Donald Hay

What does it mean to be human? Christian and social scientific understandings of human beings in society

Across the range of disciplines in the Social Sciences, there is a variety of conceptions of what it is to be a human being. These might be thought to be more or less satisfactory, partly in their use as social constructs within each discipline, and more widely in understanding human beings generally. This is a matter of considerable importance. In explaining and modelling human behaviour in a societal context, an understanding that is defective or too narrow could lead to errors in both the models and the explanations advanced. Moreover, though this is not the main focus of this paper, understandings of human nature are often implicitly normative: that is, they provide a framework within which issues of human flourishing may be addressed, and hence the basis for wider evaluations of social and economic arrangements. The purpose of this paper is to explore the main conceptions of humanity in the social sciences, as currently practised.  

The paper is organised into five sections that follow. The first section offers a summary review of theological understandings of human beings in society. This is followed by three sections that address mainstream approaches in the social sciences: evolutionary psychology, rational choice theory, and social theory. Each section outlines the salient features of the approach, before indicating the convergence or divergence between the social scientific approach and theological understandings. A fifth section explores the theme of personhood as proposed by Christian Smith, an account that draws on sociological insights, but suggests a more robust understanding of human beings as agents, rather than just socially constructed actors.

Claire Shuttleworth