Current Pressures on the Social Sciences
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Fri Mar 9 11:07:21 MST 2001
By Richard Lee (Fernand Braudel Center)
***Current Pressures on the Social Sciences
Since 1945 the trend towards the further fractioning and proliferation of
disciplines has continued and the rate of their institutionalization has
even accelerated since the 1960's. This seems to be a fairly obvious outcome
of institutional pressures on world higher education to produce the
technocrats and professionals for the post-war expansion and the drive of
the collaterally expanding professoriat for increased prestige and benefits
that standing in scholarly communities can provide.
Two processes converge here. First, there is the struggle for institutional
space in new areas. In science, mathematics, and technology new fields
developed out of war-time research in electronics, computers and high-energy
physics. Later, others were heralded by journals such as Journal of Robotic
Systems (1984), Journal of Complexity (1985), International Journal of
Bifurcation and Chaos in Applied Sciences and Engineering (1991). In the
social sciences since the 1960's scholars working on gender, and race and
ethnicity issues have succeeded in carving out departments (e.g., Women's
Studies, Afro-American Studies) as well as founding a plethora of new
journals. Secondly, further specialization has taken place in already
well-established areas: note a journal such as Chemical Geology Isotope
Geoscience (1983). These new fields do not come without their costs and the
very weight of the infrastructure which proliferating departments require
suggests that the process cannot continue indefinitely.
And there are important counter-trends. The interdisciplinary approach was
common in studies of antiquity and formed the basis of "orientalist" work.
All the same, after 1945 concerns for the non-western world led to the rise
of interdisciplinary "area studies". For instance, in England the School of
Oriental and African Studies was founded in 1916 as a language training
center, but had its mandate expanded after 1945 to included social and
cultural studies. The objectives of area studies were fourfold: "providing
knowledge of practical value, giving students and scholars an awareness of
cultural relativity, providing understanding of social and cultural wholes
within areas, and furthering the development of a universal social science"
(Klein, 1990, 99). Area studies replaced the older "Orientalist" usage but
it reflected the same geographical perspectives of dividing human kind into
races, societies, cultures, traditions (usually based on some, often remote,
"classical" period creating an "ideal type") for comparative study with
policy implications. This was the old executive attitude, a method more of
controlling a perceived threat, (originally the Islamic near-east until the
emphasis shifted to the Soviet Union, and Africa and Asia became embroiled
in the Cold War after 1945) rather than receiving and disseminating new
Notwithstanding Fernand Braudel's call during the 1950's for the collapsing
of disciplinary boundaries among history and the social sciences, it was not
until the late 1960's that clear and pervasive interdisciplinary
relationships began to emerge between the humanities and the social
sciences. This was made explicit in the work of the Centre for Contemporary
at the University of Birmingham, England. At least three factors can be
discerned in this development. There was the concern for the "text" and the
methods for its analysis; structuralism and semiotics, which evolved in the
humanities (linguistics and literary criticism), found wide application
first in anthropology, then throughout the social sciences. Secondly,
of race and ethnicity, sexuality and the feminist critique received
interdisciplinary focus in history, sociology and English departments.
However, perhaps nothing favored the rapprochement between the social
sciences and the humanities more than the behaviorist consensus, and its
Behaviorism had paved the way for the social sciences to be initiated into
the pantheon of the sciences, according to the doctrine of the "unity of the
sciences", by the logical positivists. It may be, as Robert Dahl (1961)
remarked, that behaviorism never represented more than a "mood" in political
science, sociology, psychology, economics and anthropology. It is
nevertheless true that this "scientific outlook", as protest against
erstwhile conventional methods, was associated with empiricism,
quantification, and statistical manipulation. Moreover, it was based
explicitly on the study of individuals. The fallout from Vietnam and 1968
called into question the very premises of the behavioralist approach from
outside the disciplines. Worse, more honored in the breach by most working
social scientists even during its heyday of the 1950's and early 1960's,
behaviorism was challenged from within, based on the gulf between its
aspirations and its accomplishments (Somit and Tanenhaus, 1982, 231).
Nevertheless, inherent in the behavioralist approach was a tendency to
transgress disciplinary boundaries. Behavior Science Research (1974) finally
changed its name to Cross-Cultural Research in 1993 vaunting its
interdisciplinarity--"studies in all the sciences dealing with humans"--and
signaling the waning of at least the most scientistic aspects of
Significantly, the late 1960's marked the beginnings of major upheavals in
the conceptual underpinnings of knowledge across the entire spectrum from
the humanities to the natural sciences. Structuralism rebuked humanism and
positivism downplaying individual agency and empiricism and it challenged
historical analysis by focusing on the synchronic. During the 1970's and
1980's, despite conservative rear guard actions, the poststructural "death
of the subject" and the postmodern problematizing of any universalism,
elitism, or formalism and the decentered openness to the voices of the
"Other" have entered the academic mainstream of the humanities and the
social sciences from art and literary criticism to departments grappling wit
h issues of
gender, race and ethnicity, and cognate concerns of "otherness". The
problematic relationship between history and literature, "fact and fiction",
is revealed in the work of such historians as Hayden White and Dominique
LaCapra and the novelists Truman Capote (nonfiction novel), Norman Mailer
(history in the form of a novel) and journalists Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and
Jimmy Breslin. This is all substantially more far-reaching than the many
"multi's"--multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, even
multidisciplinary--which mask real relations of power and domination under a
saccharine cloud of "pluralism".
