Social sciences, politics and the crisis of the present

Annika Elisabeth von Hausswolff, The Photographer, 2015


Considerations on the current crisis of the social sciences

Social sciences in danger? We get asked a lot about the alarmist, defensive tone of this issue. We don't like it, but it seems inevitable. The question mark, as it often happens, played a modulating role, a sign that we didn't want to confuse everything in a simple warning cry. It is that, regarding these dangers in themselves, a clarification was imposed right from the beginning. For this, the single task, as indispensable as it may be, of enumeration and denunciation, is not enough. It is interesting to identify what these dangers have as specific, plural, irreducible and, above all, new in the current situation.

This situation is both contextual, linked to the social and political conditions in which work in the social sciences takes place around the world today, and structural, linked to what the social sciences have become and their internal logic, to the way in which they construct their knowledge. The indisputable point is that the perception of dangers is alive in our professional groups, and that it manifests itself on several fronts, internal and external to the scientific field. What is equally clear to most actors is what these dangers have in common: they take shape within the relationship, never completely pacified and inevitably problematic, between knowledge and politics, scientific practice and political practice.

Let us underline one thing: we are talking here specifically about the social sciences. Therefore, we are aware that the problematic nature of the relationship between knowledge and politics is valid for all types of science – making it clear that all knowledge has a power, even if only because it imposes itself and acts on opinion, so that this power individual cannot fail to come into tension with the different instituted powers, whether they are incarnated in the State, in the administration and public powers, or whether they come from more or less organized and influential components of civil society. That the two forces can regularly converge, articulating political and economic logics, public power and sectoral and private interests, only complicates and intensifies the constraints at stake.

However, for these particular types of knowledge that take social phenomena as an object, revealing the past and present plot, invest different cultural airs on the basis of empirical research that wants to be rigorous and of a comparatism that wants to be controlled, we can say that the tension is stronger. The reason is easily known: it is that the instituted powers, in the modern period, cannot exclude from their own legitimation the rational and objective knowledge of the social processes on which they exercise their action. It is because, however difficult the context may be, the type of knowledge we represent exists, persists, insists a little everywhere. Attacked as hard as possible, the will to know that this type of knowledge expresses, because it is embedded in the development of modern societies, imposes itself beyond what those who would like to get rid of it can do.

It so happens that this general problem has known, for some time now, a strong emphasis, which is why the word danger arises spontaneously. In fact, the problem has been approached in multiple ways, giving rise to different types of defensive reactions, around which a large number of actors from our professional communities have mobilized in recent years. In this colloquium, we will see several examples of the forms that protests, resistance and concerted defenses took in a climate considered increasingly unfavorable. But, moving from a cry of alert to reflection – which our work, of course, urges us to do – is, first, to ask ourselves what the perceived dangers really consist of, how to distinguish them historically and analytically.

If its particularity at the time can be described, this presupposes that, while remaining attentive to the uniqueness of situations, one does not give up formulating a judgment of the whole. Such a judgment is all the more necessary today, when we know that this knowledge has never been so interconnected and internationalized, so that the damage caused wherever it may be, has a knock-on effect on the set of our practices. Hence the urgent need that is at the origin of this colloquium: to lay the foundations of something like a common transnational conscience, and from there to forge a diagnosis for common use. In order to create this diagnosis, without in any way anticipating the conclusions of the discussions, I would like, in a few words, to outline the general framework by which, in my opinion, reflection should be guided, and indicate the strategic points between which we must move .

I will depart from this initial proposition. There is, of course, an intrinsic political significance to the practice of the social sciences.

“Evidently”? In this proposition, as long as it is acceptable, every word, as long as we try to truly understand it, loses its evidence and raises a series of questions. “Intrinsic political scope”? A scope is the opposite of a postulate. It is a position conquered through knowledge itself, in an extension of its practice, and not a basic ideological assumption. However, this conquered position, in this case, is really political. As such, it penetrates and modifies the field where ideologies clash. Engagement in this space can be more or less marked, depending on the case, depending on the objects, disciplines, individual researchers – I would say temperaments. Which allows us to assume that, no matter how small it is, it will never be null.

