Social science

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

Among these disciplines the specific type of methodologies applied can vary, some of them also making use of tools of a statistical nature or methods such as the observational and participant observation method, while others prefer the experimental or modeling-simulative method. Clearly, the use of a specific 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 and training sciences.

The social sciences as a ‘family’ of disciplines

Defining what the social sciences are is far more difficult than defining, for example, what geometry or physics are-and this despite the increasing articulation of the latter into specialized domains. 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 as well. But with two additional difficulties: the first is that the very identification of the figure of social scientists is problematic to this day; the second is that they often do disparate things, both in the sense of studying different phenomena and in the sense of making use of very different methods, ranging from the techniques of observation of ‘primitive’ societies that the anthropologist uses in his fieldwork to the formulation of complicated mathematical models by the econometrician.

The point is that – as the very use of the plural indicates – the social sciences do not constitute a science, but rather a heterogeneous ‘family’ of disciplines that were formed at different times, and in response to needs that were also different. A discourse on the social sciences necessarily refers back to its different components, that is, to the individual disciplines that can fit, or be made to fit, into this ‘family,’ to their mutual relations, and to the boundaries that separate the social sciences from other disciplinary fields. This is not to say that the social sciences have not aspired, and still aspire, to unity; indeed, throughout their history there often recurs the claim by one or another discipline to embrace 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 it has then been forced, in its subsequent development, 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 date, to be traceable to a general theory capable of unifying them. In this regard, too, there has been no lack of attempts to determine a common theoretical platform for the various disciplines that study society, or at least human society; but always these attempts have proved inadequate, and have ended up marginalizing some of the sciences that should, instead, have held together. Thus, for example, Marxism proposed a general theory-intended to be ‘scientific’-of society, from which all the 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) between three systems – personality, social system, and culture – the subject, respectively, of the three basic social sciences identified in social psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology; but this theory, in addition to reflecting a very specific paradigm, left aside other disciplines to which a ‘sectoral’ character was attributed, such as economics and political science.

That the social sciences cannot be brought back to a unified platform ultimately depends on the lack of both a unity of object and a 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 covers a multiplicity of phenomena that require to be ‘observed’ and analyzed with a great variety of tools: phenomena of different character and also of different dimensions, ranging from the processes of socialization of the individual to the ‘values’ shared in 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 have been adopted to study these processes, and thus different research techniques too, connected – when they are – by problematic relationships. And yet the social sciences have one character in common: that, precisely, of being ‘sciences,’ that is, of having arisen on the basis of a conscious effort to know society or, rather, human societies. It is not by chance 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 not by chance that sciences such as physics and, later, biology have on several occasions represented a methodological model for them or, at least, a term 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 the increasing proximity to the subject-so that the scientific study of society necessarily presupposes the earlier development of astronomy physics, chemistry and physiology-, appears simplistic to say the least, there is no doubt that the social sciences were constituted as scientific disciplines after Newton, Boyle and Lavoisier, proposing to extend to social phenomena the same approach that had borne, and continued to bear, so much fruit in the study of physical or chemical phenomena.

Indeed, the social sciences have in common with modern natural science the search for general laws of social phenomena–whether these be economic or political processes or otherwise–provided with the same validity as Kepler’s laws or the law of gravity. It has been accompanied, to an increasingly pronounced extent, by the aspiration to make predictions about the future development of society or, more narrowly, of particular economic or political processes. The social sciences also therefore arose as sciences of laws, as a search for regularities within social phenomena – which explains how, for a long period, they had such rare, and often conflicting, relations with historiography. At the origin of the social sciences is that shift from the original normative meaning to a different meaning of the concept of ‘law’ that is given in Montesquieu, for whom laws on the one hand are 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 are “the necessary relations that derive from the nature of things,” relations that apply to “all beings,” and thus also to man considered in his social existence. No less than physical nature, society, too, appears to be characterized by regularities of behavior that science can, and must, determine: regularities valid not only for the past and the present, but also for the future, and thus the basis for being able to enunciate predictions.

Like natural laws, social laws were also 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 with each other, but not reproduced in the laboratory; recourse to experiment therefore seemed precluded, or at least reduced to an entirely secondary role. It could, if at all, be replaced by the use of simulation techniques of various kinds. Nothing, however, stood in the way, in principle, 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 that must bring it to the same degree of certainty drawn from knowledge of nature. But already William Petty, at the end of the previous century, had proposed a ‘political arithmetic’; and in Tableau économique (1758) François Quesnay had expressed in quantitative terms the relations between the different social classes at the beginning and end of the annual production cycle, in which the ‘natural order’ of society is manifested. And while other more recent disciplines, such as sociology and anthropology, will more rarely resort to mathematics, political economy will decisively take – starting with Adam Smith and David Ricardo – the path of calculation and, later, of the formulation of increasingly sophisticated mathematical models, until it proposes itself, in recent decades, as a paradigmatic example for the other social sciences.

Whether the method of modern science can be transposed 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 the debate two methodologically opposed aims 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, on the other hand, it was proposed to grant the regularities determined by the social sciences the same degree of certainty that was attributed to the laws of Newtonian physics. In fact, the assertion of the specificity of social ‘laws’ was directed against a deterministic image of science, which especially sociology 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 to be provided not with absolute certainty, but with a greater or lesser degree of probability on a par with the predictions made by other disciplines (just think of meteorology, which is certainly not a social science). A decisive contribution to this change in the way social ‘laws’ are understood was made by the development of statistics during the nineteenth century. And it was precisely by referring to the work of a statistician such as Johannes von Kries, the author of Prinzipien der Wahrscheinlichkeitsrechnung (1886), that Max Weber was able to present the cause-and-effect relationship between social phenomena in terms of “objective possibility,” of a possibility susceptible to a gradation from the extreme of adequate causation to the opposite extreme of accidental causation.