>From the 17th century, the natural sciences had offered the very model for
the truth claims of knowledge; suddenly and devastatingly, late 20th century
developments within the sciences have contested this "Newtonian paradigm".
The chaste ideal of simple laws and linear phenomena (time-reversible and
therefore admitting of prediction) has given way to a view of the world as
complex, determined but unpredictable (irreversible--"arrow of time"), in
which chaotic systems can be seen to have an underlying order (strange
attractors), order itself is built up out of chaos (evolution of
far-from-equilibrium systems), and natural forms occupy non-integer
dimensions (fractal geometry). The preferred analytic model is based on
synthesis rather than reduction. (See, for example, Mandelbrot, 1983; Pines,
1988; Prigogine and Stengers, 1984; Stein, 1989).
The disciplinary envelopes defined as what scholars actually do are
overlapping more and more at a time when maintaining the disciplinary
ramparts is becoming prohibitively expensive. At the same time, the
epistemological premises of what constitutes legitimate knowledge are
evaporating at the privileged pole of the sciences, thus undermining the
antimony leaving a middle ground of articulated complexity. The emerging
"transdisciplinary view of reality emphasizes creativity over adaptation and
survival, openness over determinism, and self-transcendence over security
(Jantsch, 1981, v); can transformation of the institutional structures be
far behind? NOTES
1 The politics of racism have been recurrent, bouncing back in the Mankind
Review of the early 1960's after the post-1945 dismissal of scientific
racism (of which the UNESCO series of the late 1940's and early 1950's
offered significant examples).
2 Functionalism in architecture (one of the founding tenets--along with Le
Corbusier's "house as a machine for living"--of the International Modern
Movement) may be traced to Viollet-le-Duc and Louis Sullivan ("form follows
function"). Here the problems with functionalism become clear from early in
the century: in considering the built environment, conflicts of interests
and larger social issues evaporated and the definition of function itself
was fraught with contradictions and hidden moral precepts (Scott, 1982,
607-8). Functional psychology emphasized function over the facts of mental
phenomena; it purported to be active rather than static and descriptive.
3 "Etic", that is, describable without reference to a system of relations;
compare with "emic", referring to structural or functional terms of a
4 Ethnography, the method of gathering data dependent on long-term
participant observation and description--field work; ethnology, a first
level of synthesis--"geographical, if information about neighboring groups
is to be collated; historical, if the purpose is to reconstruct the past of
one or several peoples; systematic, if one type of technique, custom, or
institution is selected for special attention"; and anthropology proper, a
final synthesis. Where this last was left to other disciplines such as
sociology (France), human geography, history, or even philosophy, the status
of the word remained vague and "was therefore limited in practice to
physical anthropology" (1963, 355). The usage of anthropology in a primarily
physical sense and ethnology in the social or cultural sense persisted,
however, especially outside of the U.S.
5 Lévi-Strauss predicted a transformative role for structural linguistics in
the social sciences. He credits Troubetzkoy with formulating the four basic
operations of the structural method which was to be so revolutionary:
First, structural linguistics shifts from the study of conscious linguistic
phenomena to study of their unconscious infrastructure; second, it does not
treat terms as independent entities, taking instead as its basis of analysis
the relations between terms; third, it introduces the concept of
system--"Modern phonemics does not merely proclaim that phonemes are always
part of a system; it shows concrete phonemic systems and elucidates their
structure"--; finally, structural linguistics aims at discovering
general laws, either by induction "or ... by logical deduction, which would
give them an absolute character" (1963, 33).
6 The first generation of the historical school included Hildebrand,
Roscher, and Knies. Schmoller belongs to the second generation. It is ironic
that Weber (third generation) contributed to the eventual defeat of the
Schmoller group with his extended critique of Roscher and Knies.
7 "W. W. Willoughby seems to have been the only one to anticipate a later
mode of thought by arguing that the discipline's closest ties were with
sociology, rather than history. For Willoughby, sociology embraced the
'systematic treatment of all those interests that arise from the life of man
in social aggregates.' Economics and law, as well as political science, were
subdivisions of the larger study" (Somit and Tanenhaus, 1982, 26).
8 The Florentine School of Social Sciences founded in 1875 (to become the
Istituto Cesare Alfieri in 1888) and the later Hochschule für Politik in
Berlin were also of this type which emphasized professional rather than
9 The Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity by one of the
founders of the Association, Isaac Ray, was instrumental in the formulation
of the M'Naughten rule of criminal insanity which grew out of the 1843
verdict in Britain.
10 Caution is necessary in applying professional appellations to figures
whose work has been assimilated to the various disciplinary traditions. In
the case of sociology: Spencer was a philosopher; Mosca taught
constitutional law; Veblen called himself an economist; Pareto was professor
of political economy but a significant portion of his work was explicitly
sociological; Weber taught law, political economy, and economics, only
allying himself with sociology in name toward the end of his life; Marx, of
course, had no institutional affiliation at all on which to base a
11 The "Sociologia" entry in the Encyclopeadia Italiana di Scienze, Lettere
ed Arti (1925+) was signed by Ugo Spirito, who taught philosophy and
economic history at the University of Messina.
12 Particularly influential were Robert K. Merton (Social Theory and Social
Structure, first published 1949) and Kingsley Davis (with the textbook,
Human Society, 1949). Marion Levy applied Parsonian theory to modernization
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Department of Political Science
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