The social sciences are an integral part of the modern setting. Now, in this configuration, it is the ideological conflicts that structure the political experience and give it content. Moreover, this is exactly how our knowledge considers ideologies: not, in a reductionist way, as figures of false consciousness and errors of judgment, but as determined perspectives on society as a whole, moved, without a doubt, by group interests, but also for the ideals expressed by these groups, for which they engage from their position in the discussion and struggle for common laws, whose order is not fixed beforehand, fixed by tradition. It is once this critical threshold is crossed, in societies historically committed to the resolute recovery and transformation of their own norms, that ideologies emerge.

For the social sciences, which spring from the same general movement, they are something that must be deciphered. This work consists in taking them together, in relation to each other, in symmetricing their respective positions, in determining the real relations around which each one is determined, and in making the implicit norms that they convey appear by confronting them in a same space. From these general considerations on the immanent critique of ideologies, in which we are always committed, to a certain extent, I take the following: if the political scope of the social sciences has a meaning, it resides essentially in the clarification of the global field that ideologies define , taken in relation to the conflicting ideals in them, the controversies that unfold in them and the modes of justice practiced resulting from them. This is followed by a real taking of a position. It resides in an intervention founded on the highest degree of lucidity that knowledge of this nature has made possible.

What type of intervention is this? Let us respond by returning to some fundamental concepts that never cease to guide us, whether we are historians, anthropologists, sociologists, jurists, economists or philosophers of the social sciences. The famous principle of axiological neutrality – or, to take its Durkheimian equivalent, the critique of preconceptions – never meant the depoliticization of knowledge, but a way of overcoming political-ideological assumptions in what they are partial and situated, its ultimate goal being its objectification, its inscription in a system of relations and clarification of its perspectives, the possibility of tracing a new political line where the common future of the present groups can be more consciously questioned.

Karl Mannheim, a heterodox disciple of Weber who undoubtedly took the analysis of the relationship between social sciences and ideologies further, spoke of “relationism” in this regard. And he insisted on the fact that such a point of view does not lead, contrary to what we might believe, to a paralyzing relativism of action. It's just the opposite. The politics intrinsic to the knowledge that these sciences carry with them is truly a politics, forged through the distance they operated and the complete objectification of the positions they reached. For this circuit, where a detour and a return to political experience are linked, is the only truly consistent way of honoring the essential requirement of modern politics, which is to base its normative justification on the expectations of justice that emanate from social development and the self-understanding of which he is capable.

I have described in broad strokes the common ground upon which our scientific practices are built and assume their political significance. What we can simply call an enlightened policy is founded. It is rooted in the Enlightenment of the XNUMXth century, if we know how to unravel this current as some contemporary historians have done, identifying in it the first lever of a critical displacement open to reappropriation in various social and political contexts that have never ceased to expand, both inside and outside Europe. .

Above all, our disciplines inherit the most advanced and scientifically constituted type of reflexive criticism that is accentuated in the second half of the following century: that which radicalizes and formalizes the epistemic conditions of comparatism, and above all refers to the effective transformations of the societies in question. , the structural injustices they engender, and the forms of regulation and solidarity which they bear at the same time.

Today, we feel this everywhere: remembering the great principles is insufficient. This is because the last decades of the XNUMXth century and the first of the XNUMXst showed the crisis of the model within which they were inscribed. The causes of this crisis are multiple, it is impossible to analyze them here. What we can say is that they are rooted in the increasingly acute dilemma, refracted at different levels, of determining the new integration processes required by the dynamics in operation, in terms of the individualization of social relations, the differentiation of spheres of activity, the intensification and internationalization of exchanges, and the extension of interdependent relations between groups, within and beyond nation-states.

The grammar and methods of the social sciences that had been progressively consolidated in the preceding period, and which, in fact, corresponded to a time when the mode of cohesion of political societies and the type of integration they carried out could enjoy relative clarity, needed to be profoundly renewed. This challenge has grown in recent decades. It constituted a strong stimulus for contemporary social sciences and, it must be said, witnessed a remarkable renaissance.

I will resume here the terms chosen by Isabelle Thireau to present our colloquium. In the collection and construction of data, in the interpretation to which we submitted them and in the generalization made, in the ability to apprehend the moral and intentional perspectives of social actors and to transform them into a constitutive dimension of the studied phenomena, progress was considerable in all our disciplines . A “thinner but also stronger thread” was thus woven. New paradigms and new approaches emerged that allowed completing the analytical and descriptive operations required by the most unstable, tense and complex configuration in which we find ourselves.

