Jean-Louis Fabiani

Reflective boundaries and competitive fragmentation. What is the common ground of the European SSH?

Jean-Louis Fabiani

Central European University, Budapest
Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris

Talking about Europe as en entity is not an easy thing when it comes to the social sciences and humanities. Our disciplines have grown up in the shadow of the national state and their “research programs” were largely determined by national issues. Durkheim thought that sociology ought to be the universal science, but he was convinced that France, through its history and intellectual traditions, but also its size and social organization, had to be its birthplace. The first developments of social sciences brought many intellectual innovations, but they were very often trapped in strong ideological and historical legacies. Where do we stand now, after half a century of integrated science policy and in a post-national context?

In order to clarify, at least tentatively, the issue of commonality and diversity in our knowledge, I would like to develop three points: to begin with, I would like to address the issue of boundary production in our disciplines, characterized with what I call “competitive fragmentation”. It will be possible then to examine the relative failure of the diverse boundary-breaking attempts that have occurred. In my third point, I will deal with the reluctance of many social scientists to adopt a post disciplinary attitude because they view it as a neo-liberal threat.

Boundary production and competitive fragmentation

The history of the European social sciences is a history of boundary production. The disciplinary frame of scientific institutions is the stabilized result of previous fights.  At the end of the process, the disciplinary organization of knowledge production (and reproduction) appears as a natural order. It is strongly linked with the development of Western Universities that brought about a new cartography of learning. The disciplinary frame developed out of the necessity of limiting the field of experience and of “temporalizing” the gathering and analysis of data and research programs (Weingart 2010 p. 5).  The disciplinary order is simultaneously the result of a rationalization process and of struggles to establish the territory of a specific type of knowledge. We all should agree with Bourdieu at least on this point; the scientific field is, as other types of field, a field of struggles (Bourdieu 2004). Rationalization here does not imply the logical and necessary character of the process of differentiation. Competition and overlapping are permanent features of the disciplinary process. Thus cultural and contingent elements can shape to some extent the organization of knowledge, as national differences clearly show. Long before the emergence of science studies, the scientists’ practical knowledge has allowed them to understand the central dimension of territorial conquest and of border skirmishes. In 1897, Durkheim established French sociology on the firm ground of a strongly anti-psychological definition of suicide. He delineated ad nauseam the contours of the new science and excluded alternative ways of understanding the phenomenon.

The contextual and somewhat contingent dimension of disciplinary knowledge is now well known by scholars and is a part of their reflective equipment, particularly since Kuhn linked the notion of scientific revolution with changes in the disciplinary matrix. We know about it, as we travel: anthropology has different shapes in different countries. The dividing line between physical and social anthropology can be either extremely strong or totally blurred. This has huge consequences on the way we define anthropological knowledge and its relationship with natural sciences. Archaeology has very different locations across countries: it can be a sub-discipline of anthropology, a specific form of history, of art history or a part of anthropology. The articulation between naturalistic approaches and “cultural” analyses is currently a strong principle of division. For social scientists, it is very often a matter of territorial protection. What would remain of our endeavor if the solely social characterization of social facts were to fade away? This self-defense approach might be a wrong strategy in the long term, but it seems to be protective enough in the short term.

Defending one’s territory at any cost remains the common attitude in the everyday life of the social sciences. We all know that there is nothing such as an epistemological divide between sociology and anthropology, since it is the mere result of colonialism, but we would be extremely reluctant   to plead for a fusion: and one can find easily researchers who think that the use of statistics is useless or even unethical in the social sciences and others who claim that interpretative strategies are doomed to fail due to their lack of scientific bases. As Peter Weingart writes, disciplines end up as the “given structures of the world” (Weingart 2010, p. 3). We forget their historical origins and their contingent development as they produce stability, careers and reputations. We take their objects and their scientific styles for granted. The disciplining process produces methodological as well as theoretical diversity, sometimes at the expense of the common grounding of specialized sciences in the common ground of human or social practice. Many epistemic breaks are false breaks: they remain rhetorical in character. Let us consider the split between humanities and social sciences: it is unevenly active in the various European scholarly systems, but it has been a powerful tool designed to proclaim the scientific dimension of emerging disciplines dealing with society as an object. The reality of the divide is often questionable. For a French reader of French philosophy, Bruno Latour’s brilliant and innovative attempt   to produce a new kind of synthesis is directly related to French metaphysics and also, to some extent, with theology. Bergson’s new philosophy, one of the first successful European intellectual fashions in the early 20th century, could be analyzed in the same way. Here is a common ground, very often denied or masked by the promoters of creativity and innovation as taken for granted markers of quality. One might say that great theorists reunify what has been fragmented by the “disciplinarizing” process.

