Definitions of Social Studies

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 17, 2013

In 1992, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) adopted the following definition of “social studies”:

Social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world. (NCSS Task Force on Standards for Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies, 1993, p. 213)

The NCSS, the professional organization of social studies educators, has played an essential role since 1921 ( The NCSS definition seems to be a good place to start our discussion of how to teach social studies in an elementary school classroom. The existence of an “official” definition is somewhat misleading because authorities in the field have long debated the dimensions of an appropriate definition of social studies (Barr, Barth, & Shermis, 1977; Barth & Shermis, 1970; Dougan, 1988; Evans, 2004; Griffith, 1991). The NCSS definition states the topics covered in social studies and clarifies the purposes of social studies teaching and learning. Barth (1993) provides a simpler definition of social studies:

Social studies is the interdisciplinary integration of social science and humanities concepts for the purpose of practicing problem solving and decision making for developing citizenship skills on critical social issues.

I think this is a useful definition. It emphasizes the ultimate goal of social studies teaching—to help students think critically and to use what they know to be active citizens. I have a definition, too:

Social studies is the study of people. Social studies should help students acquire knowledge, master the processes of learning, and become active citizens.

A closer look at my definition and a discussion of those provided by the NCSS and Professor Barth should bring social studies into sharper focus.

Social Studies Is the Study of People

People are the domain of social studies. This includes people as nearby as family and as far away as those who live in the most distant nations. It includes people living now, those who lived long ago, and those who will live in the future. Social studies has the potential to be the best part of the school day because it is when children connect with other people. As children learn about others, they will be fascinated by differences among cultural groups, while at the same time they will find the commonalities that create a shared sense of humanity. It is a complex task to teach about people, and information must come from many fields of study. The NCSS definition points out that it is the various disciplines of the social sciences and humanities that provide the content for what is taught during social studies. While history and geography should serve as the core of social studies, it is imperative that the other social sciences are not neglected; rather, they should be a significant part of every social studies program. The other social sciences are anthropology, economics, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology.

The humanities (literature, the performing arts, and the visual arts) are an important part of social studies, too (Eisner, 1991). The arts serve two functions. First, they help children better understand the people, places, and ideas they study. Stories, songs, dances, plays, paintings, statues, and other works of art allow students to become acquainted with the people who created them. Second, children can show us what they know by expressing themselves through the arts. As Barth (1993) points out, social studies involves integration of the social sciences and the humanities. A good social studies unit of study should pull information and ideas from several different fields.

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