Manifesto in defense of social science

Image: Pawel L.


It's needed take one more step towards a social science worthy of the name

“It is interesting to observe a tangled bank, lined with many plants of all kinds, while birds chirp in the thickets, various insects flit here and there, and worms crawl through the damp earth. And to think that these elaborately constructed forms, which are so different from each other and depend on each other in such a complex way, were all produced by laws operating around us. (Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species).[1].

After more than one hundred and fifty years of existence, it is evident that the so-called “human” and “social” sciences[2] they struggle to be sciences like all others, which makes the task of imposing evidence of their results and main achievements difficult. Part of the responsibility for this could be attributed to the (bad) political treatment of the social sciences or to the late and very limited nature of its teaching, and we would not be wrong. But the problem comes from within this domain of knowledge.

While many social scientists are convinced of the need to be rigorous in their argumentation and management of evidence and to produce robust and worthy work, there are very few who believe that the social sciences can one day become sciences like other sciences (sciences). materials and life in particular), capable of producing scientific cumulativeness and of formulating general laws on the functioning of societies. Can knowledge without (scientific) faith or laws be really scientific?

In addition to the internal fragility of these sciences, several factors contribute to making the messages they can convey even more confusing. The social sciences have allowed a poorly controlled division of labor to develop within them, which has generated an infinity of disciplinary and subdisciplinary dispersed work whose contributions are hardly cumulative or articulated.[3] The feeling of dispersion of the work due to too much specialization has also widened under the effect of the theoretical plurality that often prevents, due to competition between “currents” or “schools”, that it is seen, once again, as the approaches that we often oppose can be articulated.

On the sociological side, for example, we continue to academically oppose the “points of view” of Durkheim, Marx and Weber; and we perpetuate the oppositions between structuralism and pragmatism, genetic or constructivist structuralism and interactionism, macrosociology and microsociology, objectivism and subjectivism, etc. Finally, to top it off, the subject of these sciences—social structures, social relations, or social behavior—has aroused growing curiosity in disciplines long perceived to be outside the field in question: evolutionary biology, behavioral ethology or ecology, paleoanthropology, prehistory or neuroscience.

Faced with this situation of dispersion and low visibility, both internally and externally, of the achievements of these sciences, a collective and interdisciplinary work program is necessary to bring to light a integrative and unifying framework for a social science. Such research orientation presupposes a systematic work of critical appropriation and creative synthesis of research resulting from numerous disciplines, inside and outside the field of social sciences, with all contributing to the knowledge of forms of society and behavior.


The Ambition of the Founders

In the very movement of its professionalization throughout the twentieth century, which was inevitably accompanied by a certain standardization-routinization of research, the social sciences gradually lost the scientific ambition of the great founders who were, among others, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber .

Each sought to shed light on fundamental problems faced by humanity throughout its history – mode of production, division of labor, domination, forms of kinship, relationship with the sacred, type of representation (myth, ideology, science, etc.), etc. – and therefore did not hesitate to leave the present to delve into a very long history, comparing very different societies (from hunter-gatherer societies to capitalist societies, from Europe and North America to China and India, passing through Africa, South America and Australia), and raising questions of general sociology that go through all human societies known to ethnology, history or sociology.

To take only the case of Karl Marx, the latter could be passionate about The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin – considered by him to be the book that, “in the field of natural history”, provided the “base” of his materialist conception of history[4] –, and to appropriate, at the same time, the work of historians (François Guizot, Adolphe Thiers) and economists (David Ricardo, Adam Smith) of his time to undertake the analysis of the capitalist mode of production. And it is no coincidence that the “last Marx”, increasingly molded a sex drive, immersed himself in the works of evolutionary history and ethnology of his time: abandoning the project of writing the last volumes of The capital on which he was to work, Marx, during the last eight years of his life, left some thirty thousand pages of notes in his readings, which indicated the probable preparation of a vast history of human societies rather than the ever deeper and deeper study. delimited from the capitalist mode of production.[5]

Some will think that these are the vestiges of a bygone era, but they would be very wrong. The great works of the human and social sciences have always touched on fundamental questions or key points related to the properties of social reality. Its authors were based on works from different sectors of knowledge and some of them even dreamed of unifying multiple disciplines into a single “science of man” or a great “social science”.

