The Moving Frontier of the Social Sciences

Mattei Dogan. The International Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Stella R Quah & Arnaud Sales. 2000. Sage Publication.

The extraordinary development of all sciences during the last half of the century has brought with it multiple specializations and ramifications. Such a process is obvious in the natural sciences. In most universities “general chemistry” or “introduction to biology” are taught only to freshmen. Fragmentation of formal sciences continues from generation to generation. For instance, the alliance at the second generation between endocrinology and neurophysiology has given birth to neuro-endocrinology. Genetic biology and physical anthropology have combined their efforts to establish maps of prehistoric migrations. The genetic epistemology results from the hybridization of genetic-psychology and epistemology. Phonetics, which developed as a hybrid phonetic physiology is now oriented toward neuro-physiological phonetics, which is a hybridization at the fourth generation. Biochemistry, which was already a hybrid discipline, has given birth to a generation of cousins who do not know each other. They are so numerous that their congresses bring together thousands of specialists who, in most cases, have nothing to say to each other. They work in small groups. This process is more recent in the social sciences, but the fragmentation of disciplines that precedes a hybridization of fragments, is nevertheless visible.

The Old Nomenclature of the Social Sciences and its Recent Ramifications

In the social sciences, as in the natural sciences, the contours of formal disciplines are becoming artificial and arbitrary. Between disciplines there may be empty spaces. In this case the pioneers of science behave like colonizers of desert lands. But more often the territory is occupied by a neighboring discipline. Then we see a process of interaction between sub-fields, a hybridization of branches of disciplines.

According to the definition we adapt, one could count between eight and fourteen formal disciplines in the social sciences—certain institutions recognizing some sub-fields as full disciplines. If each of twelve principal social sciences are crossed with all the others, we would in theory obtain a grid with 144 squares. Some squares would remain empty, but more than three-quarters of them would be filled by hybridized specialities enjoying some autonomy. These hybrid specialities branch out in turn, giving rise, at the second generation, to an even larger number of hybrids. A full inventory of all the existing combinations cannot be obtained by crossing the disciplines two by two, even at the level of the second generation, since some hybrid fields, among the most dynamic ones, are of multiple origin. This is true of cognitive science, environmental research and town planning.

In addition, hybrid fields like prehistory or protohistory which are partly rooted in the natural science do not appear in the 144-square grid, which is confined to recombinations of segments of the social sciences. The configuration of hybrid fields is changing constantly. Social psychology, political sociology, human ecology and political economy have long been recognized, whereas social psychiatry is still having to fight for acceptance. Some specialists in cognitive science announce that the good old psychology will soon exist no more as an independent discipline. Psychology “should ultimately be dissolved in a full-blown neuropsychology, which should show, somewhat as chemistry supplanted alchemy, the illusory and pre-scientific character of the categories of psychology” (Proust, 1991: 15). Which branch of linguistics is on the right path, structural linguistics or generative grammar? The structuralists criticize the historicism of comparative grammar and the generativists reject the presuppositions of the structuralists.

Seven disciplines straddle the social sciences and the natural sciences: anthropology, geography, psychology, demography, linguistics, archaeology and cognitive science. By virtue of this fact alone, each of these seven disciplines is fractured, and cohabitation of the two parts beneath the same disciplinary roof sometimes creates a problem.

Sociometric studies show that many specialists are more in touch with colleagues belonging officially to other disciplines than with colleagues in their own branch. The “invisible college” described by Robert Merton (1963), Diana Crane and other sociologists of science, is an eminently interdisciplinary institution because it ensures communication not only from one university to another, and across all national borders, but also and above all between specialists attached administratively to different disciplines. The networks of cross-disciplinary influence are such that they are obliterating the old classification of the social sciences. The borrowing and lending of concepts from one discipline or speciality to another demonstrates the permeability of the formal frontiers between the social sciences (Dogan and Pahre, 1990: 123-130).

