Human Sciences Tok Essay Topics


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So how do we know? TOK website for IB students.


Within the Theory of Knowledge course, you will explore knowledge questions related to one or more 'areas of knowledge'. These 'areas of knowledge' are fields of study in which we try to gain knowledge through the ways of knowing. The areas of knowledge roughly correspond with the groups of study within the IB programme, even though there are some additional realms of knowledge such as ethics, religion and indigenous knowledge which are relevant to TOK. Within your TOK classes, you will also explore boundaries and overlaps between different areas of knowledge. The knowledge frameworks are useful tools to analyse the historical development, language, methodology and scope of each area of knowledge. Given that we need to make links between different areas of knowledge, it is not advisable to discuss areas of knowledge in complete isolation. The articles and links immediately below are indeed examples of real life situations which touch upon TOK questions in a range of areas of knowledge. For practical purposes, however, I have organised the resources per area of knowledge on the remainder of this web page. It is up to you to explore them and make further links between areas of knowledge and ways of knowing. Doing so, will hopefully inspire you to develop interesting knowledge questions, which form the basis of TOK assessment. This page will discuss human sciences as an area of knowledge.

​Knowledge frameworks, knowledge questions and topics of study (TOK guide 2015)

Relevant possible essay questions:

  • Is explanation a prerequisite for prediction? Explore this question in relation to two areas of knowledge. (November 2015)
  •  “Without the group to verify it, knowledge is not possible.” Discuss. (November 2015)
  • “In some areas of knowledge we try to reduce a complex whole to simple components, but in others we try to integrate simple components into a complex whole.” Discuss this distinction with reference to two areas of knowledge. (November 2015)
  • “Ways of knowing are a check on our instinctive judgements.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (May 2015)
  • With reference to two areas of knowledge discuss the way in which shared knowledge can shape personal knowledge. (May 2015)
  • “There are only two ways in which humankind can produce knowledge: through passive observation or through active experiment.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? (May 2015)
  • There is no such thing as a neutral question. Evaluate this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge. (May 2015)
  • “The possession of knowledge confers privilege.” To what extent is this an accurate claim? (Specimen 2015)
  • “All knowledge depends on the recognition of patterns and anomalies.” Consider the extent to which you agree with this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge. (Specimen 2015)
  • To what extent are areas of knowledge shaped by their past? Consider with reference to two areas of knowledge. (Specimen 2015)
  • "Without application in the world, the value of knowledge is greatly diminished." Consider this claim with respect to two areas of knowledge. (May 2016)
  • "The knower's perspective is essential in the pursuit of knowledge." To what extent do you agree? (May 2016)
  • "In knowledge there is always a trade-off between accuracy and simplicity." Evaluate this statement in relation to two areas of knowledge. (May 2016)
  • “Error is as valuable as accuracy in the production of knowledge.” To what extent is this the case in two areas of knowledge? (November 2016)
  • “Conflicting knowledge claims always involve a difference in perspective.” Discuss with reference to two areas of knowledge.(November 2016)
  • Is the availability of more data always helpful in the production of knowledge? Explore this question with reference to two areas of knowledge. (November 2016)

Human sciences

Human sciences aim to research, discover and describe human beings either as a group, or as individuals. Human sciences aim to do this in a scientific and objective manner. Even though much has been discovered in this field, it remains difficult to fully understand human beings. Current methodology in human sciences may seem sophisticated, yet we could question to which extent we can study human beings in a scientific manner. Human scientists may be faced with bias on the part of the researcher as well as the object of research. Anthropologists may be unable to access the way people of different knowledge communities know due to linguistic difficulties or due to their own biased cultural memories. A sociologist may face ethical dilemmas when conducting experiments. The results of the Milgram experiment (60's), for example, where ground breaking, but would we still be able to justify its ethics if the experiment was to be conducted in 2013? A well meaning psychologist needs to be wary of observation bias and participants of psychological experiments may behave differently when they are observed (think of how reality TV affects the participants' behaviour). Economists may gather data and use complicated formulas, but to which extent can we use a certain model to do economic forecasting? Human sciences may discover trends rather than laws and there is much room for error. In Theory of Knowledge, we question how we know in human science and we aim to discover how the Ways of Knowing play a role in these sciences. We also analyse how human sciences compare with natural sciences.