What was present in Marx, Durkheim and Weber was continued by authors such as Norbert Elias or Pierre Bourdieu. The impressive and masterful work, erudition and theoretical clarity, by the social anthropologist Alain Testart, who died in 2013, is there to prove that we can, even today, at the same time think broadly, deeply and rigorously about the set of documented human societies. Impervious to trends, the author advocated taking into account, within the framework of a general comparative sociology, all societies known through ethnology, prehistory, archaeology, history and sociology.[6]


The social beyond the social sciences

But the established social sciences (sociology, anthropology and history in particular) were not the only ones to be interested in societies and human social behavior. We have evolutionary biology, which is interested in the social characteristics of different animal societies, in the origin of human language in the continuity of animal communication systems and in the emergence of processes of cultural transmission parallel to the mechanisms of biological heredity; comparative ethology, which allows apprehending the similarities and differences between animal societies in terms of relations between the sexes, parental care, domination, conflict “management” or practices of exchange and mutual help; paleoanthropology and prehistory, which seek to recompose the portrait of the first forms of human societies; and psychology and neurosciences, which work with social behavior. All these disciplines have never stopped producing knowledge about the human species as an “ultra-social” species.

This new scientific environment in which the sciences classically qualified as “social” are evolving is not simply an external environment that they could choose to ignore. It forces us to redefine objects, revise commonly accepted explanatory frameworks, and reformulate the ambitions of these sciences. The work of these other sciences contributes to revealing what constitutes the peculiarity of the human species, on the social, mental and behavioral levels. By reframing humanity's specific capacities, behaviors and forms of social life in comparison to those of other animal species,[7] By highlighting the social, biological or psychic particularities of the human species since the dawn of humanity, all this knowledge contributes to the understanding of social facts in their human form.

The logic of specialties and specialists closed in their disciplinary and, more often than not, subdisciplinary territories, must therefore be counterbalanced by the work of scientists anchored in a rigorous scientific practice, but animated by a spirit of synthesis indifferent to disciplinary borders, to the delimitations generally accepted chronological and geographic divisions, and concerned with answering the main questions facing human societies.

It is this ambition that animated the creation, in 2020, of the collection Social Sciences of Life by the publisher La Découverte.[8] With this collection, it is intended to create the space for such a rebalancing of scientific forces and thus work for the advent of a vision of humanity nourished by the most advanced scientific culture of our time. But the project that allows the social sciences to reconnect with the great ambitions of the founders depends more generally on collective work on a large scale.


The need for synthesis

To start facing this challenge, a collective was founded in June 2020: the “Edgar Theonick” group.[9] The implemented approach is inspired by an experiment conducted by French mathematicians around the “Nicolas Bourbaki” group. Behind the pseudonym of Nicolas Bourbaki, an imaginary mathematician, there lurked a group of young mathematicians who, in the 1930s, realized that their discipline was too fragmented into separate branches and languages. Jean Dieudonné summed up perfectly, albeit modestly, the group's intentions when he said: “We have reached a time when it is necessary to put in order the wealth that has accumulated over a century in mathematics. (...) We simply limit ourselves to trying to order the results and principles that were established, say from 1800 to 1930. That is what the Bourbaki group is dedicated to. (apostrophes, June 12, 1987).

While there is an obvious difference between a single-level (theoretical) science such as mathematics and dual-level (theoretical and empirical) sciences such as the social sciences, the history of dual-level sciences such as physics or biology shows that this difficulty it is not insurmountable.