Social science and modern society

However, the relationship with modern natural science, although fundamental, is not sufficient to account for the emergence of the social sciences. Equally decisive appear to be the relations linking them to the development of modern society. This is not to say that, once they were constituted, the social sciences did not also proceed by virtue of an internal logic: their consideration from the standpoint of the sociology of knowledge (or science) in no way leads to making their development an immediate reflection of economic or political or other processes taking place in the surrounding society. But the very constitution of individual disciplines in different epochs – and in cultural contexts that are also different – 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, among the social sciences, the first to acquire its own autonomous physiognomy was precisely economic science 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 enterprise and the establishment of a market, domestic and international, no longer limited to luxury goods. In the contrast between the two ‘schools’ of economic thought that prepare the advent of the new science – mercantilism and physiocracy – is expressed 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, controlling economic development and drawing 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 committed to asserting its hegemony on the European continent; while the Physiocratic movement also established itself in France, but in the next century, when the combined weight of taxation and the limits placed on the freedom of trade threatened to block capitalist development, at the same time that the transformation of production techniques across the English 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 engaged in economic activity and the interest of the state in protecting this activity. Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations (1776), with its decisive stand in favor of freedom of exchange, expresses precisely this coincidence.

Not differently, 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 the Esprit des lois (1748) – with its reference to the English political thought of previous decades, from Locke to Bolingbroke – expresses the need for the absolute state not to degenerate into despotism; and the theory of the division of powers he formulated is aimed precisely at configuring a balance between the different components of sovereignty, to be achieved through the distinction between the organ holding the power to make laws and the organ deputed to their execution. Even at its beginnings, political science shows its connection with the development of different European countries. If in French political thought, as indeed in English political thought, the analysis is primarily concerned with the conditions that must ensure the freedom of citizens vis-à-vis the sovereign, and the autonomy of a private sphere removed from the latter’s interference, in Germany, on the other hand, a line of research – ‘cameralism’ – related to the development of an administration that must ensure the welfare of the subject and, as a condition of 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 to be understood not in today’s meaning, but in a sense analogous to English policy) that would protect the security of all and at the same time foster the growth of state wealth. Hence the centrality accorded to the state in German political science, and the tendency to subordinate to it the consideration of civil society, indeed to see in the state – as Hegel will also 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 Staatswissenschaft to a consideration of politics no longer centered on the state and its bureaucratic apparatus accompanies the process of democratization and the advent 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 rulers and ruled in a society in which the choice of the political class is entrusted to electoral suffrage; similarly, the revival of the theory of forms of government is linked to the rise of totalitarian regimes of the right and 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 especially in the case of sociology that the connection between the social sciences and the development of modern society comes to light. Sociology arose in France, in the aftermath of the Revolution and the Napoleonic age, from an awareness of a transformation of historic magnitude that involved the destruction of an old social structure and saw the emergence of a new structure, based on ‘industry’ – a term that originally designated any form of productive labor – and scientific knowledge. The founding fathers of the new science, Saint-Simon and Comte, were well aware of the impossibility of a return to the past, to the kind of society that in the Middle Ages had made possible, through the alliance between throne and altar, the permanence for centuries of an order based on a belief system shared by all; but they also realized that the era of revolution was now closed, and that its disruptive action had to be succeeded by an effort to rebuild society, accompanied by the building of a new belief system capable of guaranteeing consensus. Sociology therefore arises as a theory of industrial society, in which authority finds its basis no longer in religious faith but in science. Modern society is now born; it is a matter of consolidating it by eliminating the survivals of the past and resolving the social conflicts that its own development is likely to produce. By attributing this task to the two classes that hold power in industrial society, the class of ‘industrialists’ and the class of positive scientists, sociology was expressing-not without anticipatory forcing and an obvious utopian charge-a new reality, in which scientific and technological development was set to become the driving force behind productive transformation.

The emergence of anthropology in the second half of the nineteenth century also appears 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 American continent, 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, even 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 eschewed this alternative by recognizing in the savage state of primitive peoples a stage in the development of human culture that European peoples also went 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 nexus that links 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,’ and which makes it, yes, a tool of knowledge aimed at domination, but also the 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 with 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, parallel to the industrial revolution (but largely independent of it), took place in the eighteenth century; and indeed the first works devoted to the systematic study of population date from the middle of that century. Of this connection the social sciences have, moreover, become increasingly aware; often, indeed, they have intentionally sought a relationship with societal change, proposing to contribute to it or to point to its means, purposes and even outlets. This different relationship-to which we shall return, however, 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

That the social sciences are a distinctively 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 regulating social life is probably a need of any society, or at least of societies that have reached a certain degree of development; and it took systematic form – to limit ourselves to the European sphere – as early as 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 Economic or Aristotle’s Politics, or even the political treatises of the Hellenistic and later Roman periods, as offering a scientific analysis of society. Separating them from the social sciences, if nothing else, is the fact that they are oriented not toward the determination of laws but rather toward the search for the best form of government or the enunciation of precepts for domestic administration. There can be no doubt, however, that they provide, in a manner often undistinguished 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 were to offer in the early modern age. Nor has there been a lack in antiquity of an effort of empirical investigation referring to political phenomena: one need only think of the collection of Greek constitutions initiated by Aristotle, which was to constitute the factual support of the typology outlined in Politics. And it would not be difficult – if one were to engage in the easy art of searching for ‘precursors’ – to find in ancient works the anticipation of strands of inquiry that would develop centuries later, as for example in the case of the valuable ethnographic material provided by Herodotus’ Histories.

Between ancient philosophical reflection and the scientific consideration of society there is in fact a twofold relationship, of continuity and rupture, not unlike that which can be found in other fields: of continuity with regard to 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 of rupture with regard to the epistemological approach. After all, the birth of the social sciences was prepared, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, 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 arose the secular conception of the state but also – around 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 provided with universal validity; but later it could be understood as an underlying structure of the variability of economic and political phenomena, to be investigated-as the physiocratic movement would set out to do-with tools not unlike those of modern natural science. The Stoic idea of natural law was thus coming to fulfill, for the nascent social sciences, a function analogous to that which the conception (of Pythagorean-Platonic origin) of a nature written in mathematical characters fulfilled vis-à-vis modern natural science.

