Social science

The social sciences or human sciences are the set of disciplines concerned with the study of man and society through the use of the scientific method. In any case, it is necessary to specify that the human sciences are a composite field that includes many different disciplines that study human beings from different perspectives.

Among these disciplines, the specific type of methodology applied can vary, some of them also using tools of a statistical nature or methods such as the observational and participant observation method, while others prefer the experimental or modeling-simulative method. Of course, the use of a particular type of one of these methods does not necessarily exclude the others.

Disciplines that fall under the humanities include: psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, and education.

The social sciences as a ‘family’ of disciplines

Defining what the social sciences are is much more difficult than defining what geometry or physics are, despite the increasing articulation of the latter into specialized fields. The old definition – paradoxical only in appearance – that geometry is what geometers do or physics is what physicists do can certainly be applied to the social sciences. But with two additional difficulties: first, the very identification of the figure of the social scientist remains problematic to this day; second, they often do disparate things, both in the sense of studying different phenomena and in the sense of using very different methods, ranging from the techniques of observation of “primitive” societies used by the anthropologist in his fieldwork to the formulation of complicated mathematical models by the econometrician.

The point is that, as the use of the plural suggests, the social sciences do not constitute one science, but rather a heterogeneous “family” of disciplines that emerged at different times and in response to different needs. A discourse on the social sciences necessarily refers back to its various components, that is, to the individual disciplines that fit, or can be made to fit, into this “family,” to their interrelationships, and to the boundaries that separate the social sciences from other disciplinary fields. This is not to say that the social sciences have not sought, and still seek, unity; indeed, throughout their history there has often been a claim by one discipline or another to encompass the entire domain of “social” phenomena, that is, to become the all-encompassing social science, or at least the “foundational” social science vis-à-vis the others. But whenever a social science has made such a claim, in its subsequent development it has been forced to reckon with other disciplines claiming their autonomy, so that it too has become a specific discipline on a par with the latter.

Nor do the social sciences seem to have a general theory that can unify them. In this respect, too, there has been no shortage of attempts to define a common theoretical platform for the various disciplines that study society, or at least human society; but these attempts have always proved inadequate and have ended up marginalizing some of the sciences that should have held them together. For example, Marxism proposed a general – supposedly “scientific” – theory of society from which all social sciences were to draw their principles; but this theory was unable to account for the development of disciplines such as sociology or anthropology, except in a reductive way or by denying the validity of their approach and results. Still in the mid-twentieth century, Talcott Parsons and other scholars proposed a general theory of action based on the distinction (and interaction) of three systems – personality, social system, and culture – the subject matter of the three basic social sciences identified in social psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology, respectively; but this theory, in addition to reflecting a very specific paradigm, left out other disciplines to which a “sectoral” character was attributed, such as economics and political science.

The inability to bring the social sciences back onto a unified platform is ultimately due to the lack of both unity of object and unity of method-unless one understands method in a very general sense, that is, in the sense of “scientific” method tout court. In fact, the objective scope of the social sciences encompasses a multiplicity of phenomena that need to be “observed” and analyzed with a variety of tools: phenomena of different character and also of different dimensions, ranging from the processes of socialization of individuals, to the “values” shared by the society to which they belong and the institutions that preside over them, to the major technological, economic, and political transformations that change the face of a society. Different approaches to the study of these processes have been adopted, and with them different research techniques, which are – if at all – linked by problematic relationships.

Nevertheless, the social sciences have one thing in common: the fact that they are “sciences”, that is to say, that they have emerged on the basis of a conscious effort to know society or, more precisely, human societies. It is no accident that their emergence between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries is closely linked to the development of modern natural science and its approach; and it is no accident that sciences such as physics and, later, biology have on several occasions provided them with a methodological model, or at least a point of reference. Even if the scheme formulated by Auguste Comte in the Cours de philosophie positive (1830-1842), according to which the sciences would arrive at the positive state in an order determined by the decreasing simplicity and generality of their object as well as by the increasing proximity to the subject-so that the scientific study of society necessarily presupposes the earlier development of astronomy, physics, chemistry, and physiology-seems simplistic, There is no doubt that the social sciences were constituted as scientific disciplines after Newton, Boyle, and Lavoisier, who proposed to extend to social phenomena the same approach that had borne and continues to bear so much fruit in the study of physical or chemical phenomena.

In fact, the social sciences have in common with modern natural sciences the search for general laws of social phenomena-whether economic, political, or otherwise-that have the same validity as Kepler’s laws or the law of gravity. It was accompanied, to an ever greater extent, by the effort to make predictions about the future development of society or, more narrowly, of particular economic or political processes. The social sciences thus also emerged as sciences of laws, as a search for regularities in social phenomena-which explains why they have long had such rare and often contradictory relations with historiography. At the origin of the social sciences lies the shift from the original normative meaning of the concept of “law” to a different meaning, as given by Montesquieu, for whom laws are on the one hand the rules of coexistence between peoples, or between rulers and ruled, or even between citizens within the same body politic, but on the other hand “the necessary relations which derive from the nature of things,” relations which apply to “all beings,” and thus also to man, considered in his social existence. No less than physical nature, society seems to be characterized by laws of behavior that science can and must determine: laws that are valid not only for the past and the present, but also for the future, and thus the basis for being able to make predictions.

Like natural laws, social laws were conceived as susceptible to quantitative determination. Of the two constituent elements of modern natural science, the use of experiment as a means of testing hypotheses and mathematical formulation, the social sciences undoubtedly favored the second. Indeed, social phenomena could be observed and correlated, but they could not be reproduced in the laboratory; recourse to experiment therefore seemed precluded, or at least relegated to an entirely secondary role. It could be replaced, if at all, by the use of simulation techniques of various kinds. In principle, however, nothing stood in the way of expressing correlations between social phenomena in mathematical form. This effort is clearly outlined as early as the eighteenth century, culminating in Condorcet’s “social mathematics,” an attempt to apply calculus to the study of social phenomena, to bring them to the same degree of certainty that is derived from knowledge of nature. But William Petty had already proposed a “political arithmetic” at the end of the previous century; and François Quesnay, in his Tableau économique (1758), had quantitatively expressed the relations between the different social classes at the beginning and end of the annual cycle of production, in which the “natural order” of society manifests itself. And while other more recent disciplines, such as sociology and anthropology, will have less recourse to mathematics, political economy, beginning with Adam Smith and David Ricardo, will decisively follow the path of calculation and, later, of the formulation of increasingly sophisticated mathematical models, until in recent decades it will propose itself as a paradigmatic example for the other social sciences.

The question of whether the method of modern science can be transferred without residue to the study of social phenomena, and thus the nature of both the regularities and the predictions formulated by the social sciences, has long been debated; and in the course of this debate, two methodologically opposed goals have been pursued. On the one hand, the specificity of social “laws” has been asserted, their irreducibility to laws in a deterministic sense. On the other hand, it has been suggested that the regularities identified by the social sciences should be accorded the same degree of certainty as the laws of Newtonian physics. In fact, the assertion of the specificity of social “laws” was directed against a deterministic image of science that sociology in particular had adopted in its early days. Once this image disappeared even within the natural sciences – as the development of physics in the twentieth century clearly shows – social ‘laws’ are presented as regularities on a statistical basis, not unlike those of the other sciences; and even the predictions that can be made on their basis appear not to be made with absolute certainty, but with a greater or lesser degree of probability, on a par with the predictions of other disciplines (just think of meteorology, which is certainly not a social science). The development of statistics in the nineteenth century contributed decisively to this change in the understanding of social “laws”. And it was precisely by referring to the work of a statistician like Johannes von Kries, author of Principles of Probability (1886), that Max Weber was able to present the cause-and-effect relationship between social phenomena in terms of an “objective possibility,” a possibility susceptible to a gradation from the extreme of adequate causation to the opposite extreme of random causation.