So far, the social sciences have resisted transformations in the scientific landscape through disciplinary confinement and corporatism[10], based on a perspective pure epistemology that consists of thinking that the disciplines, as they exist at a given moment in their history, should develop simultaneously totally autonomous and watertight disciplinary points of view. History proves, however, that sociology, anthropology and history have continued to evolve both in their objects and in their methods. There was a time when Goffmanian sociology could be seen as a form of social psychology[11] and ethnographic observation was considered inappropriate for sociology's goals. Things have changed a lot and that is to be commended.

The fear of being crushed by institutionally more powerful disciplines is also a reality that it would be naive not to take into account. The history of the sciences shows that they are hierarchical and have unequal academic power: thus, for historical reasons, physics dominates chemistry, the material sciences dominate the life sciences, and all matter and life sciences dominate the social sciences. (themselves organized in a very hierarchical fashion).

But being dominated, for example, by evolutionary biology should not prevent social scientists from taking note of the evolution of species and the consequences that evolution has had on what constitutes, in a central way, its objects: human behavior and properly human forms. of social life. The social sciences would benefit from drawing all conclusions from work on behavioral, cognitive and organizational issues of life in society, produced by disciplines derived in part from the life sciences.

the mourning for social philosophy it must not imply the abandonment of any general and ambitious scientific program. Facing the challenge of such an ambition, however, requires proposing responses adapted to the current state of advancement of science. In order not to fall into “pure theory” (whether that of social science theorists without empirical material or that of social philosophers), we must first try to carry out a creative synthesis work (unifying and integrating work) based on a work that is not exclusively speculative, but theoretically constructed and empirically grounded.

And to carry out such work of synthesis, it is necessary to return meaning to the production of qualified works, often with contempt, such as “second-hand”, which ended up falling out of favor with the so-called “first-hand” works[12]. The ideal model of knowledge production defended today in the social sciences is the artisanal model in which researchers essentially use empirical data that they themselves have produced. However, this fetishism of field research carried out by an isolated individual (in the case of most doctoral theses) or by a small group (in the case of a minority part of the research) constitutes an obstacle to the work of synthesis, and at the same time, for a real advance in the social sciences.

While there is a formative virtue in forcing new participants to learn not only the intricacies and difficulties of producing reliable empirical data, but also critical reflexivity as to the nature of that data, this 'first-hand' model can quickly become a formidable brake on knowledge. . Because if we consider the state of our knowledge more significant, we owe it to the great synthesizers who were Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Mauss, Bloch, Elias, Dumézil, Lévi-Strauss, Bourdieu or Testart, to name just a few “big names” in the sciences social. If Marx himself had to produce all the data on which the different volumes of his O ccapital are based, he probably wouldn't have written a tenth of what he did. And what to say about a book as important as The elementary forms of religious life, whose author (Durkheim) never met an Australian aboriginal?

When one examines in a synthetic perspective the most diverse scientific works that dealt with questions of a social order, one is surprised by the fact that the richness and diversity of empirical facts established and interpreted, focusing on societies, eras or quite diverse groups, often hide a relatively small number of issues addressed. There are fundamental processes or mechanisms, whatever the type of society, which have been studied and sometimes named differently by different specialists who do not communicate, which does not allow them to be clearly presented as such[13].

The social sciences should collectively do everything to achieve what biology or physics, for example, managed to do with Charles Darwin and his theory of the evolution of species through natural selection or, respectively, with Isaac Newton and his theory. of universal gravitation, that is, the construction of general, synthetic, integrative and unifying frameworks in which many specific scientific works are inscribed, oriented and make sense.

This view of things involves questioning (1) the collective organization of the division of labor to make both the existence of integrative and unifying synthesis and “first-hand” works possible and even necessary, and (2) the exaggeratedly relativist, nominalist or constructivist epistemology the overwhelming majority of social science researchers, rehabilitating the notions of scientific cumulativeness and social law.

