The Social Sciences in a Changing World Workshop

Library of the Ecole Nationale de la France d’Outre-Mer, 1955

November 9-10, 2018
Organized by Didier Fassin and George Steinmetz

Workshop Texts
Collective Volume

Over the past century and a half, social scientists have conducted research on a multiplicity of topics and societies, including the worlds of science and technology, but similar investigation into their own disciplines had been relatively limited until recent years. Indeed, the social studies of science, broadly speaking, have been primarily focused, since the creation of the journals Isis and Osiris in the early 20th century, on the natural sciences, be they physical or biological. In the past decade, however, social scientists have begun to examine various aspects of the social sciences, including their politics and practices, their epistemologies and methods, their institutionalization and professionalization, their national development and colonial expansion, their heterogeneous globalization and local contestations, their public presence and role in society. Strikingly, this trend has been concomitant with a reconfiguration of the landscape in which the social sciences are inscribed, a reshaping of their borders with neighboring fields, and a contestation of some of their foundations. In particular, they have come under increasing pressure from cognitive and evolutionary sciences as well as method-driven and big data approaches, which stake out new claims to understand society, while their funding, political support and social credibility have been threatened in many countries. It is therefore an interesting and challenging time to engage in what could be called a “social science of the social sciences.” The object of this workshop and edited volume in preparation is to offer current historical and social scientific perspectives on this reflexive moment.

Our intellectual project is not to propose a new program in the social studies of science as such, but rather to illustrate the richness of research being conducted in an emerging domain, based on the collaboration of an international group of scholars from across the social sciences and humanities gathered at the School of Social Science of the Institute for Advanced Study during the academic year 2017-2018 to explore a variety of topics such as the constitution and transformation of scientific fields, their national specificities and asymmetric degrees and forms of internationalization, the crises and controversies they go through, their material and epistemological conditions of production, and their relationships with society at large. Beyond their diversity, the common thread of all contributions is a critical approach to the politics and practices of the social sciences. This does not simply mean that it is critical of social science, as in works that uncover the history of eugenics, counterinsurgency research, colonial social science, or social science under authoritarian regimes. It also means that this reading of the social sciences can contribute critically to the politics and practice of social science itself, and beyond that, to the understanding of social processes. In particular, it can unveil the hidden genesis of currently accepted concepts and languages; disinter forgotten works that remain valuable in the present; and question the foundations of our thinking about societies and about the specific place occupied by human beings in our comprehension of the world. And since the social sciences are thoroughly entangled in the social facts they describe and analyze, only by singling out the former can we understand why our world looks the way it does.