A psychologist aims to understand human behaviour. Psychologists use a range of methods to investigate how and why we feel, think, speak, react and behave the way we do. Human beings are complex creatures and it is not always easy to find out more about ourselves. There are different branches of psychology with different aims and research methods. Methods range, amongst others, from laboratory experiments or natural experiments, to questionnaires and interviews. Statistics and mathematical calculations may reflect the characteristics of a sample of behaviour, yet we should be careful with hasty generalisations. When it comes to interviews or questionnaires, the language used in a poll will influence its outcomes. The use of closed questions as well, could lead to a biased outcome of an enquiry. At the same time, expectations may also influence the outcome of research. A good psychologist takes this into account when searching for knowledge. The historical development of psychology as a discipline demonstrates how the methodology psychologists have used to gain knowledge (and to treat patients) has changed dramatically over the years. The validity of methods or hypothesis is continually put to the test. Most people will have heard about Freud, but much of what he 'discovered' has been discarded today. Some of the most interesting psychological experiments conducted in history touch upon dubious ethical grounds. Ivan Pavlov (heard of Pavlov's dog?), for example, used methods to research conditioning which many contemporary human scientists consider unethical. Given that the object of research of a human scientist is, indeed, a human being, there are limits to the methods which we can ethically use to gain knowledge in this field. This makes human sciences, to some extent, different from natural sciences. We breed fruit flies to check genetic mutations with no one blinking an eye, for example. Then again, throughout history, ethical constraints have also limited the natural scientists' methods in the search for knowledge. We could not get away so easily with breeding humans to check DNA mutations and stem cell research is still very controversial. One could also argue that psychology should be classified as a natural science rather than a human science. A neuroscientist, for example, will use the scientific method to gain knowledge about cognition. So, how do human sciences differ from natural sciences?  And what about the other disciplines that research cognition? Is cognitive linguistics a science? Or does it belong to the field of linguistics? In Theory of Knowledge, you will explore the boundaries between areas of knowledge. You will research the history of and paradigm shifts within psychology. You will also discover how ways of knowing limit or aid the search of knowledge in psychology. We have seen that emotions, memory and language are way of knowing, or tools to search for knowledge. These ways of knowing are also important objects of study in psychology. Finally, in your TOK classes, you will consider ethical implications and restrictions which pertain to the field of psychology.

TOK lesson on psychology as a human science

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The Milgram experiment is one of the most talked about sociological experiments. One could question the ethics and methodology of the experiment. However, its mind blowing results undoubtedly changed many preconceptions regarding human behaviour. The experiment 'popularised' Arendt's concept of 'the banality of evil' and ordinary citizens became acutely aware of the dangers of authority worship. The WWII victors liked to believe that the holocaust could only have happened in a country like Germany; that German people are inherently drawn towards the Nazi atrocities. The Milgram experiment discarded such notions. Remakes of the experiment and other related sociological experiments have highlighted how human beings are quite willing to give up their personal morality in order to obey authority. The Stanford prison experiment by Zimbardo pointed out how 'normal' citizens are willing to resort to cruelty if the situation provides a platform for the latter. But how can we truly know how we behave as a group in a given situation? Can we use models based on experiments to predict human behaviour? Is our group behaviour shaped by nature or nurture? Or both? Do we have any free will?

sociological documentary on the 'five steps to tyranny'

The Milgram experiment 

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Using mathematical language to explain human phenomena and behaviour

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 A brilliant documentary on the self, happiness machines

Mr flynn's lecture on Freud, one of the founders of psychology

psychological treatment: a matter of natural science? Interesting real life situation which may lead to knowledge questions



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