Looking at the social sciences formed between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that is, political economy and political science, it is difficult to draw a clear-cut distinction between philosophical reflection and scientific consideration of society; so frequent is the shift from the enunciation of precepts with a view to the increase of wealth or ‘enlightened’ government to empirical investigation, and vice versa. Indeed, the social sciences are, in that period, bearers of a general conception of society, of an interpretation of the economic order or the political order or both; they are bearers of what we might call a theory of society with both analytical and normative valence. 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 break free from this relationship to assert a claim to scientific ‘purity’.

Once again, it is sociology that offers us an emblematic example of such entanglement; and it is so both in its original positivist version and in the form of the Marxian science of society, 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, particularly the conflict between workers and entrepreneurs within the ‘industrial’ class. It is the model, in other words, of a society based on consensus and solidarity, which through Durkheim will be transmitted to contemporary sociology. By contrast, the model of Marxian sociology (for sociology is also here concerned, at least in the nineteenth-century sense of an all-encompassing science of social life) is that of a society founded-after the detachment from the primitive community-on the division into classes produced by the division of labor and the permanent struggle between a class holding the means of production and a class ‘estranged’ 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 explicit scientific intent, refers back to a general theory of society, and thus to assumptions that are ultimately philosophical (and mostly also ideological) in character.

Only in the last decades of the nineteenth century did the alternative between these two theories of society gradually lose its original importance. This occurred when sociology broke away from a general conception of history and moved toward the determination of ‘models’ of society provided with both historical and analytical value. This shift is marked by works such as Ferdinand Tönnies’ Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887) and Émile Durkheim’s De la division du travail social (1893). Community and society, mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity designate no longer just two phases, two ‘epochs’ of development of human society, but also two types of social organization that must serve as the basis for the analysis of various societies. And if in both Tönnies and Durkheim the problem is to identify the conditions of social order, of an order that necessarily implies solidarity between individuals, this does not exclude the recovery of important aspects of the Marxian analysis of capitalist society: if ‘community’ is characterized by Tönnies with categories derived, to a large extent, from the German historical school, ‘society’ is described on the trace on the one hand of Hobbes, but on the other hand also of Marx’s Capital. 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 as the engine of social development.

Sociology thus clearly shows the transition from a study of social processes connected with (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, although to varying degrees depending on their degree of formalization. This is not to say, however, that after their initial stage the social sciences have completely disengaged themselves from this relationship, and that in their development they do not refer back to this or that theory of society. Sometimes, indeed, even in recent times, the ideal of scientific ‘purity’ has been openly challenged, and against it 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: one need only think of the ‘critical’ approach of sociology of the Frankfurtian sort. 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 all have for their object, like the other social sciences, human society, its structures and processes. This has led to a tendency to identify social sciences and humanities, or to consider the social sciences an aspect or ‘province’ of a larger grouping, consisting of the human sciences.

However, this equating lends itself to objections that are difficult to overcome, already for the simple reason that the sphere of social organization and the sphere of human life – however one wishes to determine it – are by no means coincident. Life in society is not something exclusive to humans: if already in the second half of the nineteenth century the pioneering studies of authors such as Jean Henri Fabre highlighted the existence of insect societies, during the twentieth century ethology has shown not only that most animal species have a more or less developed social organization, but that between it and the organization of human societies there is perhaps a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference. On the other hand, man’s existence 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 behaviors still rest on a biological basis that is beyond the competence of the social sciences. This applies even to those ‘psychic’ phenomena that seem the most refractory to this conditioning. It is no coincidence that even in psychiatry, which a few decades ago seemed oriented to give an explanation in purely sociological terms 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 preside over brain activity.

But the main objection to equating the social sciences with the humanities arises from the very difficulty of delimiting 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 of man from 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 would come to be configured as a set of symbolic forms. Such an approach, shared by that orientation of thought which 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, symbolic world, 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. However, these assumptions have been challenged by the development of ethological research. The very juxtaposition between transmission by genetics 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 able to transmit acquired information from one individual to another and from one generation to the next, but a not insignificant part of human behavior has an instinctive basis, and must be attributed to processes other than learning. Like animals, humans also act on the basis of ‘innate’ dispositions and not just acquired habits. This has led to broadening the scope of culture, recognizing the existence of forms of culture among animals, or at least among various animal species. Nor can language any longer be adduced as a peculiarity exclusive to humans: if language means a set of signs that is meant to make communication between individuals belonging to the same species possible, then even the bee dance – studied by Karl von Frisch – represents 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 dividing line between man and animal now passes through the determination of the distinctive characteristics that language, like culture, presents 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-accepted also by the anthropology of the first half of the century-that the transformation of humans into cultural beings took place once their biological evolution was over, was replaced by a more complex view, which conceives of the two types of evolution as interrelated: if the emergence of human culture is biologically conditioned, it appears on the other hand 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 humans. In fact, the equating of the social sciences with the humanities, or the inclusion of the social sciences in the category of the humanities, obeyed the tendency to assert their heterogeneity from the natural sciences. This tendency has both an ontological and epistemological basis. In the ontological aspect, 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, making it a cognitive edifice independent of these disciplines. The ‘human world’ could thus be conceived as a reality that, because of its peculiar structure, eschews 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 appears difficult to identify. The very notion of human sciences derives from the notion of ‘spiritual sciences,’ which Wilhelm Dilthey had formulated in the late nineteenth century by referring to the German historical school and the ‘historical’ orientation it had intended to give to the study of society. Of this school Dilthey did indeed set aside the ideological assumptions, the postulate of a “spirit of the people” expressing itself in the overall development of a nation, and even the organicistic metaphysics that constituted its anchor, but he retained the methodological assumption of the relationship between parts and 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 spiritual sciences to their orientation aimed at the determination of general laws, even in the terms 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 surroundings; on the contrary, he pointed to the regularities arising from that relation as the foundation of individuation, the basis of the articulation of spirit into an individual form. But this relationship was irrelevant for the purpose of determining the scope of the “spirit sciences.” Today, however, after Max Weber’s critique of the historical school’s approach, even the notion of “spiritual sciences” appears no longer proposable; and along with it comes the dichotomy established between them and the natural sciences.

