I’m not a native English speaker and want to get a better grip on the nuances of the term science.

In my native tongue, the word I’d use for science also refers to humanities and the social sciences. However, I’ve lately been getting the feeling that some people use the term only to refer to the natural sciences (case in point: the S in STEM). With scientist referring to academics working in the natural sciences, and scholar more to academics in the humanities and social sciences.

Is my intuition correct? If so, is there an umbrella term describe everything from social science over STEM to law and what not?

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    My best understanding is that the words science/Wissenschaft/наука are just direct translations of each other, but concepts behind them have diverged over time. English "science" does not include the humanities, but the corresponding terms in many other languages do. Furthermore, an unqualified "science" often refers just to the natural sciences (sometimes including psychology), as in "Faculty of Science". Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 12:51
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    Thanks @JouniSirén. Is there a term in English that does include the humanities, like Wissenschaft does?
    – Vincent
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 13:11
  • There is no such term, as far as I know. In fact, I am not aware of any language that has good translations for both "science" and "Wissenschaft". Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 13:22
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    Unfortunately, the term "science" in English means depending on context either (a) all Wissenschaft or (b) Naturwissenschaft or (c) Sozail und Naturwissenschaft... No way around this. But in the acronym STEM it means Naturwissenschaft. For native speakers, we decipher / ascertain intended use based on context.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 14:00
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    Relevant XKCD Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 23:58

4 Answers 4


The term "science" in English definitely does not include the humanities. There are ambiguous cases, where it is unclear how to draw the line between humanities and social sciences, but for example literature is never considered a science. If you wish to include the humanities, then you must use a broader term.

Social sciences are a little trickier. At one level, they are obviously sciences: it's even part of their name! On the other hand, people sometimes use the term "science" as shorthand for the hard sciences, without meaning to include the social sciences. This means you are welcome to use the term inclusively, but you shouldn't expect that it always includes the social sciences when you hear other people using it. If this distinction matters, then you'll need to discuss it explicitly.

It's worth noting that there are a lot of other things that don't fall under "science" in English, besides the humanities. For example, engineering has some overlap with science, but engineering fields are usually not classified by universities under the sciences, and references to science will not be understood to include engineering. (This is one reason the term STEM is popular: it's the shortest way to refer to both science and engineering in English.)

If so, is there an umbrella term describe everything from social science over STEM to law and what not?

Unfortunately, I don't think there is. (Maybe there are obscure terms out there, but there certainly isn't one that is widely used and understood.) You could use broad phrases like "all academic disciplines" if you really want to include everyone, but there is not a specific term like "science" for this.

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    Thank you. Apparently what is considered the correct use also differs per field - as might not have been unexpected, in hindsight. One further question though: would you then consider "scientific publishing" to only refer to the publishing or articles in the hard sciences? And if so, how would the publishing of research in literature or engineering be referred to?
    – Vincent
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 14:32
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    "At one level, they are obviously sciences: it's even part of their name!" That isn't necessarily obvious. There's an old joke that if it has "Science" as part of its name, it isn't. Creation Science is an obvious counter example. Computer Science is disputable. Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 7:09
  • I think in most contexts I would understand "academic disciplines" as excluding "professional disciplines" like law. "Arts and Sciences" is another good phrase that similarly includes sciences and humanities, but not law. Commented Jun 21, 2016 at 7:38

Merriam–Webster definition of science reads (reflecting my experience with the usage of the term):

1 : the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding

2a : a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study the ‹science of theology›
  b : something (as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge ‹have it down to a science›

3a : knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method
  b : such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena : natural science


So, science can refer just to the natural sciences (3b); include every discipline invested in the discovery of knowledge, i.e., natural sciences, social sciences, formal sciences , and so on; (3a) or have an even broader scope and include such things as theology (2a).

The only way to know how narrow the term science is meant to be understood is usually from context. To exacerbate matters, some people (usually natural scientists) insist that science always is meant to be understood in the sense of definition 3b, even if it is not clear from context. In my opinion, this renders the word science almost useless for purposes of categorising academic fields, as you can never rely on it being understood as intended.

is there an umbrella term describe everything from social science over STEM to law and what not?

I am not aware of a term that precisely covers this but in many cases one of the following terms may suffice:

  • science (in the broader sense)
  • academic field or all academic fields

Humanities cover everything that is not a "hard science" such arts and social sciences, as well as other fields, like history. The S in "STEM" is used to refer to "hard science"

Social sciences include fields that use empirical methods to consider society and human behavior, such as anthropology, archaeology, economics, education, geography, law, political science, psychology and sociology.

Some humanities are social sciences and some are not. The term "science" does encompass social sciences but does not include all humanities.

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    Sorry, perhaps my question was unclear (I had a hard time formulating it). I know what the humanities and social sciences are, but are they generally considered "part of" science, or does science just refer to the "hard" sciences? And if there not part of science, what are they part of?
    – Vincent
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 11:56
  • You seem to be subsuming the social sciences under the humanities label. You may want to flag this usage as being at least somewhat idiosyncratic. To assign law to the social sciences is also, well, not uncontroversial.
    – Mico
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 21:19
  • Oh that's not what I meant at all! Humanities and social sciences are just examples of "not hard sciences".
    – Vincent
    Commented Jun 20, 2016 at 9:19

Does the term "science" include the humanities?



Does the term "science" include the social sciences (sociology/economics)?

If you ask the physics department, no.

If you ask the economics department, yes.

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    Could you please provide some justification for your assertions?
    – jakebeal
    Commented Jun 19, 2016 at 23:09

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