Social science examines the institutions and functioning of human society and the relationships of individuals within society, which includes the study of sociology, psychology, and economics. Anthropology and history are sometimes categorized under the social sciences. Social sciences were not formally studied as such until the late nineteenth century, but scholars and writers as far back as the ancient Egyptian period made observations about cultures and society and recorded historic events.
The ancient Egyptian's basic understanding of society was that order and prosperity depended on obedience to the pharaoh and the preservation of Ma'at, or balance. Egyptian texts describe the importance of social norms as related to class and rank; they believed that if a poor man received a fortune, it was not a blessing but a sign that something was wrong.
Beginning in the Old Kingdom, guides for social interaction and moral behavior were passed down from pharaohs, princes, and viziers to their sons in a form commonly called "wisdom literature." These texts mainly offered advice about how to attain a high office and prosper. They encouraged the virtues of calmness, modesty, and restraint. In the First Intermediate period, a particularly troubled time, "The Instruction of King Merkare" appears to have been written by a ruler who is preoccupied with imparting a code of conduct despite his cynicism about the treachery of the human species. By the New Kingdom, wisdom literature was usually written by scribes for a more general audience.
The wisdom literature also served as a legal guide, reminding pharaohs how those who ruled before them had decided similar issues. While laws were ultimately handed down from the pharaoh, precedent was important to the ancient Egyptians. Manuscripts about judicial cases that spanned several reigns give evidence that records about legal proceedings were probably stored in a central archive over long periods of time.
Scribes documented the many aspects of their society because they needed the information to be effective managers. Scribes kept short records, accounts, certificates, inventories, legal documents, work attendance, and wages paid. Other documents that have been found include regulations, court proceedings, records of private contracts, loans, financial arrangements between spouses, inheritance, and taxes. Papyri found in some pyramid temples list priests on duty, records of offerings, accounts, and inventories. As students, scribes copied a variety of texts and were exposed to foreign words, articles of trade, and religious feasts in addition to literary texts and mathematics.
The ancient Egyptians made few historical accounts. The Palermo Stone, from the Old Kingdom, lists predynastic and Old Kingdom kings, annual flood levels, dates of military and commercial expeditions, and other important events. Around the Twelfth Dynasty, literary works in praise of various kings began to appear. Closer to propaganda than accurate accounts, these texts glorified the king's achievements. The Turin Canon, another list of kings, is dated to the New Kingdom.
Herodotus, considered by some to be the world's first historian, visited Egypt in the fifth century BC. He described the geography of the nation, the Nile, and many of their archaeological monuments. He also described the Egyptians' manners and customs. In the third century BC, a priest named Manetho wrote a history of Egypt based on ancient records. Only brief excerpts of this work have been found.
The Roman scholar Strabo wrote about Egypt in his "Geography." He describes the Roman government, military, legislature, and social conditions under Augustus around 22 AD. Early Christian writers described Egyptian social beliefs and customs, especially in regard to religion, but this was mainly as a tool for exposing their falseness rather than as a means for greater understanding.
Prominent Islamic scholars covered many topics related to the functioning of society in Egypt. The tenth-century scholar Al-Muqaddasi described the population, social groups, diets, clothing, dialects, commerce, currencies, and the political situation in Egypt, among other countries. In an account intended as a guide for merchants, travelers, and people of culture, he remarked on the use of the Nilometer to compare flood levels against the prior year, and the low prices to be found in Cairo. In the fourteenth century AD, the historian Ibn Khaldun left Tunis for Egypt, where he spent the rest of his life. Ibn Khaldun is credited with being the first scholar to theorize in a systematic manner about the social, economic, psychological, and religious forces that influence societies and human history.