Using Multiple Types of Thinking in Social Science

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  • 0:01 Social Sciences
  • 1:22 Chronological Thinking
  • 2:43 Spatial Thinking
  • 4:06 Thematic Thinking
  • 5:07 Interdisciplinary Thinking
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The social sciences are some of the most popular academic disciplines, so how do they work? In this lesson, explore multiple types of thinking used in social science, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Social Sciences

Ever notice just how much society there is around you? I mean, if you've ever lived somewhere without a society, please tell me right now because that's a lost world and I will become a famous anthropologist by publishing that. Most of us live within a society guided by social rules and composed of infinite human interactions. Societies are fascinating, so much so that there is an entire group of disciplines that study them.

The social sciences are the academic fields that study human interactions, lives, and societies. As the name implies, they generally have a scientific focus, relying on the scientific method, collecting observable data, etc. In general, the accepted social sciences include anthropology, archaeology, communication, economics, history, linguistics, psychology, and sociology. So, the social sciences are pretty broad since human interactions are pretty broad and really pretty complex. This means that the best social science research utilizes multiple ways of thinking or looking at a problem. How does this work? Well, let's think about it.

Chronological Thinking

Ok, let's be social scientists. Say we are researching personal interactions within human societies; that sounds like a very social science-y thing to do, right? Well, we need to start accumulating and organizing our data. One very practical way to start looking at this question of personal interactions is through chronological thinking, or organizing data in order of events. Essentially, you create a timeline.

As any historian will tell you, this is great because it helps to contextualize the data. For example, all of these sets of data represent information on personal relationships in ancient Rome. Like this, there's no identifiable pattern, but when we organize them chronologically… hey, look! Different sets of data have emerged. We can see that personal relations changed right after the years 64 CE and 79 CE. Well, both of these dates represent major disasters: the great fire of Rome and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. So, by arranging this information chronologically, we can tell that personal relationships in ancient Rome were affected by natural disasters, even though the data doesn't literally say that.

Spatial Thinking

Chronological thinking is a great way to find patterns that relate to major events or trends. However, it's not perfect. Chronological thinking doesn't say much about how people live their lives in terms of physical space. Just think about how much you move around in an average day. What do different places mean to you, which places are better for interacting with other people, which places are best for being alone?

Spatial thinking focuses on movement and interaction with physical space. In recent years, most of the social sciences have really embraced the use of geographic information systems or GIS, which stores and maps data about space. Social scientists can literally create maps of human interaction, looking at where and how we move, and helping demonstrate what we think about certain spaces.

Let's look at ancient Rome again. Chronologically, our data shows a spike in community-based interactions after a natural disaster, but what does this mean in terms of daily life? Well, with spatial thinking and maybe a bit of social mapping, we can see that people tended to spend more time in public spaces, say temples or amphitheaters, and less time at home.

Thematic Thinking

So how else can we think about this problem? Maybe we should start looking at this data with thematic thinking, based around a specific subject. Thematic thinking breaks away from other forms of organization and can help us pick up on things we may have otherwise missed.

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