The Human Sciences

Essential Question

What are the limitations of the human sciences as an area of knowledge?


  • Observer effect: people act differently when they are being study
  • This is one way in which experiments in the human sciences are not as accurate as those in the natural sciences
  • I found a study known as the Hawthorne experiment
  • Researchers were trying to determine the effects of physical conditions on productivity by studying groups of workers at the Hawthorne Factory
  • The positive results they got were actually due to the observer effect, not because the improved conditions increased productivity


While the human sciences are useful in studying human behavior in a systematic way, they can be limited in that humans tend to act differently when observed. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, sociologist Elton Mayo conducted a series of experiments on industrial workers at Hawthorne factory to determine the effects of physical conditions on productivity. When lighting for one group of workers was significantly brightened, the group with the brighter lights were much more productive than the control group, and the same was found when other aspects of the workers’ conditions were altered. However, when the original group's conditions were changed back, the productivity rate remained the same, leading Mayo to conclude that the physical changes were not responsible for the changes in productivity. In fact, this change was due to the observer effect, a common limitation of human science experiments. When the workers were being observed by researchers, they were motivated to work harder, regardless of the conditions. In fact, after the research teams left, the production rates dropped back to what they originally were, supporting the idea that humans act differently when observed. Therefore, it is necessary for a human scientist to be cognizant of the way in which this limitation, the observer effect, may skew the results of an experiment. Unlike in natural sciences, where the observations of a researcher are unknown to the subject, in human sciences, the test subjects can be greatly influenced by the knowledge that they are being observed. Thus, the observer effect provides a significant limitation in the area of knowledge human sciences.

Progress Journal

4/11/17. Today I read several of the elective readings for the human sciences but the one I found most interesting was “Soft Sciences Are Often Harder Than Hard Sciences” by Jared Diamond. This article discusses the ongoing conflict between the human and natural sciences, with natural scientists often regarding the work of human scientists as inaccurate or unscientific. The question this debate is asking is “Do the so-called soft sciences, like political science and psychology, really constitute science at all, and do they deserve to stand beside 'hard sciences,' like chemistry and physics?” After reading this article, I would definitely consider the human sciences ‘real’ sciences. It is true that they have limitations that are not necessarily experienced in the natural sciences, but the experiments still follow the scientific method and find useful results. By using the human sciences, one can learn a lot more about human behavior than through simple common sense.

4/13/17. I am very interested in the limitations of the human sciences and think I am going to write a paragraph on that. Some specific limitations are problems defining laws or predicting future occurrences, since human behavior is unpredictable. It is also difficult to study humans scientifically since people act differently when observed, the measurement of social behavior is often subjective, and ethical considerations are obstacles. I am most interested in the observer effect and how that can alter results and has done so in the past.

4/15/17. I think that I did a much better job on this paragraph than the previous one. While the quality of writing is about the same, as well as the knowledge question, what really sets this one apart is the real life situation. My previous real life situation was very general and thus I was not able to connect it well to the question. This time, I used a specific real life situation from one study and connected it clearly to the question to create a good analysis.

Extension Proposal

I think the following question should be added to the list of knowledge questions for this AOK:

To what extent is reason useful in the human sciences?

This would be a good question to add because although the actions of humans are unpredictable on a small scale, on a larger scale it may be possible to make accurate predictions. This is what fields such as anthropology and economics attempt to do. It would be interesting to look into how effective reason is when dealing with the human sciences.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.