An increased awareness about the historical sociology of our sciences is a necessary step against the counterproductive aspect of disciplinary fragmentation. This is where the claim for “reflexivity” could play its role, beyond the usual and rather unproductive rhetoric that the notion carries. Doing truly reflexive social sciences should lead us to question permanently the institutionalized boundaries, as we know, without really making sense of that knowledge, that innovation is most of the time to be lodged at the borders or that it can be defined as a series of successful moves to reconfigure objects and analytical frames.  This is of course not a plea for syncretism: differentiation has its uses and merits. But if we want to avoid the eternal return of the same false oppositions, the rhetorical breaks and the aborted intellectual revolutions, we should better be equipped with good historical knowledge.

Science or critique?

Big chunks of the social sciences have been devoted, since the late sixties, but to some extent since they were born, to the radical critique of their own existence. Our past, and most of our present, are stained with sins and crimes (colonialism, eurocentrism, patriarchy). The coexistence between the endless celebration of our “founding fathers” as producing science out of an ideological and pre-scientific battleground on the one hand and the regular destruction of their statues on behalf of their ideological mischiefs on the other hand gives an inimitable baroque touch to our disciplines. For many of us, the pleasure of engaging in the SSH world lies in this baroque dimension. Living in a “critical” department means accepting a fair level of predictable bellicosity against “the neo-liberal order”, whatever that is. Habiting a “mainstream” department means that usual tools are taken for granted and that evidence from reality can be denied until some catastrophic event for the theory occurs, as the 2008 financial crisis for economic science. Disciplinary and scholarly guarantees prevent us from the sanctions of history: it would be useless to show that Alain Badiou’s philosophy is deeply anti-democratic to students who are committed to radical chic. At the other end of the spectrum, it seems that the Chicago economists have not suffered from the failure of their paradigm. Our scholarly world is a world with neither obligation nor sanction. The pleasure principle seems to be the main regulator. It is not uncommon to hear a student or even a colleague saying that she is “comfortable with some theory” or that some other “make her feel good”. Theory is identified with a pair of comfortable shoes. Of course, one might say that this is a French view, oriented by a relative lag in reforming the organization of scientific work. But I would defend a slightly different point of view: of course, France still lives on the idea of the great public intellectual, a genius gone solo providing the intellectual world with tremendous breaks and turns. Curiously enough, the Northern European style of organization has not prevented the French model from being exported in other countries: Badiou, Rancière and Balibar’s great success is a case in point. These happy survivors of the sixties remain serious trend-setters. More seriously, it shows a real contempt for empirical verification, in a constant demise of “positivism” or “scientism”. It would be unfair to focus only on radicals just because they are more outspoken than others. This is as true for neo-classic economists who use quantitative tools and sophisticated mathematics: the historical nature of their objects tends to disappear, in spite of all their efforts to construct models to account for uncertainties and ambivalent behavior. Here ideological passions give an additional strength to the competitive fragmentation described above. Libido sciendi is trapped into the pleasure principle. The common historical ground of our objects, in the Weberian sense,disappears.