A work of theoretical-empirical synthesis not only can as it should be undertaken in such a way as to save time for future generations of researchers and to advance scientific knowledge of the social world globally in a more conscious and coherent way. This search for general problems, important facts, processes or mechanisms that are behind many specific analyzes has been very consciously practiced in other sectors of scientific knowledge by certain great mathematicians (Alexander Grothendieck and the mathematicians of the “Bourbaki group” for example), physicists (Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Schrödinger, etc.) or biologists (Darwin). This is also what many great social scientists have done in their own way, though often less explicitly and less systematically.

And even if this is not the initial goal, such a breakthrough would have significant educational consequences. If it is important to show that a limited number of laws (principles, problems, processes or fundamental mechanisms) are hidden behind the abundance of works in the social sciences, it is also because this would considerably facilitate the teaching of fundamental knowledge in these sciences. Because being able to teach basic crucial points, even to children or teenagers, presupposes that a considerable work of abstraction and synthesis is done upstream.


An epistemological review

The awareness of the existence of major problems, of fundamental processes and mechanisms that never stop working in social science research, leads to a revision of the relativist and nominalist epistemology widely accepted in the social sciences. We must put the concepts of scientific cumulativeness e lei (of invariants, constants or regularities) back at the center of our reflections, mobilizing the work of authors ranging from Émile Durkheim to Alain Testart, including Pierre Bourdieu, Maurice Godelier and Françoise Héritier[14].

Contrary to what a certain exclusively constructivist and profoundly relativist view may suggest – which sees in scientific work only irreconcilable points of view, changing according to times and scientific or extra-scientific contexts, which cannot really communicate with each other and, therefore, being the subject of debate and articulation – the problems with which the social sciences grapple, and which many generations of historical scholars have tried to answer, are at the same time very real and persistent.

Whether we consider the question of the social differentiation of activities or functions, of domination relations, of socialization and incorporation processes of the social world, of the cultural transmission of knowledge or of the production of artifacts of all kinds, to cite just a few examples, we can say that the permanence of great questions in the most diverse scientific works is not due to epistemes or worldviews, but to the own structure of social reality.

Once they agree to face this fact, researchers necessarily run into a limited number of problems, because the latter touch on objective properties of reality. Researchers may, depending on the state of their discipline and their personal scientific culture, pose these problems differently, or even discover others, but it would be an exaggeration to say that they "invent" or "create" all of their parts. And when they manage to solve some of them, or when they manage to integrate a set of problems into a coherent theory, they achieve what can be called scientific progress.

However, it seems particularly important to me to reaffirm the possibility of scientific progress in an era that ended up making this word taboo. Because to stop "believing" in the progress of science is to inhibit any desire to seek in the history of the social sciences points of support that allow identifying laws and advancing scientifically with more security.


formulate laws

The social sciences must, therefore, fully assume the use of the term "law" (or what may be formulated elsewhere in terms of "invariants", "principles", "fundamentals" or "constants"), when dealing with the difficult, but not impossible, task of formulating laws or important social mechanisms based on the numerous studies carried out in the social sciences during the last century and a half. This ambition, present since the beginning of the discipline (with Comte and Durkheim), was largely abandoned thereafter[15].

But this does not mean, however, that the accumulated work since the end of the nineteenth century is not full of unspoken and unformulated general mechanisms or invariants, or formulated in a way that differs from the more realistic language of the law. No analysis or interpretation would actually be possible if those who developed them did not have in mind somewhat general and stable structures that would allow them not only to understand such and such a fact, at such and such a time and in such a place, but to understand other facts as well, in such and such a way. other times and in other places.

A researcher at the beginning of the XNUMXst century will easily speak of a concept, theory or model, but very rarely of “laws” or “general mechanisms”, at the same time giving the impression that what se achieved here about a given society, period, group, or domain of practice, would not necessarily be true in another place. And then, as in the myth of Sisyphus, it would be a task to be perpetually restarted, with the analysis based more on the researcher's point of view and ability than on the properties of the facts studied. In the sciences where the issue of determinism is still regularly debated[16], the idea of ​​formulating laws is far from obvious.