However, in the course of this evolution, and despite the development and enrichment of methods, the intrinsic political scope of knowledge lost its clarity. Work, under these conditions, was neglected, which resulted in two consequences: on the one hand, a positivist retreat, where social objects are presented in a resolutely fragmented way, and where extreme specialization often serves as an alibi to reject any theorization judged by uncomfortable principle – while, however difficult it may be, it is indispensable to a consistent politicization; on the other hand, the increase in the power of ideological orientations supported and accepted rather than objectified, and the prejudices that induce questioning and investigation – which translates in this case, and contrary to appearances, a phenomenon of under-politicization of the social sciences, since it is through this means that they become voluntary prey to a politicization that is extrinsic to them.

The two tendencies, we effortlessly conceive, are in fact interdependent. They combine, superimpose, alternate or conjugate even more easily, in the last analysis, because they proceed from the same deficit. But, above all, they accompany a more general political evolution that raises unprecedented obstacles, revealing itself, in many ways, hostile to the formation, maintenance and redistribution of these complex circuits between forms of knowledge and social practices that the politics of the social sciences requires to build itself. .

This plane, which we can say contextual – but the context is never completely external to knowledge that conceives itself as social facts – is determined in parallel beforehand. In fact, both are inseparable. The more the social sciences lose their political scope, the less enlightened the political debate becomes. The less enlightened it is, the more it grows and hardens in positions closed to knowledge and understanding of the new type of integration processes, demanded by social differentiation, by the claims of individual and collective rights and by the new interdependencies inside and outside the United States. nation.

In political terms, this translates into the fact that liberalism and nationalism push each other forward, the first perceiving social differentiation only as the individualization of subjective interests and pretensions, the second freezing belongings into closed and exclusive identities. It turns out that they no longer have anything incompatible with each other. Ultimately, there too, the two merge into new political syntheses, whose common trait is to turn their backs on the historical, social, and intellectual impulse of which the social sciences have been the vector.

These oscillations and syntheses can assume different profiles. They are the counterpart of the crisis of the social sciences. To assign them a casual role, to overemphasize the context, would obviously be false – above all, it would be too easily to compromise and avoid facing our own responsibilities. It is better to stick to this observation: the two evolutions, scientific and political, are entirely correlated. They express themselves among themselves, act continuously on one another, trace the same global configuration, with its saliences, cleavages and confusions. Which implies that each one of us must be prepared to take into our own hands what depends on us, the only solution for seeing a way out of the impasse we have reached.

In all ethics, professional or otherwise, it is always convenient to circumscribe what the Stoics called “things that depend on us”. For social scientists today, this is exactly what it is all about. Undoubtedly, the task is not the same and the type of effort varies according to the seriousness of the situations, the intensity of pressures, constraints, even coercions that weigh on those who have decided to make the social sciences their profession. It is a fact that, from the aforementioned political evolution, authoritarian nationalist policies emerged over the last few decades, sometimes downright dictatorial, where threats were carried out.

They provoked the exile of many researchers, due to the tragedies that followed. Which often gave rise to writing, research and teaching strategies in conditions of great vulnerability. In these same very limited contexts, we are also witnessing, we shall see, significant reconfigurations. Scientific networks and practices emerged, supported by everything that, within these same societies, continues to express the need for social sciences, a sign of counter-tendencies that an attention exclusively directed to the repressive functioning of regimes threatens to neglect.

In liberal democracies – where nationalist currents have entered, it must be insisted, into an increasingly tangible phase of progress – the situation is very different. Dangers do not take on the character of repression. They emanate from various sources, rather they take the form of sharp criticism, deliberate or not deliberate ignorance, the denial of scientificity or the accusation of intellectual corruption; many of these speeches, endorsed or unofficially, can translate into demotion, discredit, impoverishment and loss of resources. The emancipatory and integrative function of the social sciences, what we call their intrinsic political significance, is at the center of attention.

Now, there too – and perhaps it is necessary to add, there above all, when the social sciences continue to be free in the sense that coercion and control do not threaten them – the question arises of acting on what really depends on us. It is then that we feel the imperative to clarify, for ourselves and for our interlocutors, what this political meaning consists of and what its value is.

