On the Institutionalization of the "Human and Social Sciences" in France

By Bowen, John R.; Bentaboulet, Martine | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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On the Institutionalization of the "Human and Social Sciences" in France


Bowen, John R., Bentaboulet, Martine, Anthropological Quarterly


We offer here a brief analysis of the "human and social sciences" in France (sciences de I'homme et de to societe [SHS]), with an emphasis on changing patterns of institutionalization.1 Although we refer to several of these sciences, we focus on developments in social anthropology and sociology. We do not pretend to carry out an overall evaluation of trends and accomplishments, but, rather, to underline certain structures that have shaped the institutional contours of the human and social sciences. We bring different backgrounds to the effort: one of us is an anthropologist with long-standing ties to French anthropology but who has primarily worked elsewhere; the other is a biologist who has worked both in government (at the National Center for Scientific Research and the Ministry of Education and Research) and in a social science research environment.2 Both of us recently turned to an interest in French public policy: for one of us, French policy regarding Islam in public life; for the other, the organization of social science research in France.3

We begin with some observations about the intellectual organization of French research, turn to a sketch of the institutional contours, and then discuss the changes that are taking place in the 2000s with respect to the nature of research networks.

The Sociogenesis of the French model

Although it is recent enough to be presented in guillemets and to require justification, the idea that the "human and social sciences" are the most appropriate category for organizing research grows out of the particular contours of twentieth-century French social science history. This phrase is relatively recent; the categories used most often in the past have been the "social and economic sciences" (the name given to the 6eme section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in 1947) or the "social sciences" (that used for the later renaming of that Ecole). The phrase "human sciences" also has been of long use in France; this category has included some of the "social sciences" but not, for example, literary criticism, and is therefore not to be confused with the more general category of "les humanites." The popular magazine Sciences Humaines, for example, covers topics in history, psychology, sociology, political science, management, education and linguistics.

French research institutions continue to differ among themselves as to how they group disciplines. The CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, National Center for Scientific Research) brought the human and social sciences together in a single department in the 1980s at the suggestion of the anthropologist Maurice Godelier (who then became head of the new, broadly-defined department). At the Ministry of Education and Research, however, the two categories have remained distinct, with history, archeology, literature, linguistic, and psychology grouped under "human sciences," and sociology, anthropology, economics, geography, political science, law and management under "social sciences."

We focus on sociology and anthropology here because we find that these two disciplines, somewhat less applied than are political science and economics, and less well integrated with the "hard" sciences than is psychology, illustrate well the specific history of "human and social sciences." Sociology and anthropology became full-fledged sections of French academic institutions much later than in North America or Britain, and this late arrival is an important key to understanding the contemporary pattern of social science institutions in France.

One observes a sharp disjuncture between disciplinary patterns at the higher and lower levels of French higher education. At its high end, the academic system has been both adventurous and particularistic in creating professorial chairs. Many of the chairs at the College de France, for example, have complex titles designed for the incumbent: Marc Fumaroli's is in "rhetoric and society in Europe (16th-17th centuries);" Ian Hacking's is in "philosophy and history of scientific concepts.

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