Ulrike Felt

Within, Across and Beyond – Reconsidering the Role of Social Science and Humanities in Europe

Ulrike Felt, University of Vienna, Austria

1. Introduction

Europe, more than ever, sees its “future […] connected to its power to innovate“. This idea finds its explicit expression in the current formulation of the Innovation Union as “an action-packed initiative for an innovation-friendly Europe“ [1], which is clearly staged as the way to „innovate Europe out of the crises“ (ERAB 2012). It is further translated into the corresponding EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020. In order to realize this innovation driven societal trajectory, European citizens are expected not only to accept the steady flow of innovations, but to help stabilize this development logic through their continuous support. Though expressed in different ways, these ideas about innovation and the role of citizens have been characteristic for EU innovation policy for at least the last decade (e.g. Felt et al. 2007). What is new in this recent shift is the more active role attributed to the social sciences and humanities (SSH). The core idea is to “embed […] the Social Sciences and Humanities across all of the Societal Challenges of Horizon 2020“[2], as expressed by the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science at the Vilnius Meeting, and to make them collaborate with sciences and engineering for developing innovations. Yet, this new role does not come without tensions: SSHs are portrayed, on the one hand, as crucial for attaining the innovation goals, while, on the other hand, they are also conceptualized as the junior partners, the leading role remaining with science and engineering.

The organizers of the Lithuanian EU Presidency conference acknowledged this challenge by placing the role of the social sciences and humanities at the core of reflections about the future of Europe and its research. This essay relates to the first plenary carrying the title “Diversity and Common Ground” and addresses the relationship of the social sciences and humanities with the sciences and engineering, the potential of such a relationship as well as the challenges to be considered. Needless to say, when using such broad classifications – “social science and humanities”, on the one hand, and “sciences and engineering”, on the other –, one has to be aware that these “entities” are anything but homogeneous and some of the divides within each of these big categories can be at least as important as those between them.

To carefully reflect on the role of SSH within Horizon 2020 is essential for a number of reasons.

First, despite all discursive assurances of the importance of SSH for a successful realization of an Innovation Union, we still find deeply entrenched distinctions when it comes to epistemic traditions; quite often the ideas about the respective other are more tied to imaginaries than actual experiences; and substantive knowledge hierarchies are at work, with the social sciences and humanities finding themselves more towards the lower end of the ranks. This makes collaborating across boarders a challenge for both sides.

Second, and even more importantly, we find ourselves at a moment in Europe’s history, when more than ever before our future is imagined as being dependent on and driven by a constant flow of innovations. How societal development is understood, what meanings get attached to the very notion of innovation and how we think innovation is best brought about, thus needs careful consideration. In playing a key-role in the making of Europe’s future, both the “sciences and engineering” and the “social sciences and humanities” will thus be challenged to collectively imagine and realize futures that seem to Europe’s citizens – in all their diversity – worth attaining. Yet, future making has to be seen not only as a scientific challenge, but above all as a democratic challenge raising the question of societal participation and responsibility. To express it with Callon and co-authors (2009: 109): “If the end justifies the means, only debate can justify the end.” The SSH will thus have a key-role in analyzing and actively addressing these democratic challenges.

Finally, Europe’s future and the future of European research are closely intertwined. Any vision of the direction into which European societies should develop has tremendous impacts on the kinds of knowledge generation activities that will get support, both on financial and institutional level. Yet it also means that only specific kinds of questions will be regarded as relevant and valuable and thus worth being asked.

The aim of this contribution is thus not to rehearse how different these fields are, but much more to reflect on how deeply new forms of cooperation – within, across and beyond fields of inquiry – as well as mutual understanding and respect are needed, if what is at stake is nothing less than the making of a common Europe through innovation.