The Diffusion of Concepts from One Discipline to Another

One of the most fruitful exchanges between disciplines is the borrowing of concepts. Lets take political science as an example. An inventory of concepts, based on the International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, shows that until the 20th century three giants have generated an impressive number of concepts still used in political science: Aristotle, author of five concepts, and twenty-three centuries later, Karl Marx with six concepts, and Max Weber with ten. Each of these giants are revindicated by several disciplines.

The 1930s saw an explosion of concepts with dissemination from one discipline to another. Sociology appears as the most productive discipline with twenty-one concepts adopted by political science. Anthropology, economics, psychology and law also offered significant concepts to political science, which has also borrowed concepts from biology, mathematics, statistics, theology, social psychology and game theory. Certain concepts are adapted by almost all social sciences. The word “role” comes from theatre, but Max Weber gave it a sociological meaning. From sociology the notion spread to psychology, social psychology, anthropology and political science. The word “revolution” was concocted by Copernicus, but it was applied for the first time to political events under Louis XIV. Later it was taken-up by historians and sociologists.

“Structure” appeared as early as 1858 in the writings of Herbert Spencer. Soon after it was used by Marx and Engels. A generation later was borrowed by Emile Durkheim, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, George Murdock, and later became a key concept in the work of Claude Levi-Strauss. From sociology and anthropology, it made its way into political science. During this migration the concept was refashioned. Gestalt-Psychology for example underlines that the whole structure represents more than the addition of constituent elements. Statisticians, in their turn, have developed “latent structure”, between invisible variables. The concept experienced a new mutation when it was applied to pressure groups. The concept of ecology is also inter-disciplinary. Considered as a neologism in botany, it opened the way for animal ecology and human ecology. Imported into sociology by Durkheim it became the study of spatial distribution of social phenomena. Soon after it was extended to geography. Social ecology gained a new vigor with the computer (Dogan & Rokkan, 1974).

The migration of certain concepts is sometimes astonishing. “Value”, forged by economists, acquired a new meaning in psychology and social psychology: attitude, norm aspiration, etc. today it is an important concept in political science. “Socialization” spread also to several disciplines. Formed by psychologists, it was rapidly adopted in anthropology, particularly by Alfred Kroeber, Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead. Imported in political science by Charles Merriam, it is largely diffused today in the United States where several hundred political scientists claim that “socialization” is one of their main sub-field. “Inequality”, an old philosophical concept has become a tool of measurements in economics, sociology and political science. For some authors “inequality” has also a biological connotation (Sesardic, 1992). Even distant disciplines could benefit from the commerce of concepts. A good example is given by Jean Piaget (1970) in reference to the convergence between “entropy” in physics and the theory of information. “Entropy” has proved to be useful even in the codification of genetic information in D.N.A.

Borrowing a concept does not mean simply imitation. To become fruitful, it has to be intelligently sewn in a fertile field. In most cases concepts are not borrowed by an entire discipline, but by a sub-field, a fragment of the formal discipline, in a specialized domain.

The Archipelago of Social Sciences

In the history of sciences a twofold process can be seen: on the one hand, a fragmentation of formal disciplines and, on the other, a recombination of the specialities resulting from fragmentation. The new hybrid field may become completely independent, like social psychology, or continue to claim a dual allegiance, like political geography. In the latter case, one may not be sure whether to place a work in the category of geography or of political science. The criterion could be the predominance of one or the other component or the formal affiliation of the author. Political anthropology is a branch of anthropology, but also a sub-field of political science. Where does historical sociology end and where does social history begin? One may feel even more unsure when faced with a case of threefold recombination. As the relative proportions are not always obvious, it remains somewhat arbitrary where the essential affiliation may be said to lie, especially since the degree of kinship between disciplines varies greatly: sociology and social psychology are consanguineous, but geology and social geography are far less so, despite appearances.

Looking at four disciplines, we shall try to show in each case the process of specialization, its fragmentation and the recombination of the fragments by hybridization.

Varieties of History

History is no doubt the most heterogeneous discipline, dispersed in time and space. It is the most open discipline. Sooner or later, everything falls into the historian’s net. The dispute over the role and borders of history, which goes back to Durkheim, Simiand and Seignobos, does not seem to be over. