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A summary of the report was published as Immanuel Wallerstein, "Open the Social Sciences," in ITEMS (Social Science Research Council), Vol. 50, Number 1, March, 1996.

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Members of the Gulbenkian Commission

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Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences, Description of Project

The Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian created the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. It has asked the Fernand Braudel Center to serve as its Secretariat, and the Director of the Fernand Braudel Center to be its Chair.

The rationale for such a Commission was a certain appreciation of the historical development of the historical social sciences. The nineteenth century saw a double development vis-à-vis the social sciences. First there emerged the idea of the "three cultures" as Wolf Lepenies calls it: that is, that the arts and sciences (what in medieval universities was called philosophy as opposed to theology, law, and medicine) were really divided into three separate domains: the natural sciences at one end, the humanities (or belles-lettres plus philosophy) at the other end, and the social sciences in the middle (for some history being part of the social sciences, for others it being part of the humanities). Secondly, the social sciences were in turn divided into distinct "disciplines". The names that were finally and widely agreed upon were (besides history) economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology. There was also Orientalism, which constituted a transfer of the study of certain societies to the domain of the humanities. Neither of these two processes -- the dividing of knowledge into three cultures; the subdivision of the social sciences into a series of specific disciplines -- was uncontested. There were significant movements of intellectual resistance, but in the period that went from 1850 to 1960 approximately, the pattern described here won out.

One of the reasons it won out is that it became institutionalized, in three forms: a) within the universities, as chairs, departments, cursus of instruction, academic degrees, and above all students; b) at the national and international level, as as sociations of scholars in particular disciplines and as journals devoted to particular disciplines; c) in the great libraries of the world, as categories of classification of scholarly works. This organizational institutionalization served to make more difficult any subsequent intellectual reorganization.

In the years after 1960, this intellectual consensus began to break down. It broke down on both fronts. The various "disciplines" of the social sciences began to overlap incredibly to the point that the intellectual distinction between them seemed to have very little basis either in theory or in practice. And in addition, the sharp distinction among the "three cultures" broke down. On the one side, the line between the humanities and the social sciences was being undermined by the increasing "historicization" and hence "contextualization" of the humanities, matched by the increasing willingness of social scientists to acknowledge "humanistic" issues and methods. And on the other side, the line between the natural sciences and the social sciences was being undermined by the "new sciences" and their emphasis on irreversibility (the arrow of time), the impossibility of precision, and the centrality of complexity, all of which made them seem closer to the reality of the social sciences, and the reciprocal growing interest by social scientists in multiple ways in the content, and not merely in the methodology, of the natural sciences.

But these intellectual developments of the last 30 years were not matched by comparable organizational developments, in part because it is not easy to budge strongly entrenched organizations, and in part because those who were unhappy intellectually about the old epistemological premises were not sure what they should advocate organizationally. The consequence has been a sort of massive worldwide drifting, in which more and more scholars feel dismayed at the state of the social sciences, but very little is being done collectively to change the situation.

The intent of the Commission was to fill this lacuna by surveying the present state of the social sciences, both in terms of the relation among the so-called separate disciplines, and in terms of the relationship of the social sciences to the physical sciences and the humanities. The object of this Commission was to write a book-length programmatic analysis of where we should be heading in the next 50 years. The Commission was composed of 10 persons (including the Chair), of whom six were social scientists, two natural scientists, and two from the humanities. The members were committed in advance only to one basic premise the fact that the present structure of the social sciences creates unreasonable blocks to intellectual development and the consequent need for some kind of restructuring.

The Commission held three meetings over two years (1994-1995). The first meeting was held in the spring of 1994 in Lisbon. The second meeting was held in the fall of 1994 in Binghamton. The third meeting took place in Paris in the spring of 1995.

The Commission issued a report. It is hoped that the report will serve as the basis for debate about possible forms of organizational restructuring, in the light of the evolution of our intellectual work worldwide.

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Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences, Table of Contents

Foreword..........Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (vii)

Report of the Commission

I. The Historical Construction of the Social Sciences, from the eighteenth century to 1945 (1)

II. Debates Within the Social Sciences, 1945 to the present (35)

  1. The validity of the distinctions among the social sciences (38)
  2. The degree to which the heritage is parochial (52)
  3. The reality and the validity of the distinction between the "two cultures" (65)

III. What Kind of Social Science Shall We Now Build? (75)

  1. Humans and nature (83)
  2. The state as an analytic building-block (86)
  3. The universal and the particular (92)
  4. Objectivity (97)

IV. Conclusion: Restructuring the Social Sciences (101)

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Last Updated: 11/18/14