2. Imagining Europe‘s future: Context matters

For many years, when thinking about “Europe’s future”, European policy discourse has been gravitating around a tight articulation of three concerns: (1) a concern for international competitiveness, pushing in particular innovations being sustainable, smart, green, etc.; (2) a concern for urgency in realizing these innovations as otherwise Europe is imagined to fall behind; and (3) a concern for a strong societal support for these innovations.

The idea of competition is expressed through multiple variations of the image of the global race in which Europe has to keep its place and through repeated expressions of the fear that Europe might be lagging behind. This intense concern about a place in the global race has, however, also an impact on inner-European imaginations: instead of performing Europe as one single innovation space, innumerable representations of Europe show diverse rankings of European countries in the capacity to produce, support and distribute innovation. Thus, we witness the simultaneous construction and deconstruction of the Innovation Union. (See also section 4 on maps)

Urgency, in turn, gets performed through the trope of “we need to act now before it is too late”. Hesitation or open expression of concerns about the direction innovations take – often expressed by social scientists and humanists or by representatives of civil society –, are thus met at best with mixed feelings, at worst with open hostility. How much space and time can/should we afford for (re)considering our choices?; How much opening-up of choices should take place?; and, Who should be able to participate in a democracy?, thus become important questions which need addressing.

Finally, when it comes to societal integration, the imaginary of an ideal European public is created that should embrace and support innovation and become important carriers of what gets labeled as “an innovation-friendly climate”. Simultaneously, however, there remains a latent concern that European citizens might not live up to this expectation; this concern is generally addressed by intensifying communication activities meant to convince citizens and not to engage with them in more open ways. (Felt et al. 2013)

Therefore making Europe’s future is prone to a number of tensions, of which I want to address two in an exemplary manner. First there is an obvious tension between an understanding of the Innovation Union as being mainly realized through technoscientific achievements, and an awareness that much of the attractiveness of Europe as a place to live and work lies in its cultural heritage and diversity. Some anecdotal evidence to illustrate this tension: At the most recent meeting of the American Society for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston (2013) the European Commission engaged in important campaigning activities to attract bright young US researchers to Europe. While the idea was to reverse the brain drain and attract them to European laboratories, many, if not most of the stories told, where about Europe as a culturally rich and diverse place, with a rich history, high quality of life, good food, and many more. (see Figure 1: Cover of the advertising material depicted the globe surrounded by historical buildings from European countries)


A second quite important tension becomes visible through the discrepancy between evaluation with and of science and technology and valuation in broader societal contexts. Thus we encounter, on the one hand, a dense “economy of technoscientific promise” (Felt et al. 2007) “trading” rather universal claims about what science and technology will deliver for Europe’s future. On the other hand, when moving across different national contexts, innovations are perceived quite differently by the respective societies. Nuclear energy or genetically modified organisms are two good showcases for such diverging societal valuations across European countries. Thus, the tension between the valuation of science and technology as public good and the evaluation within the systems supporting the development of innovations needs to be addressed. (Felt et al. 2013)

These concerns and tensions point at the importance to analyze, make visible and carefully consider how societal and technoscientific value systems work and how they might diverge in important ways. Social sciences and humanities could make here an important contribution to the understanding of the tensions between societal valuation and scientific evaluation and become key-actors in addressing them, as they should at the core of any democratic concern.

3. Positioning of SSH in Horizon 2020

Within the framework of Horizon 2020, two new, widely circulating notions make their appearance: “social innovation” and “responsible research and innovation”. Both can be read as expressions of a perceived necessity to institutionally support a rethinking of research and innovation, opening it up to a wider range of inputs from different societal actors, but also engaging in new kinds of relationships between SSH and the sciences, engineering and medicine.

While such a move cannot but be welcomed from a societal perspective as it ideally would support a broader vision of science as public good, it simultaneously raises the question of how the social sciences and humanities will be able to become integral partners with the sciences.  How would such policy expressions be turned into research and funding realities, which do not limit the role of SSH to being strategic supporters, reporting, anticipating or sense-making agents, or reflexive add-ons to what is being constructed as the core business: namely, scientific and technological innovation for its own sake. Thus the challenge of the years to come will lie in the capacity to create the financial and infrastructural conditions, as well as to put in place the inner-scientific value systems, which are conducive to a satisfactory integration of SSH and sciences/engineering.

