Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Social sciences

by Peter Clayworth

People have always been fascinated by other people. In the 20th century this fascination manifested in many new academic disciplines.

Forerunners of the social sciences

Social sciences are scientific studies of human society and behaviour. They include sociology, psychology, social anthropology, human geography, demography (the study of human population statistics), political science and education. Some aspects of economics might also be considered social science.

New name for a new science

In 1859 the editor of the Nelson Examiner wrote, ‘Our own mother country still remains, par excellence, the country of associations – political, scientific, social, moral, and religious … Of late years this national propensity has shown itself especially in the pursuit of social questions, and a new name has been coined to express them, sociology, or an inquiry into all the circumstances which affect the well-being of man, considered as a social animal, physically and morally.’1

Social-science pioneers

New Zealand’s social sciences were not formally established until the 20th century, but there were many pioneering studies. Pākehā explorers, missionaries, traders, surveyors and settlers wrote accounts of Māori society and behaviour. These were generally observations, individual interviews and collections of artefacts. Ethnology was discussed at philosophical institutes and was the focus of the Polynesian Society, established in 1892.

In the 1850s Arthur Saunders Thomson, an army surgeon, studied the illness and death rates among British soldiers stationed in New Zealand. He expanded these studies to investigate Māori disease rates and living conditions. Thomson’s statistical analysis was an attempt to apply scientific methods to the study of human populations. He included some of this material in his Story of New Zealand (1859). Later history books also included material on New Zealand’s social system, in particular William Pember Reeves’s Long white cloud (1898).

The increase in the number of welfare and health professionals in the late 19th century led to an increase in social research. Civil servants promoting social research included:

  • Edward Tregear, Labour Department secretary
  • Duncan MacGregor, inspector general of hospitals
  • George Hogben at the Department of Education
  • Grace Neill, an inspector of factories and of hospitals.

During the 1890s and 1900s New Zealand was the focus of studies by overseas visitors, including Beatrice and Sydney Webb from Britain, Henry Demarest Lloyd from the USA and Frenchmen Albert Métin and André Siegfried.

An early work of sociology

Perhaps the earliest New Zealand book to use the term ‘sociology’ was James Pope’s The state: rudiments of New Zealand sociology, published in 1887. Pope wrote the book for senior pupils of native schools (an early system of primary schools for Māori) although it was suggested it might have been more suitable for university undergraduates. The state was more of a civics textbook, describing the rights and duties of citizens, than a study of how New Zealand society worked.

Government data collection

In 1840 the new colonial government began collecting population statistics with the compilation of ‘blue books’. They contained figures on population, trade and government expenditure. From 1851 there was a regular census of the Pākehā population, and in 1857–58 a census of the Māori population. From 1874 there was a regular census of the Māori population. Through the century both the powers of the state and the services it provided expanded, making it necessary for the state to collect more social information.

During the 1870s the state began to collect economic data on exports, imports, bankruptcies, unions and industrial disputes. From 1893 official information from statistics was collected in government yearbooks including occasional articles on issues such as birth, death and marriage rates, adoption, divorce, education and crime. The Department of Labour, set up in 1891, became responsible for collecting industrial and employment statistics. In 1915 the government statistician published a report on the cost of living from 1891 to 1914. Specially appointed bodies such as the 1890 Royal Commission on Sweating (work in poor conditions for low pay), the 1912 Education Commission and the 1918 report of the Board of Trade into the coal industry investigated particular aspects of New Zealand society.

    • Nelson Examiner, 26 January 1859, p. 2. Back

Early 20th century

Social Science Research Bureau

The Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), a non-governmental organisation established in the US in 1925, encouraged social science research in the Pacific. After several attempts, a New Zealand IPR committee was set up in 1935, and was particularly interested in studying standards of living. The IPR helped persuade Dan Sullivan, minister in charge of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), to establish the DSIR Social Science Research Bureau (SSRB) in 1937.

The SSRB, headed by economist William Torrance Doig, researched the standards of living of dairy farming families. This was followed by urban studies of boot-makers and tramway workers. Minister of Health Peter Fraser blocked the report on dairy farmers, considering it damaging to the government. The report was finally released in 1940 but the other studies were never published. The SSRB was closed down in July 1940.

Nothing to do with the government?

