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Cross-disciplinary research ventures in postwar American social science:
Five case studies (Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, Michigan and MIT)

Research programme :

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jerry A. Jacobs (2009), a professor of sociology and education at the University of Pennsylvania, noted: “While calls for stronger interdisciplinary ties have a long history, in recent years the movement has had strong wind behind its sails”. More importantly, he added that some had “gone as far as calling for the end of departments as we have known them for the past 100 years”. The latter remark perfectly illustrates the way social scientists have come to see the issue of cross-disciplinary research ventures in American research universities. Interdisciplinarity and specialization are often regarded as mutually exclusive.

Here historians of postwar social science may have some responsibility. As historian David Hollinger (1996, p. 80) has pointed out: "Disciplinary discourses often contain versions of their own history that historians, when they bother to look, find too narrow. These self-contained narratives of a discipline’s past emphasize the analytical power of the specific, creative works that have shaped the discipline, and pay little attention to whatever extradisciplinary engagements may have helped to inspire these acts of creativity.  But historians rarely bother to look. They are usually content to leave to the discipline’s own chroniclers the task of assigning historical meaning to pivotal innovations and classic texts".

It is therefore the main objective of the present project to contribute to what remains an inadequately studied research area, namely, cross-disciplinary engagements in postwar social science. These cross-disciplinary engagements took place in leading universities but they also involved prominent social scientists such as Talcott Parsons, Kenneth Boulding, Kurt Lewin, Paul Lazarsfeld, Anatol Rapoport, and a few others. The significance of both these universities and researchers suggests that a series of case studies on the subject can greatly improve our historical understanding of these episodes and more generally our knowledge of postwar American social science.

In particular, in emphasizing cross-disciplinary engagements, these case studies can shed light on the evolving identities of the different social science disciplines. None of the latter had the same perception of its own identity in 2010 as in 1945. As we expect to show, the identity of the social sciences is not fixed and the exchanges between them, whatever form they have taken, are constitutive of their identities as much as supported by them.

Finally, the present project may hold more concrete lessons for the social sciences as a whole. The movement towards greater disciplinary autonomy since the Second World War, especially after 1970, has actually strengthened the policy ambitions of the social sciences, but it has not necessarily encouraged the cross-disciplinary communication conducive to their practical relevance. Ironically, many of the social scientific accomplishments from the 1950s would not have seen the light of day without the cross-disciplinary exchanges of the war and immediate postwar years. And yet, most social scientists pursued their work unaware of their theoretical debt to dialogues and debates at the frontiers of their subjects. In the process, they often contrasted cross-disciplinarity and specialism, forgetting that these need not be mutually exclusive and that the former may feed as much as be helped by the latter.

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