Social science and Modern society

However, the relationship with modern natural science, although fundamental, is not sufficient to explain the emergence of the social sciences. Equally decisive seem to be the relations that link them to the development of modern society. This is not to say that the social sciences, once constituted, did not also proceed by virtue of an internal logic: considering them from the standpoint of the sociology of knowledge (or science) in no way leads to making their development an immediate reflection of economic, political, or other processes taking place in the surrounding society. But the constitution of individual disciplines in different epochs – and in different cultural contexts – cannot be explained without reference to these processes, which involve the emergence of new objects and new fields of study. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that the first of the social sciences to acquire an autonomous physiognomy was economics, or – to use its original name – “political economy”. Its emergence accompanied the rise of modern capitalism even before the Industrial Revolution; it accompanied the process of creating the modern profit-oriented corporation and the establishment of a national and international market no longer limited to luxury goods. The contrast between the two “schools” of economic thought that prepared the way for the new science – mercantilism and physiocracy – expresses the problematic relationship between capitalism and the modern state, between the state’s need to ensure the increase of the “wealth” produced by the nation, to control economic development and to draw from it the resources necessary for its own power politics, and the capitalist economy’s need to free itself from external constraints.

It is no coincidence that the most mature version of mercantilism, Colbertism, found fertile ground in the France of Louis XIV, which was determined to assert its hegemony on the European continent; while the physiocratic movement also established itself in France, it did so in the next century, when the combined weight of taxation and restrictions on the freedom of trade threatened to block capitalist development, at the same time as the transformation of production techniques across the Channel favored the establishment of English supremacy. That England was the cradle of political economy is a fact that can be explained not only by Newton and the work of the Royal Society in spreading modern science, but also by the coincidence between the interest of the bourgeois classes in economic activity and the interest of the state in protecting that activity. Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), with its decisive stand in favor of free exchange, expresses precisely this coincidence.

Similarly, the birth of political science is linked to the emergence of the modern state and the need for rational administration, which only a bureaucratic apparatus could guarantee. Montesquieu’s reflection in Esprit des lois (1748) – with its reference to English political thought of the previous decades, from Locke to Bolingbroke – expresses the need for the absolute state not to degenerate into despotism; and the theory of the separation of powers he formulated aims precisely at configuring a balance between the different components of sovereignty, to be achieved by distinguishing between the organ that has the power to make laws and the organ that is entrusted with their execution. From its beginnings, political science shows its connection with the development of various European countries. If in French political thought, as well as in English political thought, the analysis is primarily concerned with the conditions that must guarantee the freedom of the citizen in relation to the sovereign and the autonomy of a private sphere free from the latter’s interference, in Germany, on the other hand, a line of research – “cameralism” – is related to the development of an administration that must guarantee the welfare of the subject and, as a condition for this, the welfare of the state. It accompanies, on the one hand, the “enlightened” turn of Austrian absolutism and, on the other, the rise of Prussian power, in a doctrinal synthesis that emphasizes the need for a “police state” (where the term is not to be understood in today’s sense, but in a sense analogous to English policy) that would protect the security of all while promoting the growth of state wealth. Hence the centrality of the state in German political science, and the tendency to subordinate the consideration of civil society to it, indeed to see in the state, as Hegel will do, the place where the divergent interests of individual classes are harmonized.

The development of political science in contemporary times also reflects the transformation of the forms of politics: the shift from the science of the state to a consideration of politics no longer centered on the state and its bureaucratic apparatus accompanies the process of democratization and the emergence of a mass society. This is also true of some of the main theoretical bodies of political science: the theory of elites is an attempt to interpret the mechanisms governing the relationship between the rulers and the ruled in a society in which the choice of the political class is entrusted to the electorate; similarly, the revival of the theory of forms of government is linked to the rise of totalitarian regimes of the right and the left, and the consequent need for a more comprehensive typology than that applicable to the liberal or democratic governments that had developed after the French Revolution.

But it is precisely in the case of sociology that the link between the social sciences and the development of modern society becomes clear. Sociology was born in France, after the Revolution and the Napoleonic era, out of an awareness of a transformation of historic proportions that involved the destruction of an old social structure and the emergence of a new one based on “industry”-a term that originally referred to any form of productive work-and scientific knowledge. The founding fathers of the new science, Saint-Simon and Comte, were well aware of the impossibility of returning to the past, to the kind of society that in the Middle Ages, through the alliance between the throne and the altar, had made possible the permanence for centuries of an order based on a system of beliefs shared by all; but they also realized that the era of the revolution was now over and that its disruptive action had to be followed by an effort to rebuild society, accompanied by the construction of a new system of beliefs capable of guaranteeing consensus. Sociology thus emerges as a theory of industrial society in which authority is no longer based on religious faith but on science. Modern society was now born; it had to be consolidated by eliminating the vestiges of the past and resolving the social conflicts that its own development was likely to generate. By assigning this task to the two classes in power in industrial society, the class of “industrialists” and the class of positive scientists, sociology expressed, not without anticipation and an obvious utopian charge, a new reality in which scientific and technological development would become the driving force of productive transformation.

The emergence of anthropology in the second half of the nineteenth century also seems to be linked to a long-term historical phenomenon, that is, European expansion into other continents and encounters with previously unknown peoples, especially the indigenous peoples of the Americas, whose customs were thought to be characteristic of the savage state that preceded barbarism and then the transition to civilization. These customs had been the subject of circumstantial descriptions by travelers and missionaries before scholars, and their image had oscillated between the extremes of the myth of the “good savage” (already present in Montaigne) and the refusal to recognize them as having any cultural dignity. Anthropology avoided this alternative by recognizing in the savage state of primitive peoples a stage in the development of human culture that European peoples also passed through and from which they later broke away in the archaic period of Greek and Roman history, but whose survivals can also be traced in later epochs.

Hence the ambiguous link that linked the new discipline to colonialism, both to the English colonialism that had spread to the Old World and to the colonizing thrust of the American “frontier,” making it a tool of knowledge aimed at domination, but also a condition for a positive evaluation of the ways of life of indigenous peoples.The other social sciences also lend themselves, to varying degrees, to a consideration that can easily show their connection to fundamental processes and trends at work in modern society.

Thus, to take just one example, the birth of demography is conditioned by the “demographic transition” that took place in the eighteenth century in parallel with (but largely independent of) the industrial revolution; indeed, the first works devoted to the systematic study of population date from the middle of that century. The social sciences, moreover, have become increasingly aware of this connection; often, indeed, they have deliberately sought a relationship with social change, proposing to contribute to it or pointing to its means, ends, and even outlets. This different relationship, however, to which we will return, calls into question not so much the conditioning of the social sciences by the surrounding society as their social function, explicit or implicit.

