Social studies is a broad field encompassing various disciplines focused on human society and relationships. There have been many attempts over the years by scholars and educators to clearly define this complex subject area.
This has resulted in multiple working definitions that emphasize different aspects of social studies depending on the perspective and priorities of each author. This introduction will summarize 10 key definitions that highlight the diversity of views on the nature and goals of social studies.
The definitions come from authors across different decades, backgrounds, and ideological orientations.
What Are The 10 Definitions of Social Studies By Different Authors
1. “Social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.” This definition from the National Council for Social Studies emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of social studies and its goal of developing knowledgeable and engaged citizens.
2. “Social studies are understood to be those whose subject matter relates to the organization and development of human society, and to man as a member of social groups.” Stated in 1916, this early definition from the Committee on Social Studies of the National Education Association focuses on the key topics covered in social studies.
3. “The social studies may be defined as the social sciences simplified for pedagogical purposes.” This 1923 definition from historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. introduces the idea that social studies represents the adaptation of academic disciplines for teaching purposes.
4. “The social studies are the social sciences organized for instructional purposes.” Edgar Bruce Wesley offered this definition in 1937, echoing Schlesinger’s conception of social studies as the teaching version of the social science disciplines.
5. “Social studies is the study of political, economic, cultural and environmental aspects of societies in the past, present and future.” This modern definition from researchers Banks and Clegg encapsulates the broad range of topics included under the umbrella of social studies.
6. “Social studies is about power—who’s got it, who wants it, how it operates.” Sociologist Jean Anyon’s definition, though provocative, emphasizes the role of social studies in examining power structures and relations in society.
7. “I see social education (studies) as social science instruction that has four goals: knowledge, skills, attitudes, and citizen action.” This definition from researcher Bruce Joyce highlights some of the key learning outcomes associated with K-12 social studies instruction.
8. “Social studies teaching and learning are powerful when they are active, student-centered, open, democratic, and inquiry-based.” Social studies scholar Walter Parker offers an aspirational perspective focused less on subject matter and more on active and democratic forms of instruction.
9. “Social studies education has the potential to create activists.” Here, researcher and teacher educator Diana Hess directly links social studies to facilitate greater civic participation and social action.
10. “The social studies equip learners for understanding, participation in, and making informed decisions about their world.” This definition from the National Standards for Social Studies Teachers focuses on the role of social studies in developing student capacities to engage with contemporary issues.