Comparison of the Social Sciences: Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology


The word psychology originated from two Lain words; (psyche) meaning soul and (ology) meaning study. The definition of psychology from Latin gives it an intelligible meaning of study of soul and mind. However, over the years, this meaning has been altered and the subject of psychology as studied in colleges does not concern much about soul and mind. The origins of psychology differ significantly from present-day conceptions of the field.

Contemporary psychology is interested in a wide range of topics dealing with human behavior and mental process from the neural level to the cultural level. Psychologists study the human issues that commence before birth and continue after death. By understanding the history of psychology, the possibility of gaining a better understanding of how these topics are studied becomes clearer.

Origin of psychology

Psychology did not emerge as a distinct discipline until the late 1800s. Its earliest history can be traced back to the time of early Greeks. In the 17th century, a French philosopher Rene Descartes brought about the idea of dualism (Cherry, 2010). His idea asserted that the mind and body were two separate entities which interact to form the human experience. Psychology existed under the name of philosophy over the years. The Hindu Vedas contain some of the oldest record of mans examination of mind and spirit. It was done in the form of yoga which essentially was psychology, but categorized as one among the six systems of philosophy. While early psychologists relied on methods such as observation and logic, modern psychologists exploit scientific methodologies to study and draw inferences concerning the human conduct and thinking. Physiology also contributed significantly to psychology’s eventual emergence as a scientific discipline.

In the mid 1800s, a German physiologist Wilhelm Wundt applied scientific research methods to scrutinize reaction times. He published a book which outlined many of the major links between the science of physiology and the human thought and behavior study (DORE, 2001, p. 280). Opening the first world psychology lab in 1879 by Wilhelm is considered the official state of psychology as a separate and distinct scientific discipline. He, therefore, ultimately contributed to the use of scientific methodologies to the human thought and behavior study.

Psychology as a science

Science uses a pragmatic approach. Empiricism explains that the only source of knowledge comes through senses such as sight and hearing. This is a contrasting approach to the rationalism which explains that knowledge could be gained solely through powers of reason and logical arguments. The empirical approach became the scientific approach that profoundly influenced the development of physics and chemistry in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A science has several key features which include; empirical evidence, objectivity, predictability, hypothesis testing, replication, and hypothesis testing. Psychoanalysis has an extensive explanatory power of behavior and understanding and has been accused of explaining behavior after an event. It does not explain what will happen in advance. It is supposed to explain a trend in behavior enabling predictability. Psychoanalytic theory can be divided into measurable hypotheses and experimented scientifically. Behaviorists believed firmly in the scientific principles of determinism and order. They, therefore, came up with fairly consistent predictions about when and how an animal was likely to respond.

Cognitive psychology adopts a scientific approach to invisible mental processes by advancing precise models and conducting experiments about behavior to confirm or refute them. The complexity of environmental, biological and mental influences upon behavior makes the full understanding, prediction and control in psychology unobtainable. There are so many extraneous variables that cannot be controlled and it makes psychological prediction a difficult task.

Another alternative approach of psychology is the humanistic approach. It argues that an individual’s subjective perception and understanding of the world in general is more valuable than objective realism. This approach values private and subjective conscious experiences. An individual’s experience of the world becomes a valued and influential factor on their behavior. It is only by looking at the world from an individual’s point of view that it becomes possible to comprehend why they behave in a certain manner.

The humanistic approach deliberately separates itself from a scientific view point and rejects determinism in favor of free will. It aims at arriving at an in-depth understanding of human behavior and does not have an orderly set of theories. It is not interested in control and prediction of human behavior and insists that only the individuals themselves should control their own behavior (Capshew, 1999, p.119). Capshew criticized the controlling view of psychology and suggested that understanding should be the main objective of psychology as a science. The humanistic psychologists rejected the meticulous scientific approach to psychology because they viewed it as dehumanizing and unable to capture the gist of conscious experience. They argued that psychology should not be a science and brought alternatives of empiricism such as belief, argument, and rational research.

Common sense views of behavior

Common sense is vital in day to day life. It guides their decisions and influences how they interrelate with each other. Everyone views themselves in a certain way as a psychologist though they have not been formally trained and studied psychology. Different people have various views about other people, themselves, and this world too. These common sense views may come from culture, child upbringing, or personal experiences. They have varying views about the causes of their own and other people’s personality characteristics.

The informal psychologists acquire common sense knowledge in a rather anecdotal way. This knowledge is rarely based on systematic evidence and can be sometimes based on a single experience or observation. Sometimes racial and religious prejudice may be reflected as common sense among a group of people.

Science assumes that the laws of human behavior apply uniformly to everybody. Therefore, science takes both a deterministic and reductionist approach. It studies overt behavior since it is objectively observable and can be measured. These aspects allow different psychologists to record behavior and agree on what is observed. Therefore, verification can be done to assess a hypothesis about people. However much scientific laws are generalized, psychological explanations are mostly restricted to particular times and places (McLeod, 2008). They both agree that objectivity is impossible to achieve because it involves human beings studying human beings, and it is difficult to study the behavior in an unbiased manner.

For example, behaviorism is a learning theory founded on the belief that human behaviors can be objectively observed, trained and changed (Watson, 1924). In addition, the theory holds that human response to environmental stimuli largely shapes their behavior. Behaviorism is based on a number of principles, but its four key assumptions of include: Learning can be described as relationships among stimuli and responses, behaviors are acquired as a result of experiences with the environment, Learning involves a change in behavior and Many species (human beings and animals) learn in similar ways (Cohen, 2005).

