Defining Common Social Studies Vocabulary

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Social studies is an academic discipline that covers a wide range of topics. In this lesson, we'll explore some common ideas and vocabulary words often found in social studies.

Social Studies

So, you want to take social studies. That's great. Now, what does that mean? Social studies is an academic discipline focused on human societies. It encompasses a wide range of other ideas, drawing from things like psychology, history, and sociology as well as art, politics, and geography. The goal of social studies is to provide an intellectual basis for understanding how various aspects of a society relate to each other and influence human lives. So, there's a lot that goes into this. Let's take a look at some common vocabulary words you may see in a course on social studies and see how we can start to study all things social.


One of the major areas of focus in social studies is history, or the study of humans in the past. History, as a discipline, is all about understanding how humans related to each other and why they made the choices they did.

Primary document

A primary document, or primary source, is something that was created by someone in history. If you're studying the 1920s, then a diary or newspaper or political cartoon from the 1920s would be a primary source. If someone in the future decides to study online education in the early 21st century, then this lesson would be a primary source.


Another area that social studies focuses on heavily is understanding the basic concepts of society. Now, simply put, a society is a collection of individuals who share something in common, like living in the same town or city, and are unique from other groups. Here are a few other vocabulary words you may see in a study of societies.


This is actually a tricky one. A culture is a complex set of actions, beliefs, rituals, and creations of a society. Culture can include things like language, religion, holidays, morality, gender expectations, or styles of art. What makes culture so important is that it defines the way we identify ourselves and creates unity and cohesion within a society. Basically, it helps people in a society feel like they belong together.

Social Hierarchy

Within most societies, some people are more powerful than others. We call this system of social classes a social hierarchy. At the top of the hierarchy are the elites, the group in power. Below them are various levels of administrators, workers, merchants, craftspeople, etc. Generally, most class systems end with peasants or slaves on the bottom.


Another important thing to look at in a society is the patterns of subsistence, or how they survive. Basically, how do societies get food? Nomadic societies are completely mobile, moving from place to place and generally surviving by hunting wild game. Sedentary societies are non-mobile, living in permanent, settled towns and generally relying on agriculture.

Nomadic people choose not to stay in one place


From there we can start looking at not only how people live and create societies, but where they live. That makes the study of geography, the study of the physical features of the Earth, an important part of this. In particular, we're often looking at human geography, which is simply the relationship between humans and the Earth. Here are some geography terms you may see in social studies.


An important feature of any geographical location is its climate, or its general weather conditions. Places with warm climates tend to attract more people than those with cold climates. Places with wet climates were better for ancient societies that were developing farming than places with dry climates. Just think about how much the weather impacts your daily life throughout the year.


Our understanding of how people interact with the Earth also fits into our understanding of where we live. The Earth is a sphere, and we've divided that sphere into various sections to help ourselves understand it better. The most basic divisions are hemispheres, which literally mean half of a sphere. So, we can divide the Earth between eastern and western hemispheres, or northern and southern hemispheres.

A map of the hemispheres

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account