Reconstructing the history of the social sciences and the humanities

 Reconstructing the history of the social sciences and the humanities

Report on the workshop held at the European University Institute (EUI), Florence, on Monday, 9 October 2006 in the framework of the Special Support Action “Research Collaboration in the Social and Human Sciences between Europe, Russia, other CIS countries and China”

By prof. Peter Wagner, European University Institute – EUI, Department of Political and Social Sciences; now University of Trento,

Within the broader framework of the Special Support Action ‘Mobilising the social sciences and humanities’, which is devoted to assessing the institutional and intellectual position of the social and human sciences in the area of the former Soviet Union and China as well as the prospects for co-operation between scholars from those countries and from Europe, the workshop was designed as a response to the need to provide some of background in terms of a contextual reconsideration of the comparative history of the social and human sciences. Far too often, namely, the history of the sciences in general, but also the history of the social and human sciences in particular, is interpreted in a linear evolutionist perspective in which differences between regional forms of such sciences are either due to a higher or lower degree of development or to relatively insignificant cultural, that is, non-essential variety.

In this light, the analysis in the Special Support Action of the current condition of the social and human sciences in the area of the former Soviet Union and China has been preceded and prepared by a brief analysis of the development of the social and human sciences in Europe and the US. This was done with, one the one hand, a conceptual aim in mind: to survey the history of those sciences in these areas will, with all due caution, provide some insights about societal conditions for scientific developments, as these two regions are areas in which the social and human sciences developed rather early and rather strongly. At least as importantly, on the other hand, such a review should elaborate a thoroughly contextual approach to the history of the sciences, so as to dispel any idea of model for scientific development or principled superiority of one particular approach over others.

The workshop ‘Reconstructing the history of the social sciences and the humanities’ was devoted to this double purpose. Bringing together historians and social-science practitioners from the area of the former Soviet Union and China with those from Western and Eastern Europe, it proceeded along five major lines. First, the ways of elaborating the contextual-comparative approach were proposed from two angles, the one being a long-term view on the history of forms of social knowledge (Orlando Lentini, University of Naples), the other one being a selective comparison of the social sciences in the US and Western Europe (Peter Wagner, EUI; now University of Trento). Second, two papers addressed social-science developments in specific regions of the area under consideration. Huang Ping (Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences) analysed the history and current state of the Chinese social sciences, whereas Michael Vorisek (EUI) focussed on sociology’s institutionalisation in postwar Soviet Europe in comparative perspective. Thirdly, in a similar vein, two papers tackled selected disciplines of the social and human sciences with a view to understanding the variety of shapes these fields had gained in different contexts. Bo Stråth (EUI) addressed the history of historiography across a long historical perspective, whereas Barbro Klein (SCAS) analysed the scientific field covered by names such as anthropology, ethnology, Völkerkunde and others. Fourthly, two further papers addressed the question of internationality in the social sciences, one speaker, Johan Heilbron (Centre de sociologie europénne, Paris), from the angle of the sociology of the social sciences, the other one, Michael Kuhn (KnowWhy) on the basis of a detailed evaluation of the experience with internationally pursued research projects funded by the European Union. Finally, Peter Scott (Kingston University) discussed the theme that had lurked in the background of all preceding discussion, the one of the evaluation of quality in the social sciences and the variety and transformation of such criteria.

In the first discussion, agreement could easily be reached about an open-minded historical approach avoiding any prior assumption about superior modes of pursuing research in the social and human sciences as well as giving primacy to any particular historical trajectory over others. However, many issues in detail remained open to dispute. Despite consensus about the need for a long-term perspective, for instance, it was open whether the period around 1500 with the first effective ‘globalisation’, as argued by Lentini, or the period around 1800, recognized as a major rupture in social and political languages, as preferred by Wagner, should be chosen as the most useful starting-point for a comparative investigation. Secondly, it became clear – once again, one might say – that the risk of falling into a functionalist perspective is considerable in any research that aims to cover large ‘spatio-temporal envelopes’ (Bruno Latour). Finally, the two papers also gave different emphasis to the disciplinary shape of the social sciences. For Lentini, they were a phenomenon of rather secondary significance, whereas Wagner saw them as expressing a variety of ways in which fundamental problems of human social life could be addressed.