To speak of either the social sciences or the humanities responds, on closer inspection, to two epistemological perspectives that cannot be reconciled with each other. Even when they have wished to distinguish themselves from other disciplines such as physics or biology by asserting an increasingly pronounced anti-reductionist demand, the social sciences have nevertheless always looked for regularities of behavior 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 that characterizes the recourse to hermeneutic analysis in phenomenological approaches – with the implication that, unlike natural processes, ‘human’ ones are susceptible to a multiplicity of mutually compatible interpretations, and all lacking a possibility of verification – show the distance that separates, despite transitory juxtapositions, the methodological tradition of the human sciences from that of the social sciences. That these also aim to understand the phenomena that constitute their objective domain, to trace them back to the behavior of individual ‘actors’ and their reciprocal relations, to shed light on the motivations and purposes of such behavior – as Weber also argued, speaking precisely of “encompassing” sociology – does not mean that they shy away from the search for an explanation that is as ‘objective’ as possible, even if conditioned by a specific point of view. And the search for explanation is still, beyond the models to which it may refer, a common feature of the scientific enterprise.

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

If one wants to determine what the specificity of the social sciences consists in with respect to other scientific disciplines, one must first ask what their object or, rather, their objective scope is. And the first answer that arises is that the social sciences would have as their object ‘society,’ conceived as a reality sui generis distinct from other realities, for example from nature. From this point of view, the various social sciences have been conceived as sectoral disciplines that refer to different aspects of society, when 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 notion of society, however, belongs to a very specific phase in the history of the social sciences, namely a phase characterized by the predominance of organicist perspectives. To speak of ‘society’ – or human society – in the singular was possible 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, in itself undeniable, that most social institutions have a duration beyond that of individuals, and persist even as individuals vary; but from that fact it 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 led to viewing society as an ontologically defined entity, irreducible to the individuals who are part of it, not without heavy ideological implications. Of this kind are the Romantic conception of society as a product of a ‘spirit of the people’ that persists over the generations, determining 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 social organism and biological organism, which involved the frequent analogical recourse to concepts derived from physiology and, in general, from the life sciences. To this second category belong mainly the models employed by sociological (or anthropological) evolutionism. That the two types do not coincide is substantiated, inter alia, 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 is aimed at the establishment of a society in which the individual will finally be removed from the coercive power of the state.

The legacy of the organicist approach is present in the social sciences whenever ‘holistic’ perspectives intended to assert the subordination of individual phenomena to a larger phenomenon have been asserted within them. Still Durkheim, for example, could conceive of society as an entity transcendent of the individuals who are part of it, and yet immanent to them, “because it can live only in us and through us”; and it was precisely by referring to Durkheim that a strand of twentieth-century anthropology – the one headed by Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown – has analyzed primitive societies in terms of structure and function, that is, using a clearly biologically derived model. More ambivalent appears to be the use of systems theory as formulated by Ludwig von Bertalanffy. 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 removed from the environment into activity, and of processing received information into other information, has an undoubted biological matrix; indeed, it employs at the same time concepts drawn from thermodynamics and information theory. But systems theory, transposed to sociology, has made it possible to highlight the complexity of social systems, their relationship to the environment and their mutual relations, their capacity for self-regulation in contrast to entropic tendencies, and has emphasized the importance of disorder as the background against which the ordering action of each 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 debatable name of ‘methodological individualism’-the objective scope of the social sciences consists of phenomena and processes which derive from relationships between individuals, or from institutions which, however, also have their origin in individual behavior (or action). While ‘holistic’ perspectives are widespread in sociology as well as in anthropology in the 19th century, the prevailing tradition in economic science is-if we except the German historical school-an ‘individualistic’ tradition. The very model of homo oeconomicus, defined by the effort to maximize the goods it can obtain through production and exchange, rests on the assumption of a market in which a plurality of economic actors act in mutual competition. It was Carl Menger, however, in controversy with the organicist approach of the historical school, who since the 1880s has been advocating 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 stands on the watershed between economics and sociology, social phenomena are the result of the actions–whether ‘logical’ or ‘non-logical’–of individual subjects.Max Weber also explicitly drew on this approach, and in particular on Menger’s analysis, in defining the object of “encompassing” sociology. The acting to which this refers is – as is said at the beginning of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft – an acting provided with ‘meaning,’ that is, to which individual agents attribute a subjective ‘meaning’ referring to the attitudes of other individuals; from this acting, which can be of various kinds (rational with respect to purpose, rational with respect to value, affective, traditional), derive social relations, 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 apply, albeit with the indispensable clarifications, to any other social science: it can apply in an immediate way when they deal with micro social phenomena, and in an indirect way when they study instead complex phenomena and long-term processes, be they cultural change or economic development. In such a perspective, the notion of a system also frees itself from the pretense of designating society as an organic ‘whole’: in Parsons’ theory, for example, systems are made up of interactions between individuals, that is, they rest on the mutual actions and expectations of individual ‘actors’. Far from being understood in terms of a totality, society is thus presented as a multiplicity of systems of different types – systems of interaction in the narrow sense, systems of organization, functional systems – that perform functions of adaptation to the environment, orientation toward 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, to preferentially adopt explanatory models that propose to trace social phenomena back to behaviors 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 appears 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 or political or cultural and so on, one does not at all postulate that it represents a higher-order reality, or even a coherent whole; nor does one assume that each system is exclusively deputed to the performance of certain functions, and cannot find functional substitutes or have, on the other hand, latent functions. On this point Robert K. Merton’s critique of anthropological functionalism marked a decisive turning point.

