Social Science

a faculty member speaks to her class


The social science core curriculum requirement recognizes that it is important for students to understand the complex connections individuals have to one another and to society more broadly. The social sciences are the systematic study of how institutions in society operate and how people interact at the individual level. Although the five social science disciplines at the University of Notre Dame—Anthropology, Economics, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology—differ in important ways, common between them is the goal to understand the patterned nature of social life while appreciating the diversity of human experience. A hallmark of a contemporary liberal arts education, these courses prepare students to engage more thoughtfully with others in all aspects of life and equip students with the analytical tools necessary to confront important problems in modern society.

Social science is both the execution and result of an iterative process. Social scientists use systematic approaches to formulate theories, to collect and understand data, and to draw on that data to refine the original theories or develop new ones. Each discipline offers unique theoretical approaches and a distinct set of tools. The goal of a social science core course is to provide an understanding of how a particular discipline approaches problems. There are two distinct, but complementary, ways to do this: breadth or depth.


Because there are many programs on campus outside of the primary departments that offer rigorous courses potentially meeting the social science requirement (for example, in Gender Studies and Africana Studies), it is important to circumscribe the boundaries of the requirement. Courses that take a more philosophical, historical, or religious approach, even when taught by a social science faculty member, are unlikely to offer students the distinctive approach and tools of a particular social science discipline. Courses that are too squarely focused on a specific topic without situating that topic and the course’s organization around a particular social science discipline or an intersection of social science disciplines are not suitable for the core requirement. These courses are most likely to benefit students majoring or minoring in those disciplines, who already understand the disciplinary approaches.

Courses meeting at least three of the learning goals for either the breadth or depth components described below would satisfy the social science core requirement.

Learning Goals

Breadth: Introducing a Social Science Discipline’s Unique Perspective

Broad, introductory courses—often offered at the 10000 or 20000 level—are intended to provide students the foundation they need to engage a discipline’s perspective. In these classes, students will be exposed to the scope of a given social science discipline. Through these courses, students will learn the way a discipline thinks about problems, specifically, the types of questions they ask, why those are important, and the types of theories and methods used to answer those questions. Examples include introductions to particular social science disciplines (e.g., Introduction to Psychology or Principles of Microeconomics) and courses that introduce dominant and expansive social scientific sub-disciplines from the field (e.g., Fundamentals of Social and Cultural Anthropology or Introduction to Social Psychology).

Breadth Course Learning Goals

  • Students will learn the range of topics of interest to a discipline.
  • Students will learn the foundational theoretical paradigms in a discipline.
  • Students will learn the types of research methods and strategies used in a discipline.
  • Students will learn to identify factors that produce social patterns of interest to a discipline.

Depth: Investigating a Substantive Topic through the Lens of a Social Science Discipline

A selection of courses in departments, although focused on specific topics rather than broad introductions, are still organized in a way that effectively demonstrates a discipline’s approach and develops students’ confidence in bringing theory and evidence to bear on a particular subject. These courses teach students both the what and the how of that particular social science, focusing more broadly than on methods alone. Put another way, students complete these courses with as much an understanding of the discipline’s theoretical and methodological approaches as they have of the specific topic the course is organized around. Many social science University Seminars satisfy this requirement.

Depth Course Learning Goals

  • Students will learn the theoretical and methodological approaches of a discipline.
  • Students will learn how the discipline defines problems and the tools it uses to understand and illuminate a particular topic in depth.
  • Students will learn the applications of social science to actual cultures, people, processes, or institutions with which it is concerned rather than only theory or method.
  • Students will learn to integrate empirically based information from diverse lines of evidence to illuminate disciplinary theories and concerns.