If physics or biology had proceeded in this way, they would never have been able to bring to light the great forces, the great principles or the great laws that govern matter and living beings and, therefore, they would not have been able to constitute themselves as true cumulative sciences, with the results we now recognize in them. And it would be a serious mistake to think that the operation was simpler for a Newton or a Darwin than for today's sociologists, anthropologists or historians, due to the nature of its object. A simple detour through the history of science allows us to see that resistances or rejections of these unifying nomothetic approaches have existed in relation to objects quite different from social objects.

The main recurrent problems dealt with by the social sciences can be explained by the fact that reality itself imposes a certain number of lines of force that theories strive, more or less adequately, to formulate. Even if all social science researchers do not always know how to clearly express the problems underlying their studies – how many theses are richer in results than those who defend them say! – we can say that such problems always manifest themselves, implicitly or explicitly, in the studies in question.

However, some authors have been more reckless in challenging anti-positivist prohibitions. Without ever having developed these questions in epistemological texts, an author like Pierre Bourdieu sometimes used the concept of “law[17]”. Likewise, Françoise Héritier placed at the heart of her research the fact of “finding the general under the particular” and “trying to find the laws [18]”. And we could also highlight the contribution of Maurice Godelier on “the foundations of social life [19]”, or of Alain Testart who was explicitly in search of laws [20].

The case of this last author, a social anthropologist whose work, however, he placed in the lineage of general comparative sociology, is particularly interesting. Engineer by training (graduated from Ecole des mines) before becoming an anthropologist, he had sufficient knowledge of material sciences to know that they knew how to organize, within their field, a theoretical synthesis pole and a theoretical-empirical pole of more specific analysis of the multiple observable physical phenomena.

A man of great erudition in the lineage of Marx, Morgan, Durkheim, Weber, Fustel de Coulanges and Marc Bloch, mastering a considerable mass of "second-hand" theoretical-empirical data and having himself barely practiced field ethnology (later, however, of a field investigation carried out among the aborigines of Australia), he defended the idea that it was necessary to take as an object the set of societies documented by prehistory, archaeology, history, ethnology and sociology to be able to identify the laws, and thus accept “a division of labor that had existed for a long time in many other disciplines and where it had borne fruit[21]”.

Learning this lesson and collectively taking another step towards a social science worthy of the name would be a highly inspiring gesture. This presupposes a little more scientific faith, a little more confidence in the wealth of work accumulated internationally over more than a century and a half, and a little less sterile fights, half scientific and half political, which do nothing more than feed discourses so hateful and stupid about the supposedly ideological nature of this science.

*Bernard Lahire is professor of sociology at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon. Author, among other books, of Monde pluriel: Pensar l'unité des sciences sociales (Threshold).




Originally published on the website AOC.



[1] Thanks to Laure Flandrin and Francis Sanseigne for reading this text.

[2] Which I will call, in abbreviated form, “social sciences” throughout this text, being fully aware that behind qualifying adjectives such as “human” and “social” there are quite different conceptions of the nature and purpose of the sciences. in question, and, sometimes, even a hesitation as to the really scientific character of the knowledge produced. Nor will I mention the fact that a portion of economists place, against all logic, their discipline – which we must distinguish – outside the social sciences.

[3] See Bernard Lahire, Multi-world. Pensar l'unité des sciences sociales, Paris, Seuil, Couleur des idées, 2012. This process of specialization that we observe in all domains of science is not, however, “managed” or “organized” in the same way in all of them. For example, physics welcomes in its field both experimental and theoretical physicists, the latter being responsible for the synthesis and not being released from the requirement to produce congruent theoretical frameworks with the set of available empirical results.

[4] Letter from Marx to Engels dated December 19, 1860.