Philosophy, social sciences, theories of society

The fact that the social sciences are a distinctly modern invention, that their emergence is linked to the development of modern society, does not mean, however, that the problems they address do not have a much more distant origin. Knowledge of the mechanisms that regulate social life is probably a need of every society, or at least of societies that have reached a certain level of development; and it took on a systematic form – to confine ourselves to the European sphere – already in the ancient world, with the rise of philosophical reflection. It would certainly be wrong to consider Plato’s Republic and Laws, or Xenophon’s Economy, or Aristotle’s Politics, or even the political treatises of the Hellenistic and later Roman periods, as offering a scientific analysis of society. What distinguishes them from the social sciences, if nothing else, is the fact that they do not aim to establish laws, but rather to search for the best form of government or to enunciate rules for domestic administration. There is no doubt, however, that they provide, in a manner often indistinguishable from the formulation of norms, a far from despicable body of information and analysis, certainly not inferior to what authors such as Machiavelli, Guicciardini, and Bodin had to offer in the early modern period. Nor was there a lack of empirical research on political phenomena in antiquity: one need only think of the collection of Greek constitutions initiated by Aristotle, which would provide factual support for the typology outlined in Politics. And it would not be difficult – if one were to engage in the easy art of looking for “antecedents” – to find in ancient works the anticipation of lines of inquiry that would develop centuries later, as in the case of the valuable ethnographic material provided by Herodotus’ Histories.

In fact, there is a double relationship of continuity and rupture between ancient philosophical reflection and the scientific study of society, not unlike that found in other fields: continuity in the need to study, perhaps on the basis of the analogy with the parts of the soul, the relations between the various classes that make up society, the different forms of government, their advantages and their dangers, and rupture in the epistemological approach. After all, the birth of the social sciences in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was prepared by the revival of such an ancient theory as natural law, especially in the version given by Stoic thought. And it was precisely the assumption of the existence of laws independent of positive laws that constituted the ground from which the secular conception of the State emerged, but also, at about the same time and not infrequently in the same authors, the idea of a natural order of society. This order was conceived as normatively valid, and indeed endowed with universal validity; later, however, it could be understood as the underlying structure of the variability of economic and political phenomena, to be studied – as the physiocratic movement would set out to do – with tools not unlike those of modern natural science. The Stoic idea of natural law thus came to perform for the emerging social sciences a function analogous to that performed for modern natural science by the (Pythagorean-Platonic) conception of nature written in mathematical signs.

Looking at the social sciences that emerged between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that is, political economy and political science, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between philosophical reflection and scientific consideration of society; so frequent is the shift from the enunciation of precepts with a view to increasing wealth or “enlightened” government to empirical investigation and vice versa. Indeed, the social sciences in this period are the bearers of a general conception of society, of an interpretation of the economic or political order or both; they are the bearers of what we might call a theory of society with both analytical and normative valences. But the intertwining of the social sciences with theories of society will not fail to characterize their development even later, as late as the end of the nineteenth century. Only in the twentieth century, indeed in the advanced twentieth century, will the social sciences free themselves from this relationship in order to assert a claim to scientific ‘purity’.

Once again, it is sociology that offers us an emblematic example of such entanglement, both in its original positivist version and in the form of the Marxian social science based on the critique of political economy. The model inherent in the former is that of a society capable of reconciling order and progress, that is, of ensuring an order that does not stand in the way of progress but makes it possible, and in which the moral authority derived from positive science can resolve “antagonisms” between classes, especially the conflict between workers and entrepreneurs within the “industrial” class. In other words, it is the model of a society based on consensus and solidarity that is transmitted through Durkheim to contemporary sociology. On the other hand, the model of Marx’s sociology (for here, too, we are dealing with sociology, at least in the nineteenth-century sense of an all-encompassing science of social life) is that of a society based, after the separation from the primitive community, on the division into classes produced by the division of labor and the permanent struggle between a class that possesses the means of production and a class that is “alienated” from them, in which conflict is the decisive element of development, that is, of the transition from one mode of production to another. In both cases, the analysis of society and the economic system, while having an explicitly scientific intent, refers back to a general theory of society, and thus to assumptions that are ultimately philosophical (and mostly ideological) in character.

It was not until the last decades of the nineteenth century that the alternative between these two theories of society gradually lost its original significance. This happened as sociology moved away from a general conception of history and toward the determination of “models” of society that were endowed with both historical and analytical value. This shift is marked by works such as Ferdinand Tönnies’s Community and Society (1887) and Émile Durkheim’s De la division du travail social (1893). Community and society, mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity are no longer just two phases, two “epochs” in the development of human society, but also two types of social organization that must serve as a basis for the analysis of different societies. And if both Tönnies and Durkheim are concerned with identifying the conditions of social order, an order that necessarily implies solidarity between individuals, this does not exclude the recovery of important aspects of Marx’s analysis of capitalist society: if Tönnies characterizes “community” with categories largely derived from the German Historical School, “society” is described on the traces of Hobbes on the one hand, but also of Marx’s Capital on the other. And Durkheim’s “organic solidarity,” while on the one hand characteristic of a society that allows autonomy to the individuals who compose it, is still the result of that process of division of labor that Marx had assumed to be the engine of social development.

Sociology thus clearly shows the transition from a study of social processes linked to (and dependent on) a theory of society to an analysis in which different theories converge to form a “neutral” categorical apparatus, depending on empirical observation and the formulation of regularities based on it. But a similar argument applies to other disciplines as well, albeit to varying degrees depending on their degree of formalization. This does not mean, however, that the social sciences, after their initial phase, have completely detached themselves from this relationship and that they do not refer to this or that theory of society in their development. Sometimes, even in recent times, the ideal of scientific “purity” has been openly questioned, and the need for a closer (and perhaps qualitatively different) relationship between the social sciences and philosophical reflection than in the natural sciences has been asserted. And often this need has been welded with the rejection of methodological neutrality, with the call for a science capable of offering normatively valid models and rules for a society alternative to – or at least better than – the existing one.

Social sciences or humanities?

Political economy, political science, sociology, anthropology, like the other social sciences, have human society, its structures and processes, as their object. This has led to a tendency to identify the social sciences with the humanities, or to consider the social sciences as an aspect or “province” of a larger grouping consisting of the human sciences.

This equation, however, is open to objections that are difficult to overcome, for the simple reason that the sphere of social organization and the sphere of human life, however one wishes to define them, are by no means contiguous. If in the second half of the nineteenth century the pioneering studies of authors such as Jean Henri Fabre highlighted the existence of insect societies, in the twentieth century ethology has shown not only that most animal species have a more or less developed social organization, but also that there is perhaps a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference between it and the organization of human societies. On the other hand, the existence of man is the subject not only of the social sciences, but also of other disciplines, such as anatomy, physiology, and psychology, for which the social dimension is irrelevant or at least marginal. If man is a social being, his behavior still has a biological basis that is beyond the competence of the social sciences. This is true even of those “psychic” phenomena that seem most resistant to this conditioning. It is no coincidence that even in psychiatry, which a few decades ago seemed to be oriented toward a purely sociological explanation of mental illness, even to the point of denying its existence, the importance of genetic factors is now widely recognized; and therapies of an analytical nature have often given way to pharmacological therapies based on the study of the chemical processes that govern brain activity.

But the main objection to equating the social sciences with the humanities stems from the very difficulty of defining the scope of what is usually called the “human world. There has been no shortage of attempts in contemporary culture to affirm the specificity of man, not by denying (or bracketing) his biological reality, but by seeking its roots in the particular structure of the human organism and its particular relationship to the environment. Ernst Cassirer, for example, referring to the theory formulated by the biologist Johannes von Uexküll, postulated a qualitative difference between man and animals and pointed to it in the presence of a “symbolic system” that mediates the relationship between stimulus and response, between receptive and reactive systems, so that the human world is configured as a set of symbolic forms. Such an approach, shared by the school of thought that took the name of philosophical anthropology, found support in the antithesis between biological evolution and cultural evolution and in the consequent affirmation of the acquired character of culture, an object of learning and not of hereditary transmission. Culture, the symbolic world, and language were thus assumed to be differentiating features of the human world; and Alfred L. Kroeber could see in superorganic evolution, the proper seat of culture, a “leap” in the evolutionary process. These assumptions, however, have been challenged by the development of ethological research.