It remains at this point to ask what the social sciences are. But if these represent, as noted above, not a unitary whole but a ‘family’ of disciplines, the answer can only be enumerative, and refer to the development of the disciplinary fields that constitute that family. The first social sciences to be constituted were, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, political economy and political science: but, if the former was soon configured in an autonomous form, giving itself a determinate object, the autonomy of the latter would later be called into question by the rise of sociology, with its claim to be valid as an all-encompassing science of society. Typically nineteenth-century, even in its recourse to organicist perspectives, sociology and anthropology, whether cultural or social, have been instead. Other disciplines (and sub-disciplines) still came into being between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, often on the basis of the relationship with pre-existing bodies of doctrine or from the encounter with the natural sciences. Determining the objective scope of the sciences therefore leads, inevitably, to considering also their boundaries and how these have come to shift over time.

Social sciences, law, legal science

A place of its own in this framework occupies legal science. And this is so insofar as its object is represented not so much by behavior but rather by norms and relations between norms. More precisely, it refers to a particular type of norms, namely, those that a politically organized social group – be it a tribe or the state or any other political formation – considers binding on its members, and whose observance it demands by resorting, if necessary, to the use of force to impose it. Legal science has a remote origin: it goes back, in the European world, to the effort 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 canon law. The study of law played an important role in disputes over supremacy between papacy and empire, and jurists provided arguments in support of the claims of both. Decisive, however, was the encounter with the demands for the unification of law and jurisdiction that absolute monarchies and-where these were lacking-territorial principalities had. The law schools were thus integrated, like the nascent bureaucracy, into the system of the modern state, becoming throughout the European continent the instrument of a work of ‘fixation’ of law which, through the first eighteenth-century codifications, led to the Napoleonic Code and then to the numerous nineteenth-century codes, while in the Anglo-Saxon world they ensured the continuity of common law, that is, of a jurisprudence based on the judgments of the courts.

Formation of law and development of jurisprudence thus appear to be closely linked. In any case, and leaving aside the doctrinal disputes about the nature of law that have played so much part in it over the past two centuries, the fact remains that legal science has been concerned above all with norms and their interpretation, with the constitution of a coherent body of law organized in systematic form. This process of the ‘rationalization’ of law has had as its term of reference above all the modern state, which through the victorious struggle against feudal particularism won the monopoly of the use of legitimate force within its own territory; and even when it allowed other sources of law to subsist alongside its own legislation, it placed them in a subordinate position and conditioned their existence on its own recognition. Thus, with the theory of natural law having waned and its function as a criterion of legitimacy of positive law having ceased to exist, positive law has been configured, more or less exclusively, as state law or as a particular jurisdiction authorized by the state itself.By virtue of this development, legal norms have become increasingly distinguished from other types of norms, such as those of custom or morality. And the criterion for the distinction has been identified in the coercive character of legal norms, 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 normative (ideal) and empirical (real) validity of legal norms, the object of legal science and legal sociology respectively. In this way, Kelsen aimed to remove legal science from any extraneous elements by conceiving law as an autonomous order, consisting of norms in a hierarchical relationship to each other down to a ‘fundamental norm’ from which all others are derived. This strictly formalistic conception of law, which was so successful in the central decades of the twentieth century, excluded from legal science consideration of the relationship between norms and behavior, and thus the degree of effectiveness of norms and the system as a whole. And it referred back to another kind of consideration, the sociological (or, for primitive rights, anthropological) one. Into this space left uncovered by legal science came both sociology and the anthropology of law, the former devoting itself to the study of the capacity of legal norms to influence the behavior of members of society and, reciprocally, to incorporate the needs emerging from the process of transformation of a society, the latter taking as its object legal systems not based on the normative action of the state. In fact, both had arisen well before the limits of legal formalism emerged, indeed well before the formulation of Kelsen’s theory. The sociology of law goes at least as far back as Weber, while legal anthropology took its first steps as early as the mid-nineteenth century, with the attempt made by Henry Sumner Maine in Ancient law (1861) to delineate an evolution of legal systems as a transition from status to contract.

The affiliation of legal science with the social sciences is thus at least problematic. Strictly speaking, indeed, the formalistic approach implies that legal science is not a social science; it is concerned – to put it in Kelsen’s neo-Kantian language – not with the “being” but with the “ought-to-be” of norms. But this approach has experienced a gradual decline in recent decades; and this has been matched by the revival of the tradition of sociological jurisprudence, inaugurated at the turn of the century by Hermann Kantorowicz and Eugen Ehrlich. This revival must be linked to two fundamental reasons that transcend the disciplinary sphere of law: on the one hand, social change and the proliferation of the production of norms has 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 fostered the emergence of supranational normative ‘sources’. This has led to the increasing consideration 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 sciences and natural sciences

Other social sciences arose from the need to study the relationships between social phenomena and phenomena of other kinds, which nevertheless 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, during the nineteenth century, as a study of the relationships between body and ‘mind,’ between physical behavior and psychic behavior of human beings–extending in more recent times to similar processes observable among various animal species. But since the development of intelligence and, in general, of the individual’s attitudes presupposes relationships with others, consideration of the socialization process has emerged as an essential element of psychological inquiry. Beginning in the early decades of the 20th century, social psychology was thus developed, by Gordon W. Allport and other scholars, as a branch of psychology, but at the same time 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: thus phenomena such as conservatism or adherence to fascism were investigated in their ‘deep’ psychological roots, with recourse also to concepts of psychoanalytic origin. Psychoanalysis, in fact, which arose with Freud as an investigation of the unconscious and its relations to the Ego and the Super-Ego, also soon turned its attention to the social dimension of personality development. And in recent decades cognitive science, proposing a conception of the mind as information processing, has opened up new perspectives to the study of intelligence and thus, indirectly, also of the relations between intelligence and social life.