Researchers for the Social Science Research Bureau travelled the backblocks of New Zealand interviewing dairy farmers and their families. Researcher W. J. Young reported, ‘I am constantly told, “Well as long as you have nothing to do with the Government I will help you, but mind, if it is anything connected with the Government you can get out.” If the car bore a Government plate … I could not get interviews.’1

Industrial Psychology Division

In 1942 the government set up the DSIR Industrial Psychology Division, headed by English psychologist Leslie Hearnshaw. The division researched a range of issues in munitions factories, including absenteeism, the role of female workers and worker response to lighting, heating and ventilation. In 1948 most of the division’s staff were transferred to the Department of Labour. The DSIR section was renamed the Occupational Psychology Research Section, but closed down in 1954.

Music while you work

For seven months in 1944–45 the Industrial Psychology Division carried out a musical experiment in munitions factories (which were mostly staffed by women). They found production increased when music was played. The women were vocal about which music they liked, guaranteeing they got tunes they approved of. The preferences were for the popular tunes of the day – Bing Crosby, Vera Lynn, dance music, jazz and light waltzes. The younger women favoured the popular tunes, while older women preferred the light music. Strauss waltzes were universally popular.

Social-science education

In 1907 Thomas Hunter set up New Zealand’s first psychology laboratory at Victoria University College in Wellington. The Victoria Senate did not recognise experimental psychology as a formal subject until 1916.

All the university colleges taught education courses, involving aspects of social science. In 1923 James Shelley, education professor at Canterbury College, set up a psychological laboratory with Clarence Beeby as his research assistant. They worked on industrial and educational psychology.

H. D. Skinner was appointed lecturer in anthropology at Otago University in 1919. In 1930 Henry Ferguson became lecturer in experimental psychology. His research included studying the causes of road accidents.

Psychology and anthropology

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s researchers turned their attention to the transition of Māori into the ‘modern’ world. Psychologist Ivan Sutherland edited the landmark work The Maori people today, published in 1940. Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole studied the Māori community at Ōtaki, using ethnopsychology, a combination of psychology and anthropology. In the 1930s Otago University students carried out a series of social and health studies of Māori communities based on the work of Harold Turbott.

The New Zealand Council for Educational Research

The New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) was established in 1934, with Clarence Beeby as its first director. NZCER research included a range of transition studies on apprenticeships, vocational guidance, movement from school to work, transition from school to university and vocations for young Māori. The NZCER also conducted studies on rural schools and community centres in Rangiora and Feilding. Most of the research was carried out by local school teachers or community workers, rather than professional researchers.


The most significant NZCER project was Crawford and Gwen Somerset’s community study into the rural area of Oxford in North Canterbury, dubbed ‘Littledene’ in the report. This was based on a study of Muncie, Indiana, by US sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, who described the work in their book Middletown: a study in modern American culture (1929).

The Somersets’ report was published in 1938 as Littledene, and was a pioneering work in New Zealand social-science research. The Somersets found that the men and women of Littledene were involved in a wide range of community groups, despite their heavy workloads. The study also found that education for children and adults played an important role in the social life of the rural community.

    • J. H. Robb, The life and death of official social research in New Zealand: 1936–1940. Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington, 1987, p. 35. Back

Foundation and growth, 1945 to 1970s

Teaching social science

Teaching began at Victoria University College’s School of Social Sciences in 1950. Initially the school’s main focus was training social workers. The name ‘social sciences’ is said to have been adopted to avoid government suspicion of social work. Sociology was not introduced as a general BA subject until 1957. Ernest Beaglehole, professor of psychology from 1948, encouraged crossover work between psychology, sociology and anthropology.

Crawford Somerset taught at Victoria’s education department from 1948 to 1962, bringing a strong interest in educational sociology.

At Canterbury University College the psychology department began teaching sociology in 1958. Industrial or organisational psychology, studying behaviour in the workplace, had been taught since 1951.

Sociology and socialising

In his inaugural address Victoria University’s newly appointed professor of social work, D. C. Marsh, illustrated the general ignorance that surrounded sociology. He spoke of a student who enrolled in a sociology course because he thought it involved organising activities such as dances.

The Carnegie Corporation grant

New Zealand social sciences received a significant boost in 1953 with a Carnegie Corporation grant of US$60,000. This was to be spread over five years and split between Auckland, Victoria, Canterbury and Otago university colleges. The resulting studies during the 1950s included:

  • a series of studies on Māori communities around ‘Rakau’ (Murupara) by researchers including James and Jane Ritchie
  • Joan Metge’s work on urban and rural Māori
  • John Rangihau’s study of Tūhoe communities
  • studies of adolescents and older people
  • studies of divorce
  • community studies of the Clutha hydro-dam workers community and of the Hāwera area.