[5] Cf. Lawrence Krader (ed.), The Ethnological notebooks of Karl Marx, Studies of Morgan, Phear, Maine, Lubbock, transcribed and edited, with an introduction by Lawrence Krader, Van Gorcum & Comp. BV, Assen, 1974; Michael Krätke, « Le dernier Marx et le Capital» Actuel Marx, number 37, 2005, P. 145–160 and Kolja Lindner, Le Dernier Marx, Toulouse, Editions de l'Asymétrie, Réverbération, 2019.

[6] Cf. Cf. Alain Testart, « L'histoire globale peut-elle ignorer les Nambikwara ? Plaidoyer pour l'ethnohistoire », Debate, 2009/2, No. 154, p. 109–118, and especially the first volume of his last unpublished work: Principes de sociologie générale, Volume I — Rapports sociaux fondamentaux et forms de dépendance, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2021.

[7] Even while they appear to be dealing only with non-human animals, ethology works endlessly compare, implicitly or explicitly, non-human and human languages, learning, artifact uses, behaviors and social organizations. They therefore always offer us much more about the properties of societies and human behavior than about non-human animals.

[8] With the enthusiastic support of Stéphanie Chevrier (CEO of the publishing house La Découverte) and Bruno Auerbach (Literary Director).

[9] Anagram of the name of a famous unifier. The “Edgar Theonick” group has been meeting monthly since June 2020.

[10] A corporatism that leaves the way free for companies that present themselves as more open to interdisciplinary dialogue (with the cognitive sciences, mainly) but which are, in fact, the most destructive of the logic of the social sciences.

[11] Yves Winkin, « Erving Goffman : portrait of a sociologue in a young man ». In: Erving Goffman, Les Moments et leurs hommes, Paris, Seuil/Minuit, 1988, p. 87.

[12] I return here to the development that I considered crucial on this issue in « “Première main” et “seconde main” : les obstacles à la cumulativité scientifique » (La Part révee. L'interprétation sociologique des rêves. two, Paris, La Découverte, Laboratoire des sciences sociales, 2021, p. 11–16).

[13] This is what I have tried to demonstrate in a recent work on symbolic power and social magic. Cf. Ceci n'est pas qu'un tableau. Essai sur l'art, la domination, la magie et le sacré, Paris, La Découverte, Poche, 2020.

[14] Bernard Lahire, «Misère du relativisme et progrès dans les sciences sociales», Thought, no. 408, 4o. quarter of 2021, to be published.

[15] Charles-Henri Cuin, «La démarche nomologique en sociologie (y at-il des lois sociologiques ?)», Swiss Journal of Sociology, 32 (1), 2006, p. 91–118.

[16] Bernard Lahire, «Chapitre 10: Déterminisme sociologique et liberté du sujet», In: Daniel Mercure et Marie-Pierre Bourdages-Sylvain (ed.), Société et subjectivité. Contemporary Transformations, Presses de l'Université Laval, Québec, 2021, p. 157–170.

[17] In Sociology issues (Paris, Minuit, 1980, p. 45), the sociologist speaks of “law” admitting to his interlocutor that its use can be “dangerous”, if he sees it “as a destiny, a fatality inscribed in social nature”, that is , more like an “eternal law” than a “historical law, which is perpetuated by the time we let it operate”. He also speaks, in his inaugural course at the Collège de France, of the “social law … which establishes that cultural capital attracts cultural capital”. Pierre Bourdieu, Lesson sur la leçon, Paris, Minuit, 1982, p. 19–20.

[18] Françoise Héritier, «Une anthropologue dans la cité. Entertien », L'Autre, Cliniques, cultures et sociétés, 2008, Vol. 9, No.; 1, p. 12.

[19] Maurice Godelier, Fondamentaux de la vie sociale, Paris, CNRS editions, Les grande voies de la recherche, 2019.

[20] Pierre Le Roux, «L'inlassable chercheur de lois. Hommage to Alain Testart. (1945–2013)», rural studies, 193, 2014, p. 9–12.



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