A further group of disciplines is directed to the study of the relationships between social and other phenomena, mostly investigated by 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 against disciplines that studied the biological ‘nature’ of man or his conditioning by the environment. This concern was especially expressed by Durkheim in Les règles de la méthode sociologique (1895), through the principle that social facts can only be explained on the basis of other social facts. But contemporary anthropology also asserted–by 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 taken up again in the mid-twentieth century, in connection with the tendency to hold society responsible for individual behavior, particularly that considered deviant. Such an approach now appears to have fallen into desuetude; and instead there has been a proliferation of boundary disciplines, which 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, as such, a social science; however, the contribution it is making to the study of human societies is now of great significance, and is bound to increase. Human social behaviors and language itself are proving to be increasingly dependent on ‘innate’ factors. A specific branch of genetics, population genetics, has devoted itself to reconstructing the processes of the spread of the human species over the globe, arriving at results that have found confirmation in paleoanthropological research. No less important is the role assumed by demography, which investigates social processes that have their basis in biological phenomena such as birth, growth, aging, and death, and is now presented as a ‘bridge’ discipline between social sciences and biological sciences. On the opposite side, that of the study of the transformative action that human societies exert on the environment-from the restricted environment that constitutes the habitat of a primitive society to the entire planet-another discipline has been developing 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 is also, like genetics, a natural science; but it has increasingly turned into a social science as a result of the emergence-in the second half of the twentieth century-of a twofold concern: that relating to the progressive reduction of resources, especially food, in relation to the rate of growth of the world’s population, and that concerning the threat that industrial and post-industrial development poses to the planet’s overall ecosystem. Perspectives and proposals such as those of ‘limits to development’ or ‘sustainable development’ have found their basis precisely in the results of ecological research.

While all these disciplines stand on the watershed that separates the social sciences from the non-social sciences, still others have had an important bearing on them. This is especially the case with ethology. While genetics and demography have shown the correlation between social and biological processes, ethology has made the boundary between human and animal behavior problematic. This resulted in a major correction from traditional anthropology, which had made culture-and language-an exclusive attribute of humans. Indeed, ethology has shown that many human behaviors are reflected in various animal species, and that the differences between humans and animals are quantitative rather than qualitative in nature. Not unlike humans, animals also enter into relationships with each other, have conduct that can be characterized as social, have their own ‘customs,’ and thus a culture. Ethology has thus generated a sub-discipline, human ethology, which is now a social science in its own right.

The social science landscape is thus very complex, nor should it be surprising that it continues to be enriched by new disciplines, as is especially the case in 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 science origin are destined to take the place that, in the 19th century, biological models had. 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. But from this panorama one fact emerges unequivocally: that the boundaries of the social sciences have become increasingly mobile, that their ‘family’ continues to be enriched by new members, and that this process is far from over.

Social sciences, historiography, comparative history

Entirely different is the relationship between the social sciences and historiography. When the former were still taking their first steps, historiography was by then, if not a discipline in the proper sense, certainly an activity that had been cultivated for centuries; and during the seventeenth century it had undergone significant technical refinement, investing even the domain of ‘sacred history’ and extending to ecclesiastical history. Then, during the eighteenth century, Enlightenment historiography had formulated an overall picture of human history under the banner of the idea of progress, broadening the historical horizon beyond the confines of the European world and shifting interest from political (and politico-military) history to the history of ‘customs,’ and thus to the process of civilization. If until the entire eighteenth century the development of historiography and the emergence of the social sciences represented parallel phenomena that did not interfere with each other – only Scottish culture resorted to sociological categories in the broadest sense in interpreting history – later things came to change. Indeed, the social sciences challenged the monopoly that historiography had traditionally held regarding knowledge of human affairs. The German historical school, with its aspiration to give birth to a scientific edifice on a historical basis that would embrace all aspects of social life and grasp its evolutionary ‘tendencies,’ constituted to a large extent a reaction to the threat posed by the rise of independent disciplines that aimed to discover the ‘laws’ of society and its development.

It thus becomes clear why social sciences and historiography have long had antagonistic relations, when they even had any. For on the one hand, social sciences also referred to historical material, albeit mostly concerning contemporaneity; they referred to the processes of capitalist development or the functioning of absolute monarchy or, later, the formation of an industrial society. However, 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 drew its cue from the differences between the English and French political arrangements, already the interpretation of the nascent industrial society looked backward, and rested on its comparison with another type of organic society, the ‘Catholic system’ resting on a military and theological basis, which had been established during the Middle Ages. After the mid-nineteenth century, then, anthropology would go back to the beginnings of Greek and Roman history, making use of it to understand the development of human culture as it emerged from the savage state. And it was precisely late nineteenth-century anthropology that would come to place historical and ethnographic records on the same plane, in an effort to integrate them with each other: think of Lewis H. Morgan’s Ancient society, published in 1877. On the other hand, however, the social sciences and historiography seemed not only distinct but hopelessly divergent in their methodological orientation. Whereas the social sciences went in search of regularities, thus working out ‘types’ of social organization or determining 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 differentiates it even from phenomena (apparently) similar to it. The historical school’s postulate that each people has its own ‘spirit,’ its own national character, and each epoch also has – according to the Rankian paradigm – a peculiar physiognomy that distinguishes it from any other, acted as a watershed between 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, positivist culture attempted to attenuate this distance by extending to historiography as well that task of researching ‘laws’ that should have elevated it to the dignity of a science; but this attempt did not land on consistent results. More significant was Marxism’s effort 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, appeared 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 set out to establish a positive relationship with the social sciences: witness Henri Berr’s proposal for a historical ‘synthesis’ capable of proceeding beyond the simple collection of facts to the formulation of general laws, or the new history of Charles A. Beard and James H. Robinson. And they were followed by the effort made by the “Annales” school to implement an integration of the most diverse social sciences–as well as geography–under the aegis of historiography. Thus for much of the twentieth century one can observe, in the panorama of historical research, a split between the historicist paradigm, predominant especially in German (and Italian) circles, often prejudicially hostile to the social sciences and especially to sociology, and other paradigms, present in both French and Anglo-Saxon historiography, which aspired to employ the models elaborated by the new disciplines thus placing themselves on the same ground as them.