Skinner (2008) is widely associated with his theory of “operant conditioning” which explains human behavior, by arguing that people operate on the environment (stimuli) to produce certain responses. The theory makes use of positive and negative reinforcement techniques, and researchers have continuously used it as a yard stick in understanding and explaining human behavior. Additionally, the theory has been widely used by psychologists in the treatment of anxiety disorders, antisocial behavior and autism (Zuriff, 2005)

According to Snowdon (n.d.) many scientist have made use of animal behavior studies to provide critical insights in the understanding of human behavior. Most important, is the fact that many human behavior scholars including Jean Piaget (study of snails) and Watson first (study of gulls) began their careers through the study of animals. The study of different animal habitats and their adaptability mechanisms has helped in the understanding and improvement of how human beings can adapt to different environmental changes. The exhibition of aggressive human behavior and how to attain cooperation and reconciliation in groups has widely been explained through a research conducted on chimpanzees and monkeys. In addition, Zuriff (2005) observes that the study of child language development has been widely understood as a result of various studies conducted on communication in birds and mammals. Many fundamental concepts related to stress management in human beings have also been developed, as a result conducted on animals (Snowdon, n.d).

The study of Anthropology

Anthropology on the other hand, is a holistic science that aims to provide the means to understanding the world. It is divided into four main subfields namely cultural, biological, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology which give anthropologists a deeper understanding of the mysteries of life. According to Ervin (2005), anthropologists are experts on human culture and diversity which encompasses human interaction, religion and ritual, communication, among other aspects of life.

Applied anthropology also referred to as practical anthropology advances classroom theories to the field in solving real world problems. In respect to this, anthropologists have been able to apply their research skills and knowledge for professional use in trying to solve practical problems in the following ways.

Development anthropologists are able to conduct research on social, economic, environmental and political issues, and provide pertinent information. The information  allows aid agencies to tailor projects and policies to a community’s particular conditions. Development anthropologists are employed by organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program.

Corporate anthropologists have the ability to advise company staff on acceptable ways of behavior when conducting business in foreign countries where the culture may be different. In addition, they study organization employees in order to evaluate the effectiveness of training and determine why some programs may be failing (Ervin. A, 2005).

Medical anthropologists are able to work with doctors so as to determine the effects of culture on human health and how to prevent diseases. Through the study of different cultures, (Ervin. A, 2005), argues that anthropologists are able to understand the different ideas and traditional beliefs that people hold on what causes diseases and how they are spread. This makes it easy for the medical practitioners to be more effective in delivering medicine and aid.

Anthropologists’ assumption was that the field is the most secure place to be because the anticipated to make friendship with people, interact with them by learning their cultures and living their way of life. This is not precisely true for the “ethnography of violent places” (Moore, 2007) because of different backgrounds of people and cultures. Some communities are sociable while others are hostile. In this case anthropologists worked in various conditions  both which are insecure and lack stability in governance. A research stated that a society cannot be rendered obsolete by violence, but it is due to the characteristic of culture which includes aspects such as a social relationship . Anthropologists must be able to take measures in order to protect themselves and their informants. As stated “Anthropologists must do everything in their power to protect the physical, social and psychological welfare…..of those mentioned” (Moore, 2007).

Anthropology is a crucial subject of study. Forensic anthropology for example  is a sub-discipline of biological anthropology that deals with identification of unrecognizable human remains in  a legal context as a part of forensic science. Forensic anthropology focuses on the determination of age, sex, race and stature as it studies the remains, usually in skeletal form. These are the big four of forensic anthropology. Forensic anthropologists also formulate opinions regarding the cause of death, and circumstances surrounding the death in certain cases. The services of a forensic anthropologist are indispensable, whenever; highly decomposed dead bodies are received in the post mortem. The forensic anthropologist also plays an important role, in the personal identification of living, and the location of missing persons. Factors such as foot marks, scars and birth marks, tattoo marks, body deformities, occupational marks handwriting, speech and voice, gait and clothes, and other personal articles assist in the identification process.


Sociology is a scientific discipline that dwells that dwells on human behavior and its origins. Unlike psychology, this emphasizes on the individual, sociology deals with a society and its construction. Sociology focuses on a behavior of groups while psychology dwells on the perception and cognition of an individual. The subject relates well with developments, institutions and organizations and how they relate to each other. Sociology uses a various diverse empirical methods to investigate and analyze a human social activity. While anthropology focuses more on the cultural origins of behaviors, sociology dwells on the interactions of social institution to explain behavior. The goal is to do research which has the possibility of being implemented to be a policy. Others focus on refining a theoretical understanding of a social process. Sociology centers much on the understanding of social structures from the micro level aspect of individual agency to the macro level of systems (Himes, 1968).

Traditional sociologists have been involved in areas of social stratification, culture, social class, religion, law, secularization and deviant forms of human behavior. All these aspects of human behavior are affected by the interactions of individual agency and social structure. The subject has gradually expanded its focus to areas of health penal institutions, the military, social networks and the role of social activity in the development of scientific knowledge.


Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology deal with various aspects of a human being which interrelate. While anthropology studies the works and behavior of primitive and small societies, sociology dwells on the complex societies and the modern civilized societies and institutions like family, and the religion. Psychology explains the behavior of an individual and all the subjects explains the human being in different aspects.

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