Building capacity

Over the 1950s and 1960s Victoria University built up a cohort of social scientists. Students from the social-work training programme were encouraged to carry out research, with a particular emphasis on public surveys. In the 1960s and 1970s researchers at Canterbury University such as Richard Thompson carried out studies of race relations.

During this period sociology became firmly established in New Zealand universities. Jim Robb was appointed the first professor of sociology at Victoria in 1966. By 1971 Victoria, Auckland, Waikato, Canterbury and Massey all had sociology courses and chairs of sociology. Victoria’s social science capacity was increased in 1974 with the establishment of the Institute of Criminology.

In Victoria’s geography department, Professor Keith Buchanan and his successor Harvey Franklin concentrated on human geography. Kenneth Cumberland of Auckland University also made significant contributions to this discipline.

The fuss over The fern and the tiki

Social psychologist David Ausubel came to New Zealand on a Fulbright scholarship in 1957–58. The book that resulted from studies during his visit, The fern and the tiki, caused outrage in New Zealand. Ausubel criticised New Zealanders’ characters, social values, drinking habits and child-rearing methods He accused Pākehā of racism against Māori and smugness about their own supposedly enlightened attitudes. New Zealanders did not react well to being judged by an American, especially one who was also a social scientist.

Sociology’s ‘golden age’

During the period of social change from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, student interest in the social sciences boomed. Sociology in particular had large numbers of undergraduate students. The universities faced difficulties with inadequate staff numbers and high staff turnover. By the mid-1970s these problems were largely overcome. Sociology entered something of a golden age which continued until the 1990s.

Student numbers declined, but the quality of teaching and research improved. Despite some American influences, New Zealand sociology largely followed British models. Many of the sociologists appointed in the 1970s came from the UK. Research from the 1960s to the 1980s was dominated by community surveys, usually carried out by senior students. Among the topics covered were:

  • racial attitudes and migration
  • social stratification
  • family structures, child rearing and educational sociology
  • community studies.

Associations of social scientists

The increasing numbers of social scientists led to the creation of professional associations. In 1947 psychologists formed a New Zealand Branch of the British Psychological Society, which became the New Zealand Psychological Society in 1967.

In 1963 Australasian sociologists formed their own society. New Zealand sociologists later set up a local branch of the Australasian society. In 1988 the independent Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (SAANZ) was formed. Such groups enabled New Zealand social scientists to organise conferences, publish journals and promote their professional interests.

Social science in the community

Social research by government agencies

In the years after 1945 society was seen as becoming more complex. There was a degree of acceptance that government intervention could solve social problems. This brought increased government social research, collecting information to develop social policy. In the 1950s and 1960s small social research sections were added to the departments of Labour, Justice and Education.

There was increased concern over teenagers’ behaviour and juvenile offending, reflected in the 1954 Mazengarb report (the published results of an investigation into juvenile delinquency). In 1958 a Joint Committee on Youth Offending was established, involving researchers from different government departments.

The 1976 Task Force on Economic and Social Planning highlighted gaps in social research, one of the factors in establishing the New Zealand Planning Council (NZPC) in 1977.

During the 1970s and early 1980s the Town and Country Planning Division of the Ministry of Works carried out social research in the planning processes for large projects. This became more formalised in the late 1970s, with the first comprehensive social-impact monitoring assessment, carried out for the Huntly thermal power project.

Social science, class and Truth

In 1946 educational psychologist Athol Congalton investigated the degree to which a group of secondary-school boys were aware of social-class divisions. He concluded that they, and New Zealanders in general, did have some idea of a system of social classes. This view proved controversial, with the newspaper Truth describing Congalton’s study as ‘a new snooping level in its pernicious probe into the private affairs of the people.’1

Social indicators research

Social indicators research uses a range of statistics, including health, education and crime figures, to understand social changes. In 1976 the Department of Statistics set up a Social Indicators Unit. They published Social trends in New Zealand (1977), compiled from pre-existing data, and carried out a one-off social indicators survey in 1980. Social indicators research went into a 20-year hiatus but was revived in the 2000s.

The New Zealand Planning Council set up the Social Monitoring Group (SMG). The SMG carried out social indicators research and published the report From birth to death, intended to document social trends over time. The SMG produced a series of four more reports from 1989 to 2003.

Social research and the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s

Throughout the 1980s a wide range of social research was carried out by government agencies including the Housing Commission, Department of Labour, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Transport, Department of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Works and Development and Department of Social Welfare.

The economic reforms of the Labour government of 1984–90 had major social impacts. In 1986 the government established a Royal Commission on Social Policy to examine social conditions and recommend appropriate social policy. The Royal Commission’s report involved a considerable body of social research. When released the report was heavily criticised for its variable quality, range of views and lack of organisation. It appears to have had only limited influence on government policy.