Already Max Weber, at the turn of the century, had laid the methodological foundations for realizing this new relationship. For him, the social sciences have an instrumental function in view of understanding individual historical processes in their individuality; but from this assumption Weber by no means drew the conclusion of the irrelevance of nomological knowledge for historiography. On the contrary, if this 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, to establish relations between historical phenomena, that is, to ‘explain’ them. But these general concepts and ‘laws’ are offered, precisely, by the social sciences, economic theory as well as sociological theory. Even in the mutual autonomy that Weber recognized in them, the relationship with the social sciences thus became the condition of the scientificity of historiography.This movement from historiography toward the social sciences was matched, in the second half of the twentieth century, by a movement in the opposite direction. If from the beginning anthropology had maintained a close relationship with history, other disciplines increasingly broke free from 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, characterized in the first half of the century 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 U.S. society. Precisely within sociology there was determined, in parallel with the exhaustion of the Parsonsian approach, 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 conducted, beginning in the 1970s, by authors such as Reinhart Bendix, Barrington Moore Jr. and Theda Skocpol seemed to require the determination of the different paths to ‘modernity’ taken by individual countries, and the outcomes to which they had led on the political terrain. Historical sociology therefore promoted comparisons between different national contexts, and became ‘comparative history’. Comparative history has been, in recent decades, the meeting ground between social sciences and historiography, in a methodological perspective that draws much more on Weber (but also on Marxism) than on 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 regard 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 separated them in the past from historical research now appears to have been largely reduced. For its part, historiography, freed from the historicist paradigm, has often claimed its nature as a science, and precisely as a ‘historical social science.’

This was matched 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 hand, the prominence within several disciplines, especially economics, of dynamic approaches. Far from enunciating ‘abstract’ regularities of behavior, provided with timeless validity, economic or sociological ‘laws’ have proved to be valid limitedly to a particular historical framework, that is, to a specific economic system or a given society. On the other hand, the social sciences have become increasingly concerned not with equilibrium but with change and the ‘factors’ of change: the Schumpeterian theory of economic development found a pendant, 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, after the demise of the macro-historical perspectives of nineteenth-century sociology and anthropology, full rights of citizenship in the social sciences.

Value assumptions and relationship to praxis

Not unlike modern natural science, the social sciences also arose with an explicit cognitive intent, that is, with the intent to know the structure of society and its ‘laws.’ Joining it, however, from the outset was a practical purpose, which we find in fact present in the program of eighteenth-century political economy and then clearly enunciated by Comte with his reference to Bacon: foresight based on ‘laws’ must make possible conscious intervention in the course of things, aimed at directing it 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 all but secondary importance. The fact remains that the social sciences have also been ascribed a practical function from the 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 unambiguous; and this was so because the ends that research set out to achieve, far from being dependent on those results, conditioned its orientation from the outset. Particularly in German culture the social sciences were, throughout the nineteenth century, conceived as a function of ‘national’ politics – and it was not by chance that the political economy of the classical school was transformed into Nationalökonomie; even the social policy that was proposed on that basis, for example by the “chair socialists,” had as its ultimate aim that of ensuring, through the integration of the working classes, the necessary conditions for the pursuit of the state’s power objectives.

The consequence of this approach was the recognition of ‘value judgments’ as an integral element of the social sciences, from the research of which it was expected to be possible to derive scientific indications not only of the means to be adopted, but also of the objectives to be pursued in politics. Opposed to it, however, was the Weberian thesis of Wertfreiheit, that is, of the necessary ‘avalutative’ character of the social sciences. Max Weber conceded that knowledge of social reality is always bound to ‘subjective’ assumptions, and thus to values that preside over the selection of empirical data; but he believed that this value relation-as he called it employing neo-Kantian language-was no obstacle to the possibility of arriving at an objectively valid ‘truth,’ provided, however, that it did not result in the formulation of value judgments. He therefore enforced a clear distinction between empirical science and the determination of norms or guidelines for praxis. Like the natural sciences, the social sciences also 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 type of explanation is different (just as the function of nomological knowledge is different) does not mean that the explanatory intent 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’ expressing precisely the relation to certain ‘values’ – it can (and must) proceed according to methodical rules that ensure its objectivity, just as the natural sciences do.

Weber also conceded that values can be the subject of investigation as far as the conditions and means of their realization are concerned, 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 methodical ideal, as it allowed the ‘objectivity’ of the social sciences to be safeguarded while acknowledging the multiplicity (and relativity) of the ‘points of view’ from which research moves, and thus its connection to a particular historical situation. It has, however, clashed with the tendency to establish a closer link between theory and praxis, making the social sciences an instrument for the transformation of society in view of precise political goals. This tendency took many forms during the twentieth century, but these can be traced to two main variants, corresponding to the different mode of the transformation process: on the one hand a revolutionary variant and on the other a reformist variant. The first variant is found mainly in attempts to link social sciences and Marxism, making them the vehicle for a conception of society based on the perspective of transition from capitalism to a classless society. On the other hand, the second variant, prevalent especially in Anglo-Saxon culture, conceives of the social sciences as an instrument for the gradual improvement of men’s material living conditions and the spread of prosperity. The first alternative corresponds to a close relationship between social sciences, worldview and ‘utopia’ (even when the latter is presented as scientifically grounded); the second corresponds instead to their finalization to a work of ‘social engineering’.

