Humanities vs. social science: exploring the dichotomy

The difference between humanities and social science isn’t always immediately apparent. Although both disciplines focus on the human experience, they each view it from a unique lens. This article provides an overview of the different approaches, areas of study, and career paths for your humanities vs. social science consideration so you can pinpoint which option best aligns with your goals.

What are the humanities?

Through the critical study of literature, art, language, history, and philosophy, humanities allow us to develop a deeper understanding of the human condition and how it is documented.

The origin of the modern idea of the humanities can be traced back to the mid-5th century BCE, with the Classical Greek “paideia,” a course of general education, as well as in Cicero’s “humanitas” (which means human nature).

With a focus on the power of human expression and shared experiences, the humanities provide an opportunity to cultivate empathy and create dialogue between people of different beliefs and perspectives.


Unlike the social sciences which focus on observable patterns, humanities focus on abstract or theoretical ideas when examining everything from ethics and poetry to how to live a life of meaning. Students of the humanities primarily employ a qualitative research approach, making analytical, moral or speculative interpretations regarding the traditions, creations, and cultures of the past and the present.

By studying forms of art, literary works, historical events, philosophical ideas, and spiritual practices, practitioners of the humanities seek to better understand the individual within the broader context of human culture and society.

Areas of study

The humanities encompass many engaging fields within a comprehensive liberal arts education. For example, philosophy involves the logical, abstract, and methodical consideration of fundamental truths such as the nature of reality, knowledge, and human existence.

The study of history focuses on the cultural, social, political, economic, religious, and other changes in society over time, while art history and theory courses may take a critical eye to everything from painting, drawing, and sculpture to photography, filmmaking, or music.

Literature studies, such as ENLT 1200: Writing about Literature and Culture at Penn LPS Online, provide an overview of foundational skills and strategies to write clear, concise, and persuasive critical analyses of different form of literary texts.

Other examples of common areas of study within the humanities include the classics, drama and music, gender studies, regional studies, ethnic studies, and religious studies.

Career paths in humanities

The critical thinking, communication, and interpersonal skills that you develop by earning a humanities degree may be applied to a wide variety of career paths, depending on your preferences and goals.


If you’re interested in teaching at the pre-school, elementary, or high school level, you’ll have a chance to put your skills in communication, empathy, and resourcefulness to good use. Keep in mind that you will also need to obtain certification or licensure to practice in addition to your bachelor degree.

Communication, media, and publishing

In the fields of communications and publishing, roles such as copywriter, editor, author, journalist, technical writer, public relations professional, or communications specialist require many of the competencies developed while studying the humanities, including creativity, research abilities, writing, and critical thinking.

History and the arts

If you’re passionate about history or the arts, you may want to pursue a career as an archivist, curator, conservator, or museum technician. These professions all require sound organizational, research, and analytical skills, which are critical in determining the origin, history, and relevance of records, documents and artwork. Some employers may require that you earn a master’s degree to be considered for these roles.

What are social sciences?

Social science is the study of how humans behave and interact within societies, and key branches include anthropology, political science, psychology, sociology, and economics. It began to emerge as a distinct field in the early 19th century, making it a relatively new discipline compared to the humanities.

Social scientists investigate government, the economy, family structures, and social institutions to gain insight into what drives human behavior and what conditions allow people to flourish. Not only do the findings of social science inform education programs, public policy, and urban planning, they also help spearhead strategies to create more inclusive and effective institutions within society.


Unlike the natural sciences, which study the physical world through fields such as chemistry, biology, and physics, social science examines the relationships and cultures within the constructed world of human beings.

Social science frequently employs a scientific approach of quantitative data analysis to study different facets of society. For example, sociologists research and collect data on crime and poverty, analyze it, and draw conclusions that are used to guide public policy.

However, social scientists may also use qualitative approaches (such as interviews or focus groups) to increase their understanding regarding the motivations and interactions of individuals and groups.

Areas of study

Two fields most commonly associated with social science are sociology and psychology. Sociology is the scientific study of patterns of human social behavior, relationships, and interactions, including how they are shaped by social institutions. Psychology explores how people’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are affected by actual or imagined interactions with others.

