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Social Scientists - What They Do


The major social science occupations covered in this statement are anthropologists, archaeologists, geographers, and historians.

Social scientists study all aspects of society—from past events and achievements to human behavior and relationships among groups. Their research provides insights into the different ways individuals, groups, and institutions make decisions, exercise power, and respond to change. They look at data in detail, such as studying the data they've collected, reanalyzing already existing data, analyzing historical records and documents, and interpreting the effect of location on culture and other aspects of society. Through their studies and analyses, social scientists offer insight into the physical, social, and cultural development of humans, as well as the links between human activity and the environment. Following are brief discussions of several major types of social scientists. Specialists in one field may find that their research overlaps work being conducted in another discipline.

Anthropologists study the origin, development, and behavior of humans. They examine the ways of life, languages, archaeological remains, and physical characteristics of people in various parts of the world. They also examine the customs, values, and social patterns of different cultures, often through comparative analyses. Some anthropologists study current human concerns, such as overpopulation, warfare, and poverty, while others study the prehistory of Homo sapiens, including the evolution of the human brain. Anthropologists usually concentrate on one of four subfields: sociocultural, linguistics, biological, and physical anthropology. Sociocultural anthropologists study the customs, cultures, and social lives of groups in settings that range from unindustrialized societies to modern urban centers. They often do this through observation or face-to-face interviews with a particular group, comparing findings of one particular group with that of another. For example, they may seek to learn the reasons behind face painting or scarification of individuals within a society to better understand the overall culture of that society. Such an analysis usually takes form of a specific focus—for example, economics, politics, religion, or art. Linguistic anthropologists investigate the history of, role of, and changes to, language over time in various cultures. Biological anthropologists research the evolution of the human body, look for the earliest evidences of human life, and analyze how culture and biology influence one another. Physical anthropologists examine human remains found at archaeological sites in order to understand population demographics and factors, such as nutrition and disease, that affected these populations.

Archaeologists examine and recover material evidence, including tools, pottery, cave paintings, the ruins of buildings, and other objects remaining from past human cultures in order to learn about the history, customs, and living habits of earlier civilizations. With continued technological advances making it increasingly possible to detect the presence of underground anomalies without digging, archaeologists can now target excavation sites better than they previously could.

Most archaeologists work at consulting and research firms—specifically, at cultural resource management (CRM) firms whose services often are contracted by developers, construction companies, and, sometimes, the Federal Government. CRM workers are responsible mainly for identifying, assessing, and preserving archaeological and historical sites on private and public land, such as National parks, to ensure that the builder is complying with legislation pertaining to preservation. Archaeologists in museums and historic sites often handle the locale’s artifacts collection, educate the public through interactive programs and presentations, or become administrators who supervise programs related to research, collections, and exhibitions. Another large employer of archaeologists is the government. Many archaeologists in the Federal Government conduct research for the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Park Service. Some also work as administrators.

Geographers study the earth and its land, features, inhabitants, and phenomena. Most geographers work in one of two main branches of geography: physical and cultural. Physical geographers examine the physical aspects of a region, including its land forms, climates, soils, vegetation, water, plants, and animals. Cultural geographers analyze the spatial implications of human activities within a given area, including its economic activities, social characteristics, and political organization, and are further classified on the basis of their specific focus. For example, economic geographers study the distribution of resources and economic activities. Political geographers are concerned with the relationship of geography to political phenomena. Urban and transportation geographers study cities and metropolitan areas. Regional geographers study the physical, economic, political, and cultural characteristics of regions ranging in size from a congressional district to entire continents. Medical geographers investigate healthcare delivery systems, epidemiology (the study of the causes and control of epidemics), and the effect of the environment on health.

Geographers incorporate many different technologies into their work, such as geographic information systems (GISs), global positioning systems (GPSs), and remote sensing. For example, a geographer may use GIS and GPS to track information on population growth, traffic patterns, environmental hazards, natural resources, and weather patterns, all in digital format. By overlaying remotely sensed aerial or satellite images with GIS data, such as population density, they create computerized maps that can advise governments, businesses, and the general public on a variety of issues, including the impact of natural disasters and the development of houses, roads, and landfills. As more of these systems are created and refined, a good number of mapping specialists are being called geographic information specialists. In addition, many of the people who study geography and work with GIS technology are classified into other occupations, such as surveyors, cartographers, photogrammetrists, and survey and mapping technicians (who develop maps and other location-based information), urban and regional planners (who help to decide on and evaluate the locations of building and roads and other aspects of physical society), and geoscientists (who study earthquakes and other physical aspects of the Earth).

Historians research, analyze, and interpret the past. They use many sources of information in their research, including government and institutional records, newspapers and other periodicals, photographs, interviews, films, and unpublished manuscripts such as personal diaries and letters. Historians usually specialize in a country or region, a particular period, or a particular field, such as social, intellectual, cultural, political, or diplomatic history. Many communicate their research and findings through books, articles, or essays.

The majority of historians conduct some form of research and analysis for State and local government. Others help study and preserve archival materials and artifacts in museums, visitor centers, and historic buildings and sites. Those with a bachelor's degree in history may work as high school history teachers.

Work Environment
Most social scientists have regular hours. Although they work most often as an integral part of a research team, they sometimes work alone, writing reports of their findings. Travel may be necessary to collect information or attend meetings, and those on foreign assignment must adjust to unfamiliar cultures, climates, and languages.

Some social scientists do fieldwork. For example, anthropologists, archaeologists, and geographers may travel to remote areas, live among the people they study, learn their languages, and stay for long periods at the site of their investigations. They may work under rugged conditions, and their work may involve strenuous physical exertion.

Social scientists employed by colleges and universities usually have flexible work schedules, often dividing their time among teaching, research, writing, consulting, and administrative responsibilities.

Education & Training Required
Graduates with master's degrees in applied specialties usually are qualified for positions outside of colleges and universities, although requirements vary by field. A Ph.D. degree may be required for higher level teaching positions. Bachelor's degree holders have limited opportunities; however, a bachelor's degree does provide a suitable background for many different kinds of entry-level jobs in related occupations, such as research assistant, writer, management trainee, and market analyst. In addition, bachelor’s degree holders in history often qualify for elementary, middle, and high school teaching positions.

Training in statistics and mathematics is essential for many social scientists, most of whom increasingly are using mathematical and quantitative research methods. The ability to use computers for research purposes is mandatory in most disciplines. Social scientists also must keep up to date on the latest technological advances that affect their discipline and research. For example, most geographers use GIS technology extensively, and a growing number of archaeologists are beginning to incorporate the technology into their work.

Many social science students also benefit from internships or field experience. Numerous local museums, historical societies, government agencies, and nonprofit and other organizations offer internships or volunteer research opportunities. Archaeological field schools instruct future anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians in how to excavate, record, and interpret historical sites.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)
Social scientists need excellent written and oral communication skills to report research findings and to collaborate on research. The ability to think logically and methodically also is essential in analyzing complicated issues. Objectivity, an open mind, and systematic work habits are important in all kinds of social science research. Perseverance, too, often is necessary, as when an anthropologist spends years studying artifacts from an ancient civilization before making a final analysis and interpretation.


Social Scientists - What They Do - Page 2

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