Both of these tendencies have their roots in the early stage of development of the social sciences. The utopian character is strongly present in positivist sociology, as indeed – despite the claim to found a ‘scientific’ socialism – in the Marxian science of society; while political economy was configured rather as a social technology, as a set of instrumental directions for the achievement of predetermined ends. But, as the aspiration to constitute the all-encompassing science of society waned, sociology, too, divested itself of its original utopian tendency and turned into social engineering, that is, into the proposal of directions for addressing and solving specific problems. Unlike utopia, which aims to realize an ‘ideal’ society more or less alternative to the existing state of affairs, social engineering is aimed at correcting the ills of society and the pursuit of well-being.

Social engineering is also, in fact, a form of intervention inspired by value assumptions; it is so in that it aspires not only to identify social problems, but to give them a solution that is deemed scientifically correct, or the best possible. It is therefore not neutral with respect to the ends to be pursued; it does not merely provide a set of directions as to the paths to be taken to realize one solution or another. The social scientist engaged in ‘engineering’ activity is the bearer of values, that is, of a political line that may coincide, but does not necessarily coincide, with that of the commissioning government or organization. This opens up a whole series of questions-which were widely debated during the 1960s and 1970s-about the role of the economist or sociologist, and the ‘critical’ task that, as an intellectual, he or she is called upon to perform. This task, in fact, lends itself to a twofold interpretation. On the one hand it can be understood in the sense that knowledge of social reality fulfills, as such, a demystifying function with respect to the way in which it is presented by certain ideological positions, whatever the social basis or orientation of these may then be; 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, on the other hand, critically oriented social science proposes to carry out a critique of the present social order, and thus of the power structures on which it rests.

Specialization, unification, integration

Like all scientific disciplines, the social sciences, especially during the last century, have undergone a process of increasing specialization. Not only the social sciences as a whole, but each of them now presents itself as a ‘family’ of disciplines or – if you will – subdisciplines. This process is part of the more general phenomenon of the division of scientific labor and institutionalization of research common to all sciences. But it also has another, more specific origin: the complexity of contemporary society, which has generated – and is generating – new objects of study, to which the attention of social science scholars necessarily turns. In an age of constant change, the social sciences are being forced to tackle previously unknown problems, to explain phenomena outside their traditional field of inquiry, to relate them to phenomena that are already known. 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 and more articulated; nor can we assume a backward shift.

To the phenomenon of scientific specialization turned his attention as early as Comte, who saw in it a danger to the ‘synthetic’ task he ascribed to ‘positive philosophy’-a danger somewhat parallel to that of the specialization of industrial labor, generating conflicts between classes. And the subsequent history of the social sciences is full of similar concerns, which manifested themselves in the appeal for a lost unity to be reconstituted. This was the starting point of the tendency toward the unification of the social sciences, whether considered as an autonomous theoretical edifice or traced back to a unitary construction that found its model in some discipline foreign to them. Sociology itself was, moreover, originally conceived as a ‘social physics,’ while concepts and explanatory schemes derived from biology were widely employed throughout the nineteenth century: even today, after all, organicistic metaphors are part of the lexicon of the social sciences.

Indeed, the need to achieve the unification of the social sciences has a twofold matrix. It originates, in the first place, from the realization that each social science is capable of grasping only a particular aspect of social life, that its capacity for explanation is limited, or – on the contrary – from the claim of a particular discipline to be valid as a model for the others. Particularly significant in this twofold respect is the case of the most formalized social science, namely economic science. On the one hand it finds itself obliged, in order to explain long-term processes, to have recourse 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 social sciences, based on the assumption that every individual always acts, in all fields, according to the principle of economics, and that therefore economic science is able to provide the theoretical apparatus indispensable for explaining political or other kinds of behavior as well. The theory of ‘rational choice,’ developed in economics, has thus come to spread to other disciplines as well, starting with political science. The second matrix of the tendency toward unification of 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 scientificity of the social sciences is adaptation to the procedures and language of other sciences that have reached a higher degree of development.

This second matrix is found especially in the neopositivist program of the unity of science, which reveals an explicit physicalistic inspiration. If Comte thought of a sociology founded 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 precede it in the encyclopedia of positive knowledge, neopositivism proposed instead to ‘reduce’ the language of sociology – and, with it, that of any science, social or otherwise – to the language of physics, taken as paradigmatic by virtue of the possibility of tracing it back to statements of an observational character. Linguistic unification thus represented the counterpart of a radically empiricist 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 soon abandoned as early as the 1950s; even its reintroduction in the form of a single model of explanation, adopted (or to be adopted) by any science, did not withstand the criticism directed at it. Along with physics, the other discipline to which the social sciences have often looked to as their model is biology; and this was when society was conceived as an organism to be studied in its ‘functions,’ and its institutions were equated with organs that were each to perform certain vital functions necessary for the life of the whole. Although sociological and anthropological functionalism has, over time, been purged of its organicistic presuppositions, the program of a reduction of the social sciences to biology has far from waned. Again recently Edward O. Wilson has re-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 to social life of the theory of evolution and, in particular, of natural selection. 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 trend toward the unification of the social sciences has not so far yielded the result its proponents had intended. Different is the case 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 rests on the postulate that each discipline is part of a unified whole, the integration process rather 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, new directions of research have arisen-as we have seen-and continue to arise, destined to give rise to new disciplines or sub-disciplines. Far from producing a hierarchically ordered system of sciences, it has rather opened unexplored avenues to knowledge of social phenomena, their mutual relations and their conditioning by phenomena of other kinds.

Related keywords

  • Anthropology
  • Ethnology
  • Demography
  • Law
  • Ecology
  • Econometrics
  • Economics
  • Epistemology
  • Ethology
  • Genetics
  • Human geography
  • Politics
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Psychiatry
  • Social psychology
  • Semiotics
  • Sociobiology
  • Sociology

Leave a Comment