The juxtaposition of genetic and social transmission, which allowed animal behavior to be regarded as the result of hereditary instincts and human behavior as the exclusive product of learning, has proved untenable: not only are many animal species capable of learning, and thus of transmitting acquired information from one individual to another and from one generation to the next, but a not inconsiderable amount of human behavior has an instinctive basis and must be attributed to processes other than learning. Like animals, humans act on the basis of “innate” dispositions, not just acquired habits. This has led to a broadening of the scope of culture, recognizing the existence of forms of culture among animals, or at least among different animal species. If language means a set of signs designed to enable communication between individuals of the same species, then even the dance of bees – studied by Karl von Frisch – is a kind of language. Specific to the human species, on the other hand, is a verbal language made possible by the physical characteristics of its phonation organs. The line of demarcation between man and animal runs through the determination of the peculiarities that language, like culture, represents in the human species.

But a precise delimitation of the “human world” was also prevented by the impossibility of clearly separating cultural evolution from biological evolution. The traditional interpretation – also accepted by anthropology in the first half of the twentieth century – that the transformation of human beings into cultural beings took place after their biological evolution had been completed, was replaced by a more complex view that saw the two types of evolution as interrelated: if the emergence of human culture is biologically conditioned, it seems to be a component of biological evolution itself. As André Leroi-Gourhan has pointed out, the development of the brain (and the cultural capacities it makes possible) presupposes the autonomy of the hand as a tool peculiar to man. In fact, the equation of the social sciences with the humanities, or the inclusion of the social sciences in the category of the humanities, follows the tendency to assert their heterogeneity from the natural sciences. This tendency has both an ontological and an epistemological basis. On the ontological level, the interpretation of the social sciences as human sciences responded to the need to draw a precise boundary between nature and culture, between the biological sphere and the “human world. Methodologically, on the other hand, it responded to the need to remove the social sciences from the epistemological model of the physical (as well as biological) sciences and to make them a cognitive edifice independent of these disciplines. The “human world” could thus be conceived as a reality that, because of its peculiar structure, avoided the search for general laws, or at least regularities, that the social sciences had originally proposed.

But like the “human world,” the sphere of the human sciences also seems difficult to identify. The very notion of the human sciences derives from the notion of “spiritual sciences” that Wilhelm Dilthey had formulated in the late nineteenth century with reference to the German historical school and the “historical” orientation it sought to give to the study of society. Although Dilthey abandoned the ideological assumptions of this school, the postulate of a “people’s spirit” expressed in the overall development of a nation, and even the organicist metaphysics that constituted its anchor, he retained the methodological assumption of the relationship between parts and the whole. From the historical school, Dilthey inherited above all the opposition to the natural sciences, and thus the rejection of the reduction of the methods of the human sciences to their orientation towards the determination of general laws, even in the sense in which John Stuart Mill had proposed it in System of Logic, ratiocinative and inductive (1843). It was not that Dilthey denied the relation of man and social life to a biological basis or to his environment; on the contrary, he pointed to the regularities resulting from this relation as the basis of individuation, the basis of the articulation of the mind into an individual form. But this relationship was irrelevant for the purpose of determining the scope of the “sciences of the mind. Today, however, after Max Weber’s critique of the historical school’s approach, even the notion of “spiritual sciences” seems untenable, and with it the dichotomy established between them and the natural sciences.

To speak of either the social sciences or the humanities is, on closer inspection, to respond to two epistemological perspectives that are incompatible. Even though the social sciences have sought to distinguish themselves from other disciplines, such as physics or biology, by asserting an increasingly pronounced anti-reductionist claim, they have nevertheless always sought behavioral regularities in the phenomena they study. The perspective of the human sciences is quite different. Antitheses such as that between explanation and understanding, or the revival of notions such as that of interpretation, which characterizes the recourse to hermeneutic analysis in phenomenological approaches – with the implication that, unlike natural processes, ‘human’ processes are susceptible to a multiplicity of mutually compatible interpretations, all of which lack the possibility of verification – show the distance that separates the methodological tradition of the human sciences from that of the social sciences, despite temporary juxtapositions. The fact that the latter also seek to understand the phenomena that constitute their objective domain, to trace them back to the behavior of individual “actors” and their interrelations, to shed light on the motivations and purposes of such behavior – as Weber also argued, speaking precisely of an “encompassing” sociology – does not mean that they shy away from the search for the most “objective” explanation possible, even if it is conditioned by a specific point of view. And the search for explanation, beyond the models to which it may refer, is still a common feature of the scientific enterprise.

The scope of the social sciences: society or relations between individuals?

If we want to determine what is specific about the social sciences in relation to other scientific disciplines, we must first ask what is their object or, rather, their objective scope. And the first answer that comes to mind is that the social sciences have as their object “society”, conceived as a reality sui generis, distinct from other realities, such as nature. From this point of view, the various social sciences have been conceived as sectoral disciplines that refer to different aspects of society, if they do not instead – as in the case of sociology in the sense of Georg Simmel and Leopold von Wiese – study its “formal” structure.

The use of the concept of society, however, belongs to a very specific phase in the history of the social sciences, namely a phase characterized by the dominance of organicist perspectives. It was possible to speak of “society” – or human society – in the singular insofar as it was attributed a form of existence irreducible to that of the individuals who are part of it. Such an approach found its basis in the fact, undeniable in itself, that most social institutions have a duration beyond that of individuals and persist even as individuals change; but from this fact it was inferred, less justifiably, that they also have a subsistence independent of them. The “organicism” implied by this conception of society, however, is of two kinds, which must be kept logically distinct. On the one hand, the organicist approach has led to a view of society as an ontologically defined entity, irreducible to the individuals who are part of it, not without serious ideological implications. Examples of this type are the romantic conception of society as the product of a “popular spirit” that persists over generations and determines the distinctiveness of all forms of life and culture of the people; or the notion of society that underlies positivist sociology or Marxian social science. On the other hand, there were models based on the analogy between the social organism and the biological organism, which involved the frequent analogical recourse to concepts derived from physiology and, more generally, from the life sciences. This second category mainly includes the models of sociological (or anthropological) evolutionism. The fact that the two types do not coincide is demonstrated, among other things, by Spencerian sociology, for which society, as a “discrete” rather than a “concrete” organism, entails an increasing autonomy of the “parts” from the “whole”, and social development aims at the establishment of a society in which the individual is finally freed from the coercive power of the state.

The legacy of the organicist approach is present in the social sciences whenever “holistic” perspectives have been asserted within them, which seek to assert the subordination of individual phenomena to a larger phenomenon. Durkheim, for example, could conceive of society as an entity transcending the individuals who are part of it and yet immanent to them “because it can only live in us and through us”; and it was precisely with reference to Durkheim that a strand of twentieth-century anthropology – that of Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown – analyzed primitive societies in terms of structure and function, that is, using a clearly biologically derived model. The use of systems theory, as formulated by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, seems more ambivalent. The notion of a system as a set of elements that tend to reach a state of dynamic equilibrium through the dual process of transforming energy extracted from the environment into activity, and processing received information into other information, undoubtedly has a biological matrix; indeed, it uses concepts drawn simultaneously from thermodynamics and information theory. But systems theory, applied to sociology, has made it possible to highlight the complexity of social systems, their relation to the environment and their interrelations, their capacity for self-regulation as opposed to entropic tendencies, and has emphasized the importance of disorder as the background against which the ordering action of any system is set.