In this context it furthermore seems crucial to consider the position from which the SSH enter such partnerships with the sciences and engineering. Actually, despite the fact that European social sciences and humanities have a long and very rich history and are rooted in a broad variety of national/cultural traditions, thus opening up a rich diversity of problem framings and understandings, they are quite frequently framed, in research policy and beyond, in terms of a double deficit:

(1)  a deficit compared to the sciences: the latter are constructed as the international pace-makers of societal development and are pictured as having much clearer quality standards and evaluation criteria, often captured in some quite narrow metrics (e.g. journal impact factors), while the social sciences and humanities are seen as widely deficient in these perspectives.

(2)  a deficit compared to the US social sciences and humanities, which are seen by some as setting standards in SSH. The latter are often depicted as holding the top ranks, without reflecting how such rankings are constructed (see Map making argument below).

While European SSH definitely need to rethink their development and reposition themselves under changing boundary conditions – and previous speakers have pointed to some of the essential tensions here –, we should simultaneously be aware that such deficit framings are in themselves highly problematic. They do not only show the power game at work when ranking, ordering and mapping the world of knowledge production, but also have tremendous repercussions for the unfolding of the full potential of SSH at a time when Europe needs them more than ever.

4. Map making as world making: Order technoscientific worlds

Over the past decades, researchers from all backgrounds and science policy makers alike have been busy developing complex positioning strategies, among other through developing and deploying different kinds of maps.[3] (See Fig 2) These maps serve as orientation devices for researchers and policy makers alike, but above all they structure the legitimate principles of vision and division of the „technoscientific world“. Yet maps, as Benedict Anderson (1991) has taught us, never simply represent the pre-existing. Much rather they produce what will be regarded as „reality“, they are modeling what they pretend to “simply re-present”. Such technoscientific maps are proliferating and come in many different forms: as epistemic ones ordering disciplinary territories and drawing boundaries between them; as geographic maps which highlight the places where the intensity of science and technology-related activities is high; as reputational maps, expressed in rankings and the distribution of highly ranked institutions; but also through mapping out where prestigious funding (e.g. ERC funding; Fig.2.c.) has gone. (See Fig 2: A selection of classical science related maps)

What all these maps have in common is their aim to propose a clear (“objective”) vision of where centers and peripheries of technoscience are, and thus to provide guidance to scholars, policy makers and societal actors alike. We therefore might speak of a „tacit geography of science“ (Felt/Stöckelová 2009), which is at work, creating order and giving direction as well as tacitly governing science and technology. While the existence of such maps is not a problem per se, it becomes problematic when the effects of such ordering exercises are not carefully considered and when it is not reflected how deeply such maps frame the image and the imagination of what is possible to develop and where. In short, the issue of responsibility for creating and distributing such maps and for the impact they have is rarely addressed. These maps tacitly govern access to and distribution of resources, they serve as orientation when researchers move on an international scale, yet the also frame the imagination of single researchers, research institutions and national systems of innovations alike.

What all these maps also have in common is the fact that they build on “facts and figures” and seem to represent how research “really is”, thus claim to provide us with an “objective picture” for purposes of orientation. They give us comfort as they feed in our deep trust in numbers, and nourish the illusion that using them for orienting our research or our careers would allow escaping from other more explicit forms of research and development politics. (Porter 1995)

 Worldwide-RD-by-Nation-2012-450x348 leydesdorff dfg-fundingatlas2012_figure-14_2-13

2.a. Global R&D spending 2011. Size of circle reflects the relative amount of annual R&D spending by the country[4]

2.b. Mapping Excellence in the Geography of Science[5]

2.c. ERC Funding in 2012 per sector (SSH in yellow)[6]

