Best Social Sciences Books of 2020

Caste and control, the power of protest, a portrait of boys. The best social science books of 2020.

See all of our 2020 Best Books lists


Cornejo Villavicencio, Karla. The Undocumented Americans. One World. ISBN 9780399592683.

Villavicencio writes of forgotten family trauma through profiles of undocumented persons. These well-rendered journalistic vignettes transform her sources into characters. This debut is a must-read indictment on what it means to be undocumented and what it means to be American.


Giffels, David. Barnstorming Ohio: To Understand America. Hachette. ISBN 9780306846397.

Written in an engaging and poetic style, this exploration of Ohio as a political and cultural bellwether is told with care and sensitivity by reporter Giffels. He tours around the state, from urban and industrial areas to swaths of farmland and small towns, meeting people from all walks of life.


Goudeau, Jessica. After the Last Border: Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America. Viking. ISBN 9780525559139.

Goudeau’s work with a refugee resettlement agency in Texas informs her intimate portrait of two women, Mu Naw from Myanmar and Hasna from Syria, who sought safety in the United States. Her heartbreaking narrative explores immigration and asylum policy and personalizes the refugee experience in ways cold news accounts cannot.


Hardy, Jason. The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison. S. & S. ISBN 9781982128593.

In an outstanding debut, Hardy relays his experiences as a probation officer in New Orleans and offers an immersive look at the criminal justice system through the perspectives of seven parolees who were affected by the retail drug trade. This is an impactful book.


Hobbs, Jeff. Show Them You’re Good: A Portrait of Boys in the City of Angels the Year Before College. Scribner. ISBN 9781982116330.

Hobbs writes an intimate, empathetic chronicle of the senior year of high school as lived by four college-bound boys. He listened to and observed the hopes, fears, and concerns of these teens throughout the 2016–17 school year and, in centering their voices, has crafted a beautifully rendered group portrait of adolescents and of adolescence itself.


Macintyre, Ben. Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy. Crown. ISBN. 9780593136300.

The latest by best-selling author ­Macintyre portrays the life of Ursula ­Kusczynski, the astonishingly unexpected woman at the center of a 20th-century World War II spy story. His fast-paced historical account reads like a novel, with surprising twists and turns, and will thrill readers until the very last page.


Mitchell, Jerry. Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era. S. & S. ISBN 9781451645132.

Reflecting on his own investigative reporting and how it has led to the reopening of notorious murder cases from the civil rights era, Mitchell demonstrates the ways politicians and judges influenced the outcome of the original trials. He reminds us that the pursuit of justice has always been a political act.


Moore, Wes & Erica L. Green. Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City. One World. ISBN 9780525512363.

Following up his best-selling The Other Wes Moore, this moving account uses personal stories of Baltimore residents to tell the history of the protests that arose in response to the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. This is a rich look at the power of protest. 


O’Neill, Connor Towne. Down Along with That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy. Algonquin. ISBN 9781616209100.

In an attempt to better understand himself and the country, O’Neill traces the footsteps of Confederate General and Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest by visiting namesake monuments and buildings in and around the South. This powerful meditation on collective memory is necessary reading for understanding ourselves and our history.


Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random. ISBN 9780593230251.

In this outstanding social history, Wilkerson explains how a rigid social order, or caste, creates and maintains power. With a sharp eye, she details how caste became the cornerstone of U.S. social, political, and economic policy throughout the centuries. This thought-provoking account is urgent, essential reading for all.


See all of our 2020 Best Books lists

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