This conception of the social sciences has been countered by another, which, in controversy with “holistic” perspectives, disregards the very concept of society. According to this approach – which has been given the otherwise questionable name of “methodological individualism” – the objective scope of the social sciences consists of phenomena and processes that result from relationships between individuals or institutions, but which also have their origin in individual behavior (or action). While ‘holistic’ perspectives are widespread in both sociology and anthropology in the nineteenth century, the dominant tradition in economics, with the exception of the German historical school, is an ‘individualistic’ one. The very model of homo oeconomicus, defined by the effort to maximize the goods he can obtain through production and exchange, rests on the assumption of a market in which a plurality of economic agents act in mutual competition. It was Carl Menger, however, who, since the 1880s, in controversy with the organicist approach of the historical school, advocated a view of social phenomena as the product of the action of individuals who constitute (as he called them) the “atoms” of society. Even for Vilfredo Pareto, whose work lies at the interface between economics and sociology, social phenomena are the result of the actions-whether “logical” or “non-logical”-of individual subjects.Max Weber also drew explicitly on this approach, and in particular on Menger’s analysis, in defining the object of “comprehensive” sociology. From this action, which can be of various kinds (rational in terms of purpose, rational in terms of value, affective, traditional), social relations are derived, which are precisely forms of behavior of several individuals oriented on the basis of mutual expectations. And relations are both community and society, on a par with the social group and its different types. This definition of the object of sociology can be applied, with the necessary clarifications, to any other social science: it can be applied directly when it deals with micro-social phenomena, and indirectly when it studies instead complex phenomena and long-term processes, be it cultural change or economic development. In such a perspective, the notion of a system is also freed from the pretense of designating society as an organic “whole”: in Parsons’ theory, for example, systems are made up of interactions between individuals, i.e. they are based on the mutual actions and expectations of individual “actors”. Far from being understood as a totality, society is thus presented as a multiplicity of systems of different types – interaction systems in the narrow sense, organizational systems, functional systems – that perform functions of adaptation to the environment, orientation to specific purposes, integration, and maintenance of latent patterns.

In their development, the social sciences have increasingly moved away from the “holistic” perspectives prevalent in the nineteenth century in favor of explanatory models that propose to trace social phenomena back to the behavior of individuals and relationships between individuals, or – if we want to make explicit the reference to “meaning” that the Weberian definition contains – to behaviors and relationships that have human individuals as their “subject. The systemic approach itself seems not only compatible with, but complementary to, an analysis of an “individualistic” character: when one speaks of a social system, or of a specific system such as the economic, political, cultural, etc., one does not postulate that it represents a higher reality or even a coherent whole; nor does one assume that each system is exclusively dedicated to the performance of certain functions and cannot find functional substitutes or, on the other hand, has latent functions. On this point, Robert K. Merton’s critique of anthropological functionalism marks a decisive turning point.

At this point, the question remains as to what the social sciences are. But if, as noted above, they are not a unified whole but a “family” of disciplines, the answer can only be enumerative, referring to the development of the disciplinary fields that make up the family. The first social sciences to be constituted, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were political economy and political science: but if the former was soon configured in an autonomous form and gave itself a determinate object, the autonomy of the latter was later challenged by the rise of sociology with its claim to be valid as an all-encompassing science of society. Typical of the nineteenth century, even in its recourse to organicist perspectives, sociology and anthropology, whether cultural or social, were instead. Other disciplines (and sub-disciplines) emerged between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, often in relation to pre-existing doctrines or as a result of encounters with the natural sciences. Determining the objective scope of the sciences therefore inevitably leads to a consideration of their boundaries and how they have shifted over time.

Social sciences, law, jurisprudence

Legal science occupies a special place in this framework. This is because its object is not so much behavior as norms and relations between norms. More precisely, it is concerned with a certain type of norms, namely those which a politically organized social group – be it a tribe, a state, or any other political formation – regards as binding on its members, and whose observance it demands, if necessary by the use of force. In the European world, it goes back to the efforts of interpretation and collection made by Roman jurists of the imperial age, culminating in the Justinian Corpus; and its development found decisive support – after the revival of the Romanistic tradition, interrupted by the spread of Germanic law – in the attempt to delineate a common law encompassing both Roman and canonical law. The study of law played an important role in the struggle for supremacy between the papacy and the empire, and jurists provided arguments to support the claims of both. What was decisive, however, was the encounter with the demands for the unification of law and jurisprudence that absolute monarchies and, where they did not exist, territorial principalities had. Law schools, like the nascent bureaucracy, were thus integrated into the system of the modern state and became, throughout the European continent, the instrument of a work of “fixation” of the law, which, through the first codifications of the eighteenth century, led to the Napoleonic Code and then to the numerous codes of the nineteenth century, while in the Anglo-Saxon world they ensured the continuity of the common law, that is, of a jurisprudence based on the judgments of the courts.

The formation of law and the development of jurisprudence thus seem to be closely linked. In any case, and leaving aside the doctrinal disputes about the nature of law that have played such a major role in it over the past two centuries, the fact remains that jurisprudence has been concerned above all with norms and their interpretation, with the constitution of a coherent body of law organized in a systematic form. This process of “rationalization” of law has had as its point of reference above all the modern State, which, in the victorious struggle against feudal particularism, gained the monopoly of the use of legitimate force within its own territory; and even if it allowed other sources of law to subsist alongside its own legislation, it placed them in a subordinate position and made their existence conditional on its own recognition. Thus, with the decline of the theory of natural law and the loss of its function as a criterion of the legitimacy of positive law, positive law has been configured more or less exclusively as state law, or as a particular jurisdiction authorized by the state itself. And the criterion for this distinction has been identified in the coercive character of legal norms, in the existence of an apparatus that guarantees their observance and of sanctions that target prohibited behavior. Hans Kelsen drew on this approach in constructing a “pure doctrine” of law, based on the distinction (also common to Weber) between the normative (ideal) and empirical (real) validity of legal norms, the object of legal science and legal sociology, respectively. In this way, Kelsen sought to rid jurisprudence of all extraneous elements by conceiving of law as an autonomous order consisting of norms in a hierarchical relationship to one another, down to a “fundamental norm” from which all others are derived. This strictly formalistic conception of law, which was so successful in the middle decades of the twentieth century, excluded from legal science any consideration of the relationship between norms and behavior, and thus the degree of effectiveness of the norms and the system as a whole. And it referred to another kind of consideration, the sociological (or, for primitive rights, anthropological). Sociology and anthropology of law entered the space left vacant by jurisprudence, the former being devoted to the study of the capacity of legal norms to influence the behavior of members of society and, reciprocally, to incorporate the needs arising from the process of transformation of a society, and the latter taking as its object legal systems not based on the normative action of the State. In fact, both had emerged long before the limits of legal formalism became apparent, even long before the formulation of Kelsen’s theory. The sociology of law goes back at least as far as Weber, while legal anthropology took its first steps in the mid-nineteenth century with Henry Sumner Maine’s attempt in Ancient Law (1861) to describe the evolution of legal systems as a transition from status to contract.

The affiliation of jurisprudence to the social sciences is thus at least problematic. Strictly speaking, the formalist approach implies that legal science is not a social science; it is concerned, to use Kelsen’s neo-Kantian language, not with the “being” but with the “ought to be” of norms. But this approach has been in gradual decline in recent decades, and this has been accompanied by a revival of the tradition of sociological jurisprudence inaugurated at the turn of the century by Hermann Kantorowicz and Eugen Ehrlich. On the one hand, social change and the proliferation of norm production have made it increasingly difficult to conceive of the legal system as a coherent system; on the other hand, the process of globalization has increasingly forced the comparison of norms belonging to different legal systems and has also promoted the emergence of supranational normative “sources”. This has led to an increasing view of law not so much as a normative system but as a social phenomenon, while at the same time shifting the emphasis from the legal ‘system’ to legal culture: in this way, legal science has come to be juxtaposed with the social sciences and has adopted approaches and models characteristic of the latter.