Fig 2: A selection of classical science related maps


Yet, from a more reflexive position, we need to ask: what is made invisible and thus unaccountable through these kinds of representational approaches? And thus: how would science and technology be perceived and understood differently, in particular in its complex intertwinement with society, if we chose to use other kinds of “tools” for orientation? For the purpose of reflecting these questions let us shortly take a look at a very different kind of map in order to see how choice in mapping matters. I chose an early 17th century map of Island by Abraham Ortelius. (see Fig 3)

It is a kind of map we are no longer acquainted with: no coordinates and standard measures, no neat separation between facts and fiction. To the contemporary eye the map resembles more an artistic representation than a scientific one, containing elements we would not encounter in usual maps: monsters. Instead of being amused by this representation and of admiring the detailed depiction of these imaginary creatures, we could acknowledge the map makers’ effort to render a much more complex picture of “Islandia”, one which captures simultaneously a blend of different kinds of “realities” and allows broader imaginaries and values to “enter the picture”.


Figure 3: An early 17th century map of Island by Abraham Ortelius[7]


At this point it seems worth remembering that the notion of monsters can always have two meanings: one which points at outrageous creatures, those we fear and thus want to push aside, exclude and hide; the other meaning could be derived from Nicholas Mosley’s idea of “hopeful monsters”, which for him “are things born perhaps slightly before their time; when it’s not known if the environment is quite ready for them” (see Law 1991). Addressing monsters from such a broader perspective reminds us that things could always have been different, that making futures – and in particular innovation driven futures – is a fragile and complex activity, and that we do not only live in a neatly scientized and engineered world, but in one which is much more messy and embattled, culturally formed and reformed as well as deeply value-laden.

Having said this, some obvious questions need addressing: How are “monsters” dealt with in the maps used to guide the science and technology policy making in Europe and beyond? Do we keep them out, silence or even ban them to make maps look more straight and easier in indicating direction? Or do we give them space, care for exposing them and thus allow them to become part of the overall picture?

As a social scientist, taking the idea of an Innovation Union seriously, I would plead for more complex ways of accounting for and mapping societal developments in their relation to innovation, for introducing and addressing the “monsters in our maps” of technoscientific development. This would be a crucial step towards realizing the very idea of “responsible research and innovation” – namely, seriously addressing the societal aspects when it comes to innovation. And it could be precisely the role of social scientists and scholars from the humanities – drawing on a broad range of analysis – to create space for “the monsters”, to insert them in the all too clean maps that are being produced and circulated around issues of technoscientific development.


5. Europe – An ideal space for the integration of SSH with sciences and engineering

Speaking of maps obviously also means considering how place matters in the development of innovations. Therefore, even though Europe struggles in developing its future based on science and technology, it is simultaneously a privileged space: Europe is unique “laboratory” where diverse models of society, cultural values and valuation practices, (techno)political traditions and histories (Felt et al. 2010), as well as broader sociotechnical imaginaries, i.e. different ways how national ideal are realized through science and technology (Jasanoff/Kim 2009) co-exist. Much rather than seeing this as an obstacle to a smooth development, this diversity should be conceptualized as a key-resource for developing new understandings of socio-technical innovation processes in both their more global and simultaneously local dimensions. As a consequence, European research and research funding needs to explicitly identify and embrace these opportunities the European knowledge space has to offer and to create explicit opportunities for integrating SSH and technoscientific research.

Given this privileged situation, two important elements need careful consideration in any further development of research and innovation. First, I deliver a plea for a systematic fostering of a comparative epistemology, both in SSH as well as in the sciences/engineering. European social, cultural and value diversity should invite more comparative research and thus make Europe a unique space of collective responsible experimentation with “the new”. This would lead to creating a better understanding of how innovations (can) develop in different settings and how they find arrangements with and integrate different societal structures and value systems (e.g. in the governance of the life sciences we can see such different models at work). Thus resistance or frictions which occur in specific settings/national contexts would not be merely be seen as a problem and an obstacle to smooth technoscientific development, but much rather as a resource for understanding how innovations get socialized, adapted and stabilized and how they acquire different meanings in different contexts. Finally, this would allow developing more responsible but also more resilient socio-technical systems.

