgram?

  • If you are interested, you can read the original study here:
    • Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.
  • New York: Harper and Row.
  • There are various summaries of Milgram’s findings:
    • Milgram, S. (1973). “The perils of obedience.” Harper’s Magazine,
  • 62–77.
    • Brown, R. (1986). “Social Forces in Obedience and Rebellion.”
  • Social Psychology: The Second Edition. New York: The Free Press.
  • Many other summaries and discussions about this work can be found on the Internet using search terms such as “Milgram experiment 1974.”

Was it ethical?

The code of ethics for psychology experiments has been revised since 1974. Could Milgram have conducted this experiment today?

Find out for yourself. Read the statements of ethics of the American Psychology Association (APA). Search for the APA website and find the sections on ethics called “Ethical Principles of Psychologists” and “Code of Conduct.” Section 8 deals with ethical considerations for research and publication. Review the paragraph titled “Deception in Research.”

Would these new codes have prevented Milgram from doing his experiment in the way he did? Explain why or why not.


Congratulations, you’ve completed your first learning activity!

You now know more about the three disciplines in social science – anthropology, sociology, and psychology – and the kinds of things they study. You also have a better feel for how social scientists study them and the ethical rules that govern them.

In the next learning activity, you will examine in more detail how social scientists design a research question and submit your first piece of work to your teacher for evaluation.

Woman with two thumbs up