Anthropology is a broad discipline that delves into the history and development of human societies and cultures, including their languages, belief systems, material goods, and social structures.

Economics is concerned with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services with a focus on decision-making by individuals, governments, and businesses.

Political science examines topics such as political theory, ideologies, and international relations to help understand how local, national, and international governments function and impact societies.

There is some disagreement as to whether history, geography, law, and linguistics should be classified as part of the humanities or social sciences—and consequently viewed from a theoretical or scientific perspective.

Career paths in social science

The analytical, research, and problem-solving skills obtained while pursuing a degree in social science can be applied in a wide range of professional paths, including the role of a social scientist.

Social scientists use the scientific method to study how particular aspects of human society and relationships function, change, and coexist. Examples of different types of social scientists include economists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, and geographers.

The entry-level education required to become a social scientist is typically a master’s or doctoral degree. Below are other professional opportunities to consider if you earn a bachelor’s in social science.

Counseling, therapy, and social services

If you’re interested in helping others prevent and cope with challenges in their everyday lives, in-demand roles that you may want to pursue include social worker, social and community service manager, and substance abuse, behavioral disorder, or mental health counselor.

Job growth for these rewarding career paths is expected to increase by 9%, 12%, and 22%, respectively, by 2031, all of which are faster than average.


The combination of strong analytical and research skills with knowledge of what drives human behavior can be applied to multiple facets of business, including data analysis, marketing, communications, management, and human resources.

For example, market research analysts help companies understand consumer buying preferences and demographics, while business intelligence analysts create financial and market data reports. Demand for these roles is expected to increase 19% and 11%, respectively, by 2031.

Government and public administration

Robust communication, interpretive, and critical thinking skills—and expertise in political science and sociology—may open opportunities in government or civil services positions, including policy analyst, public affairs specialist, campaign manager, or communications officer.

If you earn an undergraduate degree focused on political science, psychology, history, or economics, you may want to consider furthering your education by earning a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from an accredited law school, taking the bar exam, and pursuing a career as a lawyer.

Why study the humanities or social sciences?

A degree in the humanities is generally less career-focused or specialized than in social sciences because you’ll explore topics from a historical or theoretical perspective, rather than a practical one.

However, whichever discipline you choose, you’ll have the opportunity to develop valuable skills that can be applied in your personal and professional life.

Analytical abilities: Obtain strong analytical skills including logical reasoning, problem-solving, and decision-making. And learn how to reach logical conclusions through both qualitative and quantitative analyses of numerical data, survey results, and written sources.

Creativity and empathy: Learn how to come up with original ideas and solutions to problems, while obtaining an understanding and appreciation for the feelings and viewpoints of others.

Critical thinking: Develop your ability to make rational connections between ideas, recognize and develop arguments, find solutions to problems, and consider how your own assumptions may affect your interpretations.

Written and verbal communication: Learn how to clearly and concisely author persuasive essays and research papers and deliver compelling evidence-based arguments in discussions and presentations.

Research: Discover how to identify and analyze reputable sources, extract important evidence and data, and present sound conclusions based on qualitative and quantitative research.

Ready to enhance your professional skill set?

With lessons from expert practitioners and strategies for self-knowledge, the concentration in Leadership and Communication for the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS) program at Penn LPS Online will help you unlock your leadership potential.

This interdisciplinary Ivy League degree provides the practical knowledge and critical thinking skills needed to develop career-advancing leadership and communication skills. Tailor your program to your personal strengths and professional interests as you combine analytical and reflective studies with practical introductions to data analysis and strategies in global leadership.

The BAAS in Leadership and Communication also prepares you to:

  • Apply leadership lessons from the humanities and social sciences
  • Discover how to integrate positive psychology into your leadership style
  • Explore competing perspectives on leadership ethics
  • Learn how to use quantitative data in decision-making
  • Develop strategies and skills to persuade via verbal, visual, and written communication
  • Understand and apply research insights in economics, psychology, and other social sciences

If you haven’t already, apply to Penn LPS Online today and register for the Leadership and Communication concentration for the BAAS degree, or explore our Certificate in Leadership and Communication. You can also view our course guide to learn more about what’s available in any upcoming term.


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