Social and Natural Sciences

Other social sciences grew out of the need to study the relationships between social phenomena and phenomena of other kinds that nonetheless condition the behavior of individuals and their relationships. The first of these, which we have seen is considered by Parsons to be one of the three basic social sciences, is social psychology. In itself, psychology is not really a social science, and in fact it originated in the nineteenth century as a study of the relations between body and “mind,” between the physical and mental behavior of human beings-and in more recent times has extended to similar processes observable in various animal species. But since the development of intelligence and, more generally, of the individual’s attitudes presupposes relationships with others, consideration of the socialization process has emerged as an essential element of psychological inquiry. Thus, since the early decades of the twentieth century, social psychology has been developed by Gordon W. Allport and others as a branch of psychology, but also as a discipline belonging to the social sciences. To give just one example, a work such as The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor W. Adorno (1950) made it possible to shed light on the structure of a personality type correlated with “ethnocentric” ideology and anti-democratic tendencies: phenomena such as conservatism or adherence to fascism were thus studied in their “deep” psychological roots, with recourse also to concepts of psychoanalytic origin. Indeed, psychoanalysis, which began with Freud as a study of the unconscious and its relations to the ego and super-ego, soon turned its attention to the social dimension of personality development. And in recent decades, cognitive science, which proposes a conception of the mind as information processing, has opened new perspectives for the study of intelligence and thus, indirectly, of the relations between intelligence and social life.

Another group of disciplines is concerned with the study of the relationships between social and other phenomena, mostly studied by the natural sciences. A widespread concern during the period of the establishment of the social sciences was to assert their epistemological autonomy and thus to draw a clear boundary with disciplines that studied the biological “nature” of human beings or their conditioning by the environment. This concern was expressed most notably by Durkheim in Les règles de la méthode sociologique (1895) through the principle that social facts can only be explained in terms of other social facts. But contemporary anthropology also asserted, through Franz Boas and Robert H. Lowie, the principle of the autonomy of cultural evolution from biological and psychic processes, going so far as to qualify the level of culture as “superorganic,” distinct from that of organic life. This principle was revived in the mid-twentieth century in connection with the tendency to hold society responsible for individual behavior, especially that considered deviant. Such an approach now seems to have fallen into disuse, and instead there has been a proliferation of boundary disciplines that examine, on the one hand, the conditioning that biological “nature” or the environment exerts on social life, and, on the other hand, the transformative action that human societies have played and are playing with respect to both.

Genetics is certainly not a social science per se, but its contribution to the study of human societies is now significant and will continue to grow. Human social behavior, and language itself, are increasingly shown to depend on “innate” factors. A specific branch of genetics, population genetics, has been devoted to reconstructing the processes of the spread of the human species across the globe, with results that have been confirmed by paleoanthropological research. No less important is the role played by demography, which studies social processes based on biological phenomena such as birth, growth, aging, and death, and is now considered a “bridge” discipline between the social and biological sciences. On the other side, the study of the transformative impact of human societies on the environment-from the limited environment that constitutes the habitat of a primitive society to the entire planet-another discipline has developed especially in recent decades: ecology. It has joined a more traditional discipline such as human geography, often overlapping with it, in the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and different types of environment. Ecology, like genetics, is also a natural science, but it has increasingly become a social science as a result of the emergence, in the second half of the twentieth century, of two concerns: that of the progressive depletion of resources, especially food, in relation to the rate of growth of the world’s population, and that of the threat posed by industrial and post-industrial development to the entire ecosystem of the planet. Perspectives and proposals such as “limits to development” or “sustainable development” have found their basis precisely in the results of ecological research.

While all of these disciplines stand at the watershed that separates the social sciences from the non-social sciences, others have had an important influence on them. This is especially true of ethology. While genetics and demography have shown the correlation between social and biological processes, ethology has problematized the boundary between human and animal behavior. This led to a major correction of traditional anthropology, which had made culture – and language – an exclusive attribute of humans. Indeed, ethology has shown that many human behaviors are mirrored in various animal species, and that the differences between humans and animals are quantitative rather than qualitative. Not unlike humans, animals form relationships with each other, have behaviors that can be characterized as social, have their own “customs,” and thus have a culture. Ethology has thus spawned a sub-discipline, human ethology, which is now a social science in its own right.

The social science landscape is thus very complex, and it is not surprising that it continues to be enriched by new disciplines, such as the study of communication processes. While the impact of information technology is still predominantly instrumental, the use of the analogy between intelligence and computers has been the starting point for studying the processes of artificial intelligence from a new perspective; and perhaps models of computer origin are destined to take the place that biological models had in the 19th century. Disciplines such as semiotics provide a general theory of signs and symbols, while sociolinguistics studies language as a process of communication between “speakers” and its transformations as conditioned by membership in different social groups. From this panorama, however, one fact is clear: the boundaries of the social sciences have become increasingly mobile, their “family” continues to be enriched by new members, and this process is far from over.

Social Sciences, Historiography, Comparative History

The relationship between the social sciences and historiography is quite different. When the former were still taking their first steps, historiography was, if not a discipline in the strict sense, certainly an activity that had been cultivated for centuries; and during the seventeenth century it had undergone a considerable technical refinement, investing even the field of “sacred history” and extending to ecclesiastical history. Then, in the eighteenth century, Enlightenment historiography, under the banner of the idea of progress, had formulated an overall picture of human history, broadened the historical horizon beyond the confines of the European world, and shifted interest from political (and politico-military) history to the history of “customs” and thus to the process of civilization. If, throughout the eighteenth century, the development of historiography and the emergence of the social sciences were parallel phenomena that did not interfere with each other – only Scottish culture resorted to sociological categories in the broadest sense in its interpretation of history – later things began to change. Indeed, the social sciences challenged the monopoly that historiography had traditionally held on knowledge of human affairs. The German school of history, with its aspiration to build a scientific edifice on a historical basis that would encompass all aspects of social life and grasp its evolutionary “tendencies,” was in large part a reaction to the threat posed by the rise of independent disciplines that sought to discover the “laws” of society and its development.

This explains why the social sciences and historiography have long had an antagonistic relationship, if they had one at all. For, on the one hand, the social sciences also referred to historical material, albeit mostly contemporaneous; they referred to the processes of capitalist development or the functioning of absolute monarchy or, later, the formation of an industrial society. But the limitation to contemporaneity was by no means constitutive of their approach: if the “laws” of production and distribution of wealth were sought through the study of English development, taken as exemplary, if the analysis of forms of government took its cue from the differences between English and French political arrangements, the interpretation of the emerging industrial society was already looking backwards, based on its comparison with another type of organic society, the “Catholic system”, based on a military and theological foundation, which had been established in the Middle Ages. After the mid-nineteenth century, anthropology would go back to the beginnings of Greek and Roman history, using it to understand the development of human culture as it emerged from the savage state. And it was precisely the anthropology of the late nineteenth century that would begin to place historical and ethnographic records on the same plane, in an effort to integrate them: think of Lewis H. Morgan’s Ancient society, published in 1877. On the other hand, the social sciences and historiography seemed not only distinct but hopelessly divergent in their methodological orientation. While the social sciences searched for regularities and thus worked out “types” of social organization or determined causal or even merely statistical correlations between different social processes, historiography set out to reconstruct each historical phenomenon in its individuality, that is, in what distinguished it even from (apparently) similar phenomena. The postulate of the school of history that every people has its own “spirit,” its own national character, and that every epoch, according to the Rankian paradigm, also has a peculiar physiognomy that distinguishes it from all others, acted as a watershed between the social sciences and historiography. To the relationship between the social sciences and historiography was thus applied the criterion of distinction that Wilhelm Windelband had enforced between the natural and historical sciences, based on the “nomothetic” orientation of the former and the “idiographic” orientation of the latter.