This is undoubtedly why the plea for a new “scientism” should be taken seriously, at least for assessment. Steven Pinker’s recent declarations allow us to rethink the issue. One does not need to share Pinker’s whole point of view to accept a very broad principle that he calls: “commitment to intelligibility” (Pinker 2013). This is something we should all agree on. It means that we should never accept models of intelligibility as such, as taken for granted beliefs, but as a guiding principle to make the social world intelligible. This intelligibility is always provisional and open to revision. Pinker’s definition of scientism could be accepted by any of us social scientists and should not be contested by Humanities scholars, as he writes: “Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable” (Pinker 2013). This definition is based on practice. One could say that science is based on mutually controlled interaction. A critical sociologist would add that the three elements do not suffice to guarantee a practice free from error or cheating and would recommend an increased awareness of the potential perversions of the system. But it is difficult to see any other valid definition of our activities, even if we take into account the historicity of our objects, the ambivalence of thought and action and the multiple meanings that we attach to them. It has become quite unfashionable to speak in terms of “explanatory power” when it comes to social action. But, even if we include the complexity of our objects in our descriptive and analytic schemes, we must keep science as a regulatory idea. This does not mean reductionism: we must remain aware of the specificity of human action, as do other scientists when they deal with their objects. “Naturalizing” social behavior is dangerous; but taking advantage of the specificity of our terrain can do harm too: acknowledging the historical properties of social objects as Jean-Claude Passeron has done in a neo-weberian way (Passeron 2013) does not mean that there is no way out of the post-modernist collage or the ideological dispute. If we refuse the common ground of science on behalf of the special character of our object, we are no longer able to maintain our legitimacy and we are doomed to be entertainers or magicians.

In search of a new ground

Social scientists continue to play on national fields: only a minority makes careers out of their native countries. Scholars from smaller countries have an edge here: they are more likely to get a PhD abroad and to internationalize their research agenda. There now seems to be something of a European market for social scientists. But it concerns mainly the prominent characters of our disciplines, who move easily across Europe, very often via the United States: Bruno Latour, Peter Wagner and Stéphane Vandamme are good examples of career mobility. For junior scientists, some opportunities exist, but most of the time, they are made possible by the possession of a PhD from an outstanding US department. As a rule, the Nation remains the major scientific horizon: due to the local conditions of reproduction of the faculty body, the new recruits are more likely to have been trained in the country where they find jobs. The various incentives (such as a bonus for publishing abroad, particularly in an English-speaking journal) have had so far limited effects. This has led to the development of a sort of dual market: the first one is widely internationalized and includes the United States (and Canada to a lesser extent) as a decisive element for the constitution of scholarly capital and international mobility; the second one remains strongly national. In this process, the European level does not seem to be fully autonomous: most of the internationalized European scholars have got at some point a form of US accreditation. The European journals and the European professional associations play a significant role, but they have a short history and cannot reorient the academic market, at least for now. Some European institutions, such as the European University Institute, are excellent tools in this respect. They provide an intellectual forum, for faculty as well as for students and they lead to delineate new forms of cooperation. But they concern a minority of European social scientists. Paradoxically enough, recent institutions in small countries can play a vanguard role in the Europeanization of social science, by increasing the level of interaction and by objectifying national traditions. Although it may be considered as a US outpost in Europe, Central European University in Budapest provides a good example.

