Basic Terms & Concepts in Social Studies

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The social studies are a major academic discipline and a big area of research. In this lesson we'll look at several terms used in social studies to help organize human societies. Updated: 02/15/2021

What is Social Studies?

I like people. Okay, that may be a little strong. I enjoy studying people. That's better. For those of us who enjoy studying human societies, one of the best disciplines is social studies.

Technically speaking, social studies is the use of various methods from both the humanities and social sciences to study the many elements of human society. This is obviously a pretty big area of study, so there are quite a few terms researchers use to help analyze things. Let's take a look at some basic concepts of social studies and see how these can help us study society.

Organization by Time

Obviously, studying all of society across all of time is a pretty big job, so there are some ways we can think about organizing everything. One useful way to organize things is by time. Some things happened before others, some things happened at the same time.


The arrangement of things in order of their occurrence is known as chronological organization, and again this can be pretty useful. Say I want to study the civilizations of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Independently, these three societies may not appear related, but by organizing them chronologically we can begin to see how the rise or fall of one impacted the others.

Timelines are one form of chronological organization

Change and Continuity

One of the simplest ways to analyze how and why things are related is to look for patterns of change and continuity. Some things change over time, and others stay the same, but why?


Chronological organization helps us identify parts of society that are subject to change, say hair styles, and those which are more consistent, like moral values. From there, we can start to look for major trends in terms of when things change. This is called periodization, the basic idea that history can be organized into periods of similar trends.

For example, let's look at American history. If we chronologically organized major events and ideas throughout the last century, we'd notice that right at the start of the 20th century a lot of people were really focused on social reform. But this changed after WWI and into the 1920s. So, we've got two periods. Historians call the first period the 'Progressive Era' and the second one the 'Roaring Twenties'. By looking at the balance between change and continuity, we identified major periods of history to help us understand what was going on.

Organization by Political Structures

Another way to organize societies is to look at how they organize themselves. More specifically, I'm talking about people's forms of social, geographic, and political organization.


For example, it can be useful to organize societies by levels of complexity. Now, all societies have their own complex sets of rules and behaviors, but as societies get larger and develop formal political structures and distinct economies, the complexity grows. We call a society with a high degree of complexity a civilization. Aztec civilization, Norse civilization, ancient Chinese civilization are terms that denote a settled society with complex political and social structures, developed economies, and sophisticated social rules.

We talk about Rome as a major civilization because the Romans had very complex political and social structures

Now, obviously civilizations can come in different shapes and sizes, and so we can continue organizing them into more concrete categories. For example, let's just look at Central America in the time of the Aztecs.

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