The analysis of regions of social-science development was not intended to fully cover the remit of the project but rather as exemplary analyses meant to demonstrate conceptual problems at stake and substantive issues to be addressed. Thus, Michael Vorisek focused on the discipline of sociology only and on its, we might say, late-Soviet destiny in Eastern Europe, then set in comparison with Western European developments. In turn, Huang Ping offered a broader analysis of social-science developments in China but focused on the very recent past and present. For him, the science-policy conditions for a viable development of the social sciences were central and this in a context of both enormously high activity levels in the social sciences and of similarly, if not even more astounding growth rates for these activities. Structural issues of this kind were absent in sociology in Soviet Europe during the 1950s and 1960s when the numbers of practitioners was very small and constraints to practice paramount.

The two disciplines that were selected for treatment in detail, anthropology and historiography, are both marked by their intermediary position on a spectrum that reaches from a ‘scientist’ understanding inclined to claims for universalism, on the one extreme, and a strongly hermeneutic understanding inclined to emphasizing particularity and specificity, on the other. Among the social and human sciences, economics is persistently close to the former end-point, and the study of literature close to the other end – historiography and anthropology have both experienced more scientist and more humanist periods or versions. Of the two papers, the one by Bo Stråth – maybe characteristically – was emphasizing changes in the self-understanding of the historical sciences over time, whereas the one by Barbro Klein was focusing on the variety of interpretations across space, here indeed involving different denominations within what can in international comparison be analysed as a large scholarly field in which overlapping approaches co-exist.

As in the former areas of discussion, the papers on trans- and international exchange and co-operation in the social and human sciences presented the issue from different angles, but in a highly complementary way. Johan Heilbron reconstructed the history of the social sciences from the point of view of their transnationality. He first distinguished various possible meanings of transnationality in a field whose practices are known, at least in Europe, to have been dominated by a highly national orientation both in terms of institutional structures and in terms of intellectual outlooks. Given the general commitment of scientific knowledge to transcend situations, though, this national background orientation has always been in tension with generalizing strivings, which then naturally take the form of transnationality. Michael Kuhn’s presentation, in turn, analysed the experience with international co-operation in social-science research on the basis of what is the hitherto strongest and most sustained attempt to organize research endeavours across national boundaries. His paper made clear that issues otherwise treated as parts of the philosophy or epistemology of the social sciences, such as a hermeneutic positioning towards the world within a community of belonging, become practical issues of research design and conceptual development in virtually every project that is constitutively cross-national, that is, both addressing research objects in more than national society and the research team being composed of members of several nationalities.

Peter Scott’s paper, which concluded the debates, turned to questions of research quality in terms of recent changes in the criteria for assessing excellence in research in the social sciences and the humanities. His starting-point was the observation of a general transformation of the institutional and intellectual conditions for pursuing research. Most importantly, the boundaries that had for a long time separated academic institutions devoted to basic research (and teaching) from wider society and, in particular, from politics had eroded. As a consequence, long-established views of academic autonomy and responsibility, elaborated in relative insulation for a field of specific practice from other social practices, had to be reconsidered in the light of more open communication and interaction between scholarly practitioner, on the one hand, and political practitioners and other societal actors, on the other. The ensuing discussion centred on both the identification of this recent and, in Scott’s view, rather radical transformation and the normative consequences, if any, that are to be derived from it. Even though that debate remained without conclusion, it was clear that Scott’s reasoning, too, confirmed the absence of any lasting model of scientific development – or in this case: science-society interaction – as well as the need for nuanced contextual analyses of the particular features of the historical and societal situation science and science policy find themselves in.

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