Diversity and Common Ground


Plenary session, Monday, 23rdSeptember 2013, 11:00-12:30, I-201 Conference Hall, 2nd floor

The social sciences and humanities are a diverse field of theoretical approaches and research practices; this diversity is a blessing and a curse at the same time. Many examples show that the institutional, linguistic, disciplinary and even national richness of SSH is the bedrock of creativity and cross-disciplinary thinking. But its downside is fragmentation, which often leads to lack of visibility and lonesome scholarship. Against this backdrop, is it still possible to define common ground?

  • Keynote: Jean-Louis Fabiani, Central European University, Hungary and EHESS, France
  • Comment: Daniel Weidner, Centre for Literary and Cultural Research, Germany
  • Keynote: Ulrike Felt, University of Vienna, Austria
  • Comment: Giuseppe Testa, European Institute of Oncology, Italy
  • Moderator: Nina Kancewicz-Hoffman, European Science Foundation

Jean-Louis Fabiani, Central European University, Hungary and EHESS, France

Reflective Boundaries and Competitive Fragmentation. What is the Common Ground of the European SSH?

Most of the “founding fathers” of the social sciences were Europeans, but the structuration of the different fields and the constructions of traditions came mainly from the United States. This integrative process occurred many times in the 20th century: first with Talcott Parsons, then with psycho-analysis. The same statement could be made about the “sociologization” of phenomenology mediated by Alfred Schütz and about French theory. Three points will be developed:

1. The history of the European social sciences and humanities is a history of boundary production. Although it has a very long history in the humanities, as a hierarchized principle of division, the disciplinary order has been strengthened by the development of modern universities. Boundary building is thus a permanent feature in the SSH community. The notion of “competitive fragmentation” will be used in order to describe the consequences of theoretical hybris among social scientists and the tendency to “going solo” to catch a share of the attention space.

2. The attempts to “break the boundaries have been generally viewed as a bureaucratic or even a corporate aggression against the established frame of autonomous social thinking. The heated debates about Mode 2 are a case in point. This section will try to rethink the issue of disciplinarity in the context of Europeanization.

3. The “epistemocentrism” of the SSH is often an obstacle to the building of a common ground. The reflective properties of our disciplines do not necessary lead to an increased self-knowledge but leave aside numerous blind spots.

Daniel Weidner, Centre for Literary and Cultural Research, Germany

Pluralities, Memories, Translations: Remarks on European Cultures of Knowledge in the Humanities

European research in the SSH is essentially plural, constituted by different national and disciplinary traditions. Without denying the costs and risks of this situation, my contribution wants to highlight its potential. It argues that we have to understand and communicate the specific epistemic situation of this research in order to sustain and improve this potential.

Today, the true societal challenges even blur the distinction between natural sciences and humanities, which is no longer a coherent description of contemporary knowledge. We currently observe both a trend towards the naturalization of culture (e.g. in evolutionary aesthetics) and towards the reification of cultural differences (e.g. in the different ‘wars of culture’). Thus, we consider it mandatory to continue the critical dialogue with the natural sciences.

The epistemic situation and potential of SSH should also be considered in institutional terms. Especially if cross-disciplinary approaches should pass mere self-reflective discourses towards object-oriented research, they need new formats. We believe that bottom up programs are not only necessary to confront the negative effect of bureaucracy, but also for epistemic reasons resp. for reasons of the cultures of knowledge in the SSH, which continues to focus on the specific, even when it goes beyond specific disciplines and discourses. Legitimate as the quest for new standards and networks might be, we have to be aware of the risks of such ‘centralizing’ programs. We also have to sustain alternative approaches, e.g. of creating cooperation between different ‘peripheries’ or of experimental ways of producing knowledge.

Ulrike Felt, University of Vienna, Austria 

Within, Across and Beyond – Reconsidering the Role of SSH in Europe

Despite the fact that European social sciences and humanities have a long and rich history, in research policy and beyond they are frequently framed in a twofold narrative: (1) a deficit compared to the sciences which are constructed as the international pace-makers of societal development; and (2) a deficit compared to the US social sciences and humanities, which are seen as setting standards.

While European SSH surely need to rethink their development, we should simultaneously be aware that such deficit framings have tremendous repercussions for the unfolding of their potential at a time when Europe needs them more than ever. Widely circulating notions such of “social innovation” or “responsible research and innovation” are expressions of the perceived necessity to rethink innovation based on a new understanding of the relations between SSH and the sciences, engineering and medicine.

In rethinking innovation, European research and research funding needs to embrace the opportunities the European knowledge space has to offer: Europe is a unique “laboratory” in which diverse models of society, political traditions and histories, sociotechnical imaginaries and value orders co-exist in a fruitful manner. It is this diversity which should become a key-resource for developing new understandings of innovation processes in both their more global and simultaneously local dimensions. Concretely this means:

1. The relations between natural sciences and SSH need to engage in radically new collaborative arrangements.

2. European social, cultural and value diversity should invite more comparative research, making Europe a unique learning space for more resilient socio-technical developments.

3. New kinds of knowledge relations are needed: within, across and beyond disciplinary spaces of knowledge generation. Within points at the need for more reflexivity concerning inner-disciplinary developments; across urges to make space for interdisciplinary knowledge generation; and beyond, underlines the necessity to include societal actors in new ways into the innovation process.


Giuseppe Testa, European Institute of Oncology, Italy

European Lives: New Vistas Across Social Sciences and Biomedical Humanities

Europe is a unique –and fascinating – political experiment, which is redefining citizenship along with a thorough reconfiguration of power between government and governance. In turn this underpins the coexistence and mutual evolution between nation states and continental levels of political authority. But Europe, needless to say, is also a key player in the global positioning for leadership in scientific ingenuity and techno-scientific innovation. It is thus the unique intertwining of these two features – a space of political and social experimentation that is also a key actor in techno-scientific innovation – that makes Europe a remarkable test case to explore the mutual reconfigurations of knowledge and power in contemporary societies.

The challenges and opportunities of this intertwining become particularly salient in the intersection between social innovation and the remarkable developments from the life sciences, in their reconfigurations (at times substantively novel, at times only perceived as such) of the dichotomies that have structured western polities: freedom and responsibility versus determinism; collective destinies versus individual autonomy; transparency versus privacy; public participation versus expert decision making; normal versus pathological; normal versus enhanced; natural versus artificial.

This affords new opportunities for the European research area in the Social Science and Humanities. Three stand out as particularly salient: i) the normative turn, that is pressing social sciences to move beyond empirical deconstruction towards fully fledged policy engagement; ii) the interdisciplinary turn, with a quantum leap in the necessity to train a new generation of scholars and policy makers equally fluent in the epistemologies that span the traditional divide between natural and social sciences; iii) the recent so-called ‘ontological’ turn in Science and Technology Studies (STS), whose methodological and analytical ambitions may find a particularly productive terrain in the European remaking of ontologies across the political and scientific domains.

Moderator: Nina Kancewicz-Hoffman, European Science Foundation