In fact, the positivist culture tried to reduce this distance by extending to historiography the task of researching “laws” that should have raised it to the dignity of a science; but this attempt did not arrive at consistent results. More significant was Marxism’s attempt to give historical research a sociological basis, studying historical processes in terms of relations between social classes; but the theory to which it referred, that is, the theory of society formulated by Marx, seemed increasingly distant from the directions in which sociology was already developing at the end of the nineteenth century. Only later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, did historical research begin to establish a positive relationship with the social sciences: witness Henri Berr’s proposal for a historical “synthesis” capable of going beyond the simple collection of facts to the formulation of general laws, or the new history of Charles A. Beard and James H. Robinson. These were followed by the efforts of the “Annales” school to achieve an integration of the various social sciences – including geography – under the aegis of historiography. Thus, for a large part of the twentieth century, the panorama of historical research was divided between the historicist paradigm, which predominated in German (and Italian) circles and was often prejudicially hostile to the social sciences, especially sociology, and other paradigms, present in both French and Anglo-Saxon historiography, which sought to make use of the models developed by the new disciplines, thus placing themselves on the same level as them.

At the turn of the century, Max Weber had already laid the methodological foundations for this new relationship. For him, the social sciences had an instrumental function in understanding individual historical processes in their individuality, but Weber by no means concluded from this that nomological knowledge was irrelevant to historiography. On the contrary, if it is to be knowledge – on the same footing as the natural sciences, though in a different way – it must make use of concepts and “laws,” i.e., empirically determined regularities, in order to establish relations between historical phenomena, that is, to “explain” them. But these general concepts and “laws” are offered precisely by the social sciences, by economic theory as well as by sociological theory. In the second half of the twentieth century, this movement from historiography to the social sciences was accompanied by a movement in the opposite direction. If anthropology had from the beginning maintained a close relationship with history, other disciplines increasingly broke away from the exclusive reference to contemporaneity: with Joseph A. Schumpeter, for example, the theory of business cycles sought to offer an explanation of centuries-old processes, and even demography went in search of long-term trends. A case in point is sociology, which in the first half of the century was characterized by a prevailing interest in ongoing social processes that could be observed empirically, from migration processes from Europe to America to urban development and class relations in American society. In sociology, in particular, the exhaustion of the Parsonian approach was accompanied by a tendency toward a “historical” sociology, which made use of historical material and was oriented toward the analysis of social processes of longer duration.

The study of modernization processes since the 1970s by authors such as Reinhart Bendix, Barrington Moore Jr. and Theda Skocpol seemed to require determining the different paths to “modernity” taken by individual countries and the outcomes they had produced on the political terrain. Historical sociology thus promoted comparisons between different national contexts and became ‘comparative history’. In recent decades, comparative history has been the meeting point between the social sciences and historiography, in a methodological perspective much more indebted to Weber (but also to Marxism) than to the imperialist pretensions of the “Annales” school and its too vague attempts at conceptualization. Indeed, the comparison between totalitarian and democratic regimes, developed with particular reference to the authoritarian path to “modernity” that prevailed in countries such as Germany and Japan, involved the integration of historical research and methods of inquiry proper to the social sciences. This is not to say that there has been a “fusion” or even an assimilation of these with historiography: the social sciences have retained their epistemological characteristics, but the distance that in the past separated them from historical research now seems to have been largely reduced. For its part, historiography, freed from the historicist paradigm, has often asserted its nature as a science, and precisely as a “historical social science”.

This was accompanied by two other phenomena: on the one hand, the increasingly explicit recognition of the historicity of the “laws” formulated by the social sciences, and, on the other, the prominence of dynamic approaches in several disciplines, especially economics. Far from proclaiming “abstract” regularities of behavior that are endowed with timeless validity, economic or sociological “laws” have turned out to be valid only within a specific historical framework, that is, for a particular economic system or society. On the other hand, the social sciences have been increasingly concerned not with equilibrium, but with change and the “factors” of change: the Schumpeterian theory of economic development found its counterpart, after Parsons, in the search for the modes of transition from traditional to modern societies, the conditions that make social development and the transformation of political structures possible. Historical “time” thus regained the full rights of citizenship in the social sciences after the demise of the macro-historical perspectives of nineteenth-century sociology and anthropology.

Value assumptions and relationship to practice

Not unlike modern natural science, the social sciences emerged with an explicit cognitive intention, that is, the intention to know the structure of society and its “laws. From the beginning, however, there was also a practical purpose, which we find in the program of eighteenth-century political economy and which Comte then clearly articulated with his reference to Bacon: foresight based on “laws” must allow for conscious intervention in the course of things in order to direct them toward certain ends. Whether these ends were then presented as corresponding to the objective development of society, i.e., the development of the division of labor and the growth of the “wealth of nations,” or the completion of industrial society, is of almost secondary importance. The fact remains that the social sciences have also had a practical function from the very beginning.

However, the relationship between scientific knowledge of social phenomena and the use of the results of the social sciences soon proved to be anything but clear, since the goals to be achieved by research, far from being dependent on these results, determined its orientation from the outset. It was not by chance that the political economy of the classical school was transformed into national economics; even the social policy proposed on this basis, for example by the “chair socialists,” had as its ultimate goal the securing, through the integration of the working classes, of the conditions necessary for the pursuit of the state’s objectives of power.

The consequence of this approach was the recognition of “value judgments” as an integral element of the social sciences, from the study of which it was expected to be possible to derive scientific indications not only of the means to be adopted, but also of the ends to be pursued in politics. However, this was opposed by Weber’s thesis of the freedom of value, i.e. the necessary “avalutative” character of the social sciences. Max Weber conceded that knowledge of social reality is always bound up with “subjective” assumptions, and thus with values that govern the selection of empirical data; but he believed that this value relation-as he called it in neo-Kantian language-was no obstacle to the possibility of arriving at an objectively valid “truth,” provided, however, that it did not lead to the formulation of value judgments. He thus enforced a clear distinction between empirical science and the establishment of norms or guidelines for practice. Like the natural sciences, the social sciences proceed, or at least must proceed, to the determination of causal relations between the phenomena to which they refer, that is, they offer an explanation of them. That the nature of the explanation is different (just as the function of nomological knowledge is different) does not mean that the explanatory intention is peculiar only to the natural sciences. Once the scope and direction of research is defined – on the basis of a specific “point of view” that expresses precisely the relation to certain “values” – it can (and must) proceed according to methodological rules that ensure its objectivity, just as the natural sciences do.