In the late 1980s and the 1990s there was a move away from government social research, including social indicator research. This reflected a lack of interest in social research by Treasury and the economic theorists whose ideas drove the reforms.

The Labour government of 1999–2008 placed emphasis on state intervention to promote social wellbeing and reduce social exclusion. This required more social research to determine the causes of social problems and effectiveness of government programmes. The Ministry of Social Development, created in 2001, had a Centre for Social Research and Evaluation. The Families Commission, a stand-alone Crown entity renamed Superu (Social Policy and Research Unit) in 2014, carried out many small-scale, strategic studies. Some social scientists formed their own businesses to carry out contract research for government departments and local and regional governments.

Social research by non-government agencies

The New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) continued to carry out social research. It was made a statutory body in 1945. It remained an independent body funded through research contracts and purchase agreements with government.

In 1958 the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) was established as a non-profit incorporated society. The NZIER had a team of economists, some of whom carried out social research.

A number of church-based groups including Anglican Social Services (the Family Centre Social Policy Research Unit), the Salvation Army, and the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services carried out social research. With the impact of the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s this research was mainly focused on poverty, socially vulnerable groups and the increasing inequality in New Zealand society.

    • Athol A. Congalton. Social class consciousness in adolescents. Wellington: Victoria University College, Department of Psychology, 1952, p. 13. Back

New developments

Women’s studies

From the 1960s the social sciences were influenced by political and social changes, and new university disciplines were created. In 1966 a group of women volunteers set up the Society for Research on Women. Concerned over the lack of information on women in society they carried out surveys and other studies, combining activism with research. In 1974 Rosemary Seymour pioneered the teaching of women’s studies at the sociology department of Waikato University. Waikato established a women’s studies degree, with universities around the country following suit. Seymour was also involved in setting up the Women’s Studies Association in 1984.

Māori, Pacific and indigenous studies

Māori activism grew in the 1970s and 1980s, along with increased Māori participation in tertiary education. Over this period universities began to create independent Māori studies departments. This was to some extent a response to Māori demands for a leading role in research concerning Māori. Similar demands from Pasifika students and activists led some universities to create departments of Pacific Island studies. In the 2000s some institutions had indigenous studies departments covering Māori, Pacific Island and other indigenous people.

Ethnicity and migration

In the 1970s and 1980s Cluny Macpherson, David Pearson and Paul Spoonley began studying ethnic groups and migration. Spoonley went on to lead the Integration of Immigrants Programme, studying the way immigrants were absorbed into New Zealand society. As a general trend, from the mid-1980s social scientists in New Zealand concentrated more on ethnicity than class as a basis for studies of inequality and social differences.

Class and inequality

In the 1970s Marxist ideas had some influence on New Zealand sociology, but played a fairly limited role compared to the ideas of Max Weber. The 1980s did, however, see studies on the various forms of inequality existing in New Zealand, including those by David Pitts, David Pearson, David Thorns, Bev James and Kay Saville-Smith. The neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s led to studies of the impact of resulting unemployment and increased inequality. Poverty and inequality re-emerged as major issues in the 2010s.

Longitudinal studies

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries New Zealand researchers conducted a series of longitudinal studies, following the development of a cohort of people from early childhood through their lives. The first studies were in Dunedin with children born between 1967 and 1973 and in Christchurch with children born in 1977. They began largely as medical research, but came to involve a substantial social research component. A range of other longitudinal studies have been started including studies on Māori development, migrants, ageing and older people.

Social science in the universities: the 2000s

In the 2000s aspects of social science were taught in all of New Zealand’s universities, with many of the individual disciplines incorporated into wider schools of social science. The universities all taught psychology, but this generally remained in separate departments. Criminology was taught at Victoria, Canterbury and Auckland universities and Auckland University of Technology (AUT). Some academics expressed concern that combined schools of social science had less emphasis on teaching the theoretical basis of core subjects such as sociology.

The introduction of the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) in 2003 encouraged academics to publish more journal articles. Some critics argued this was largely aimed at overseas publication, adding little to greater understanding of New Zealand society and social change. In 2003 the government funded the BRCSS network (Building Research Capability in the Social Sciences), enhancing the social science research capability across the universities. Digital technology increased the capacity for collecting and analysing social statistics, but in the 2010s only a few social scientists were involved in such studies.

Acknowledgements to Charles Crothers

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Peter Clayworth, 'Social sciences', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Peter Clayworth, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014, updated 1 o Hune 2015