In doing so, it is essential to reflect the (often implicit) maps – be they epistemic, geographic or reputational – used for orientation in the context of such a situation of experimentation. It means questioning assumptions about the core values at stake and how they are distributed as well as about assumed centers and peripheries. The latter is key when it comes to consider who should take the lead in shaping innovations, or who should be teaching whom and who should be simply following. Only reconsidering such deeply entrenched orders and developing more open approaches will allow more radical innovations to happen.

However, such a comparative epistemology extensively engaging with difference and asking partly for an integration of SSH with the technosciences needs important reconsiderations in the way science and technology are institutionally organized and funded. It will be essential to create working environments (e.g. career structures, assessment exercises, accountability rituals, …) for researchers, which actually allow them to engage in such experimentation without risking their career, but also educational approaches, which move away from quite narrow understanding of disciplinary education.

My second plea, addresses the importance of collective responsible experimentation across disciplinary boarders, but also across the divide between science and societal actors. This means making space for articulating different kinds of knowledge generation practices in research and funding; it means extending knowledge production to accommodate more inter- and transdisciplinarity (beyond the frequent lip-service paid to this notion); it means acknowledging the diversity of models and rationalities of knowledge generation in SSH and science/engineering; it means integrating SSH as “knowledge-able” and “value-able” partners on an equal footing into the core of technoscientific innovations. The latter means putting SSH knowledge on an equal footing with the one produced by the sciences and in particular acknowledges their sensitivities towards value orders at work in the innovation business. In some countries such experiments of collaboration between SSH and the sciences have taken place in the framework of so-called ELSA (Ethical, legal and social aspects) research in particular in the life sciences and around nanotechnology or in more recent programs on responsible innovation, and it would be worth carefully considering where such collaborations were successful, what funding mechanisms proved conducible to such an integration and how such collaborations across boundaries managed to impact the innovation process.

Yet such collective responsible innovation would also need the reconsideration of some of the basic premises on which research and innovation is based. It would mean to reconsider the notion of the innovation race, asking more questions about direction rather than simply arguing in terms of speed. It seems essential to move beyond an often binary logic of choice to a much more open and process oriented way of caring for socio-technical problems to be solved and continuously adapting solutions. This means in the end that we have to move away from the idea that there is one stable future to be attained to an understanding of future as a process. (Adam/Groves 2007; Felt et al. 2013)


6. A call for new knowledge relations: within, across and beyond

Drawing my different lines of argumentation together, I want to highlight that what we need are new kinds of knowledge relations in order to be able to address the grand challenges lying ahead of us. By proposing the notion of “knowledge relations”, I want, on the one hand, to draw attention to the necessary creation of new kinds of relations between people engaged in different knowledge generation practices and thus ways of seeing and explaining the world. This might be people from different disciplines, but – where needed – also the cooperation between scientific and different kinds of societal actors. On the other hands, it also points at the need for a serious engagement with and novel articulations of different kinds of knowledges – be they created by different disciplines or by societal groups (e.g. patient associations) – in the process of developing innovations.

Therefore change is needed simultaneously on several levels. First change has to happen within both SSH & science/engineering. More reflexivity concerning inner-disciplinary developments is needed, questioning some of the more deeply entrenched rituals and value orders to overcome disciplinary idiosyncrasies.

In a second move, it also means that change has to happen across disciplinary sites of knowledge production. This is a call for making space for knowledge generation and exchange across classical disciplinary borders, and in particular, for rendering cooperation between SSH and the sciences more attractive for both sides. In such knowledge relations SSH and sciences/engineering need to be on a par with each other, which also has to find its translation in the way policy makers speak about the relationship: the very expression of embedding SSH in lines of reasoning already predefined by sciences and engineering translates a hierarchy and potentially limits SSH in developing its full potential.