We chose to give the colloquium a question, which we conceived as a kind of viaticum appropriate to each intervention: “under what conditions do the social sciences, as I practice them, have the emancipatory effect they should have?”. The question points to a must, and is placed at the level of conditions of possibility. Reinforcing what I just said, we can translate it as follows: “How can I formulate, based on some situations from my professional experience and reflecting on the current practice of my craft, the intrinsic political meaning of the social sciences?”.

The two questions complement each other. Indeed, it is with the help of this operator, the legitimate expectation of individual and collective emancipation that crosses modern societies and guides them historically, that the dangers that today lurk in the social sciences can be discriminated and described. I can only note them, throughout my experience, in a rhapsodic way, but I would like, in conclusion, to arrange them in a sort of diagram – which will lead me to say a word about the recent events that have hit the EHESS in your heart, that is, concretely, in your campus where we meet.

First, there are the dangers provoked by the emancipation of the social sciences, which make them seen as a direct threat to the social and political order, which places their knowledge in a position of favorite target. These dangers vary in intensity and nature according to political regimes, and according to the forces that oppose them within the societies concerned.

Then there are the dangers that arise from the contested emancipatory function, from ignorance of its meaning or from the hostility it arouses, which can come from external powers (interested in this reconsideration for varying political reasons, in liberal democracies as in any regime), but also due to lack of knowledge or loss of reference points internal to the scientific field, through scientific practices outdated in relation to the demands of the aforementioned intrinsic policy (in this regard, the dangers seem more accentuated in liberal democracies, a mark of the political and intellectual developments that there they are realized).

And finally, there are dangers of another kind, perhaps more disquieting. They arise from what we might call frustrated expectations, that is, from the feeling that the promise of individual and collective emancipation carried by the social sciences has in fact been betrayed, that its honor does not correspond to its pretensions. So these knowledges themselves suddenly go over to the side of the enemy. They are stigmatized by positions that they perceive and assert themselves as more capable of acting towards emancipation. Even more: they are denounced as the lure that one must first overcome in order to take another path – where, beyond that, nothing can or does not want to be said, revolt in itself is enough and, very often, there is even a glorification of his mutism.

In liberal democracies these are by no means minor dangers, far from it. We suspect that they are not alien to those that I listed in the second category, which are more specific to these democratic contexts than to those that are not. Now, we will note that it is from them that what corresponds simply, right here, to violence expressed verbally and translated into acts. Among the graffiti made to mark the systematic attack on the EHESS building a few months ago, the work of occupants, among which were some students of social sciences (from the institution or from elsewhere, it doesn’t matter), we read inscriptions such as: “Death to sociology”; “Colonial Discipline Anthropology”.

I'll skip the death threats ad hominem. I will also pass over the destroyed books and work instruments. On the walls, it was also read: “Death to democracy”, as if to trace the broader space of hatred addressed to this knowledge as such, since it is true that its development was and continues to be allowed by this unique type of regime. politics, democracy, and above all by the type of social and historical existence that corresponds to it.

Any critical outburst is significant, even if she just dismisses the speech. As for our discourse, it has less to justify itself before it than to consolidate itself, to clarify itself in its presumed scope. This implies resuming it as a vector of reflexivity and better placing it in the broad political situation, of which misleading forms of criticism, such as conservative convictions and liberal denials, are now the dominant poles. In summary, in this triangulation that encloses us, our place must be rebuilt by the community we represent, including professors and students.

Due to the fact that the last danger I just mentioned concerns each other, we who very often carry out teaching missions as well as research, two tasks whose organic link should have no need to be demonstrated. He was in the process of preparing this colloquium and he gave it, in fact, a very particular tone. Let's say that it made its form more urgent, because it imperatively indicated the need to redefine, for a wider audience - which includes the young generation that we are committed to forming, armed with questions and expectations -, the meaning of what we actually do, and the scientific policy that moves us when we dedicate our strength to it.

*Bruno Karsenti is director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). Author, among other books, of Politique de l'esprit: Auguste Comte et la naissance de la science sociale (Hermann).

Article written from the lecture at the colloquium “Social sciences in danger? Practices and knowledge of emancipation” organized by the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, on June 23 and 24, 2022.

Transl. Mariana Barreto.

Originally published on the website Politics.

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