Weber also conceded that values can be the subject of investigation with respect to the conditions and means of their realization, that is, their consistency with the means employed to realize them and their compatibility with each other; but he believed that this “technical” critique in no way entails a judgment on the “validity” of values, which is beyond the scope of empirical investigation and is instead a matter of faith or the subject of philosophical reflection. The Weberian thesis of the avalutativity of the social sciences represented a widely shared methodological ideal, since it allowed the “objectivity” of the social sciences to be safeguarded while recognizing the multiplicity (and relativity) of the “points of view” from which research proceeds, and thus its connection to a particular historical situation. It has, however, clashed with the tendency to establish a closer link between theory and practice, making the social sciences an instrument for the transformation of society in terms of precise political goals. This tendency took many forms during the twentieth century, but they can be traced back to two main variants, corresponding to the different modes of the transformation process: a revolutionary variant and a reformist variant. The first variant is found mainly in attempts to combine social sciences and Marxism, making them the vehicle for a conception of society based on the perspective of the transition from capitalism to a classless society. On the other hand, the second variant, especially prevalent in Anglo-Saxon culture, conceives of the social sciences as an instrument for the gradual improvement of people’s material living conditions and the spread of prosperity. The first alternative corresponds to a close relationship between the social sciences, worldview, and “utopia” (even when the latter is presented as scientifically based); the second, on the contrary, corresponds to their completion as a work of “social engineering”.

Both tendencies have their roots in the early development of the social sciences. The utopian character is strongly present in positivist sociology, as well as in Marx’s social science, despite the claim to found a “scientific” socialism; while political economy was configured more as a social technology, as a set of instrumental orientations for the achievement of predetermined goals. But as the aspiration to constitute the all-encompassing science of society waned, sociology also lost its original utopian tendency and turned into social engineering, that is, into proposing directions for addressing and solving specific problems. In contrast to utopia, which aims at the realization of an “ideal” society more or less alternative to the existing state of affairs, social engineering aims at the correction of the ills of society and the pursuit of well-being.

Social engineering is, in fact, also a form of intervention inspired by value assumptions; it is so in that it seeks not only to identify social problems, but to give them a solution that is considered scientifically correct or the best possible. It is therefore not neutral with respect to the goals to be pursued; it does not merely provide a set of directions as to the paths to be taken in order to realize one solution or another. The social scientist engaged in “engineering” is the bearer of values, that is, of a political line that may or may not coincide with that of the government or organization that commissions it. This opens up a whole series of questions – widely debated in the 1960s and 1970s – about the role of the economist or sociologist and the “critical” task he or she is called upon to perform as an intellectual. This task can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, it can be understood in the sense that knowledge of social reality, as such, fulfills a demystifying function with respect to the way it is presented by certain ideological positions, whatever their social basis or orientation; on the other hand, it has been presented with a more explicit political characterization, that is, as a critique of the ideological implications that, in a more or less explicit way, underlie the very analysis of the social sciences. In the first of these two meanings, the critical task ascribed to the social sciences does not conflict with the postulate of “avalutativity”; in the second, however, critically oriented social science proposes to carry out a critique of the present social order and thus of the power structures on which it is based.

Specialization, Unification, Integration

Like all scientific disciplines, the social sciences have undergone a process of increasing specialization, especially during the last century. Not only the social sciences as a whole, but each of them now presents itself as a “family” of disciplines or, if you will, sub-disciplines. This process is part of the more general phenomenon of the division of scientific labor and the institutionalization of research that is common to all sciences. But it also has another, more specific origin: the complexity of contemporary society, which has generated – and continues to generate – new objects of study to which the attention of social scientists necessarily turns. In an age of constant change, the social sciences are forced to address previously unknown problems, to explain phenomena outside their traditional field of study, and to relate them to already known phenomena. And this also requires the use of new research techniques. Thus, not only the objective scope, but also the theoretical frameworks of the social sciences are becoming more articulated; nor can we assume a backward shift.

The phenomenon of scientific specialization had already attracted the attention of Comte, who saw in it a danger for the “synthetic” task that he attributed to “positive philosophy“-a danger somewhat parallel to that of the specialization of industrial labor, which generated conflicts between classes. And the subsequent history of the social sciences is full of similar concerns, manifested in the appeal to restore a lost unity. This was the starting point of the tendency towards the unification of the social sciences, whether considered as an autonomous theoretical edifice or as a unitary construction modelled on a discipline alien to them. Sociology itself, moreover, was originally conceived as “social physics,” while concepts and explanatory schemes derived from biology were widely used throughout the nineteenth century: after all, organicist metaphors are still part of the social sciences’ lexicon.

In fact, the need to achieve the unification of the social sciences has a twofold matrix. On the one hand, it stems from the realization that each social science is capable of grasping only a certain aspect of social life, that its explanatory capacity is limited, or, on the other hand, from the claim of a particular discipline to be valid as a model for the others. The case of the most formalized social science, economics, is particularly significant in this twofold respect. On the one hand, in order to explain long-term processes, it is forced to resort to non-economic “factors” and thus to theories derived from sociology or political science or, more simply, from historical research. On the other hand, it has been proposed (or has been proposed) as an epistemological model for all the social sciences, based on the assumption that every individual, in all fields, always acts according to the principle of economics, and that therefore economics is capable of providing the theoretical apparatus indispensable for explaining political or other kinds of behavior as well. The theory of “rational choice” developed in economics has thus spread to other disciplines, starting with political science. The second matrix of the tendency to unify the social sciences, on the other hand, is to be found in the comparison with the natural sciences, in the belief that a condition of the scientific character of the social sciences is their adaptation to the procedures and language of other sciences that have reached a higher degree of development.

This second matrix is found above all in the neo-positivist program of the unity of science, which reveals an explicit physicalist inspiration. If Comte thought of a sociology based on a system of laws analogous to that of physics and dependent, albeit in its autonomy, on the systems of laws of the disciplines that preceded it in the encyclopedia of positive knowledge, neopositivism proposed instead to “reduce” the language of sociology – and thus that of any science, social or otherwise – to the language of physics, considered paradigmatic because of the possibility of tracing it back to statements of an observational character. Linguistic unification thus represented the counterpart of a radically empirical research program, enforced against the epistemological dichotomy between social and natural sciences. In reality, this program had little impact on the actual work of the social sciences and was abandoned as early as the 1950s; even its reintroduction in the form of a single explanatory model adopted (or to be adopted) by each science did not withstand the criticism directed against it. Besides physics, the other discipline to which the social sciences have often looked as a model is biology, when society was conceived as an organism to be studied in its “functions,” and its institutions were equated with organs, each of which was supposed to perform certain vital functions necessary for the life of the whole. Although sociological and anthropological functionalism has over time been purged of its organicist presuppositions, the program of reducing the social sciences to biology has by no means been abandoned. Recently, Edward O. Wilson has again proposed it as a condition for the social sciences to be part of what he calls the “modern synthesis”: a synthesis based on the extension of the theory of evolution, and especially of natural selection, to social life. No longer the physiology of the early nineteenth century, but a sociobiology with an evolutionary orientation, linked to advances in genetics and neuroscience, thus became the basis for a new version of the program of unification of the social sciences. And there is more than a hint that computer science may in the future be given a “unifying” task similar to that of physics or biology.

However, the tendency to unify the social sciences has not yet led to the result intended by its proponents. The situation is different with the integration tendency, which, leaving aside any claim to construct a unified science of society, aims rather at combining research techniques and results of different disciplines – of several social sciences, or between social sciences and natural sciences, or between social sciences and historical research. If the unification tendency is based on the postulate that each discipline is part of a unified whole, the integration process assumes that no social science is self-sufficient and that the articulation into disciplines is the product of a historically determined division of scientific labor and therefore also destined to change. From the process of integration, as we have seen, new lines of inquiry have emerged and continue to emerge, destined to give rise to new disciplines or subdisciplines. Far from producing a hierarchically ordered system of sciences, it has opened up unexplored avenues of knowledge about social phenomena, their interrelations, and their conditioning by phenomena of other kinds.

Related keywords

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