Finally, change needs to go beyond classical scientific territories. This points at the necessity to reflect on the potential inclusion of societal actors in new ways into the innovation process. We can look back to successful co-operations in some contexts (e.g. biomedicine) and such experiences should be carefully considered when developing lines of research to be funded.


Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

Adam, B. and Groves, C. (2007) Future Matters: Action, Knowledge, Ethics. Leiden: Brill.

Callon, M. et al. (2009) Acting in an Uncertain World. An Essay on Technical Democracy. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

ERAB (2012) The new Renaissance: will it happen? Innovating Europeout of the crisis. Third and final report of the European Research Area Board. European Union.

Felt, U., Wynne, B. et al. (2007) Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities. Available from: http://sciencestudies.univie.ac.at/en/publications/.

Felt, U. and Stöckelová, T. (2009) Modes of Ordering and Boundaries That Matter in Academic Knowledge Production. In: Felt, U. (ed.) Knowing and Living in Academic Research. Convergence and Heterogeneity in Research Cultures in the European Context (Prague: Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic): 41-124.

Felt, U., Fochler, M. and Winkler, P. (2010) Coming to Terms with Biomedical Technologies in Different Technopolitical Cultures. A Comparative Analysis of Focus Groups on Organ Transplantation and Genetic Testing in Austria, France, and the Netherlands. Science, Technology, & Human Values 35, 525- 553.

Felt, U. et al (2013) Science in Society: Caring for our Futures in Turbulent Times, ESF Policy Briefing 50. European Science Foundation.

Jasanoff, S. and Kim, S.-H. (2009) Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea, Minerva 47, 119-146.

Law, J. (1991) A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. London: Routledge.

Porter, T. (1995) Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[1] http://ec.europa.eu/research/innovation-union/index_en.cfm

[2] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-13-740_en.htm

[3] It is important to consider that in many cases social scientists have been very actively engaged in developing such maps. (see e.g. Map 2.b.)

[4] 2012 Global R&D Funding Forecast. http://newenergyandfuel.com/http:/newenergyandfuel/com/2011/12/28/where-the-rd-money-is-at/worldwide-rd-by-nation-2012/

[5] http://www.leydesdorff.net/mapping_excellence/

[6] http://www.dfg.de/en/dfg_profile/evaluation_statistics/funding_atlas/tables_figures/index.html

[7] http://onlyhdwallpapers.com/wallpaper/islandia_ortelius_1609_high_resolution_desktop_1811x1300_hd-wallpaper-546678.jpg



About the author:

Ulrike Felt


University of Vienna, PhD in theoretical physics, 1983

University of Vienna, Habilitation in social studies of science/sociology of science, 1997

Prior work:

Researcher at the European Center for High Energy Physics (CERN) in Geneva (1983-88)

Professor at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg (1997/98)

Guest professor/visiting researcher at: Université du Quebec à Montréal, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (Paris), ETH Zurich, Harvard University

Policy advice:

Expert in the Advisory Group of the European Commission for the Science and Society priority of the 6th framework programme (2003-2006)

Member of the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB; 2006/07)

Rapporteur/member of several European expert groups on science in society issues, most recently Policy Briefing “The future of science in society”, ESF

Current Employment/Responsibilities:

Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Head of Department, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Vienna

Vice Director of the Studies Programme Sociology

Areas of Research Interest:

  • science, technology and democracy: public engagement with techno science as well as governance and public participation, science communication;
  • knowledge relations: investigating how in contemporary societies relations are built through/on knowledge and how knowledge emerges through specific kinds of relational networks;
  • future and time-structures in contemporary science and society;
  • topics in knowledge politics, embracing both the changing cultures of knowing and living in research and their interwinedness with institutional policy such as university reforms, quality assessment strategies, excellence initiatives, etc.