There is undoubtedly a divorce in Europe between scientific bureaucracies and social scientists. Of course, misunderstandings are deeper when it comes to “critical” disciplines such as sociology. Economists and political scientists seem more at ease in the EU atmosphere, as they have greater proficiency in bureaucratic language.  Eurocracy bashing has become the favorite sport of radical thinkers. But they are not the only ones to be blamed. In the recent years, many new rules have appeared, particularly concerning evaluation, and new norms seem to threaten what has made the intellectual business enjoyable in the past. The keyword here is: autonomy. Bourdieu was pessimistic about the future of the social sciences. His last works are doomed by a very moving sadness that was fueled by what he saw as the decline of intellectual and scientific autonomy. By adopting brutally the norms of new public management, by creating an obsession about evaluation, the institutions of knowledge seem to have “short-termized” the research agendas and heavily bureaucratized a rich world of craftsmanship. Of course, this is more a feeling than a reality, and most of the young and talented researchers have adjusted quite well to the new order of things. My remarks are certainly not not a plea for a return to statu quo ante. There is no doubt that academics must be as accountable as other citizens. Flexibility and mobility are not evils. But the top down regulations have had a few unintended (and unfortunate) consequences. What should be a set of rules for a good practice of science (thinking out of the box, crossing boundaries, questioning established and routinized forms of scientific interaction) tends to be viewed as a bureaucratic conspiracy to constrain the autonomy of the social sciences. Thinking out of the box is very often seen as a bureaucratic injunction. In our disciplines, the debate on Mode 2 (a post-disciplinary age of science), initiated in the mid-nineties by Michael Gibbons, Helga Nowotny and others (Gibbons 1994, Gibbons et al 2001) has been interpreted as an attack against the established guarantees of academic life. Mode 2, particularly in critical circles, has become synonymous with neo-liberalism, its short term contracts and its threats against tenure. Clearly, the autonomy of knowledge tends to be redefined by the introducers of Mode 2 along new types of criteria that bring about important changes in the way by which scholars construct their agendas. It is not by chance that the social sciences are more reluctant than other fields to engage into a post-disciplinary age. They usually associate a very rigid disciplinary organization with a high paradigmatic uncertainty. Academic rituals tend to fill the holes left by epistemological confusion. Anthropologists, sociologists and historians do basically the same thing, but they would not easily admit it. The biggest difference lies in academic rhetoric and rituals. One of the merits of the disciplinary framework that developed in the last two centuries is the provision of stabilized resources, as well as a firm identity and a social and symbolic safety. This seems to be lacking in the current models of scientific cooperation, although they bring excitement and novelty. In a time of crisis and doubt, social scientists, who are obviously more sensitive than others to the hardships of the times, should be reassured. A form of mutual trust has to be restored between the administrators of science and European social scientists. The critical take on the weaknesses of bureaucratic evaluation must be taken seriously, at least for a while: it is not unthinkable to imagine a new République des Lettres in a post-disciplinary age and Mode 2 has not lost its attractiveness. Risk-taking and inventing new forms of communication are the core of libido sciendi. In a time of rhetorical “declinism”, European social scientists and humanists should take advantage of the new tools of flexibility and communication at their disposal to develop new intellectual spaces. Here, the natural sciences can be inspiring as they are now more than ever based on multiple connections, different scales and imaginative partnerships. Groundbreaking endeavors need these ingredients, as well as well as social scientists need  trust, confidence and imagination to carry them out.


  • Abbott, Andrew 2001 Chaos of Disciplines, Chicago, University of Chicago Press
  • Baciocchi, Stéphane and Fabiani, Jean-Louis 2012 “Durkheim’s Lost Argument (1895-1955). Critical Moves on Method and Truth”, Durkheimian Studies, vol 18, 2012, p. 19-40.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre 2004 Science of Science and Reflexivity, Chicago, University of Chicago press 
  • Fabiani, Jean-Louis 2006 “A quoi sert la notion de discipline ?”, J. Boutier, J.C. Passeron et J. Revel Qu’est-ce qu’une discipline ?, Enquête, Editions de l’Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, p. 11-34
  • Gibbons, Michael, ed. 1994 The New Production of Knowledge, London, Sage
  • Gibbons, Michael, Nowotny Helga and Peter Scott 2001 Re-thinking science. Knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2001
  • Passeron, Jean-Claude 2013 Sociological Reasoning. A non-Popperian Space of Argumentation, Oxford, Bardwell Press
  • Pinker, Steven 2013 “Science is not your Enemy”, New Republic, August 6th
  • Weingart, Peter 2010 “A Short history of Knowledge Formations” R. Frodeman, J.Thompson Klein and C. Mitcham, The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 3-14

About the author: 

Jean-Louis Fabiani


PhD (Sociology), EHESS-Paris 1980

Agregation de philosophie 1974

M.A. (Philosophy) Universite de Paris 1 (Paris) 1973

Ecole normale superieure 1972

B.A. (Philosophy) Sorbonne (Paris) 1971

Prior Work:

1991-1996 Maitre de conferences (Associate Professor), EHESS-Paris

1988-1991 Directeur regional des affaires culturelles de Corse, French Ministry of Culture (Ajaccio)

1984-1988 Maitre de conferences, Ecole normale superieure-Paris

1980-1984 Agrege-repetiteur (Assistant Professor), Ecole normale superieure-Paris

1978-1980 Charge de recherche (research Associate), Centre de sociologie europeenne, Maison des sciences de l’homme, Paris

1977-1978 professeur de Lycee, Pantin (high school teacher)

Current Employment/Responsibilities:

2008 Professor, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Central European University, Budapest

1996 DIrecteur d’etudes (Full Professor), Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales, Paris

Areas of Research Interest: cultural policy, Sociological Theory, sociology of culture and art, history of sociology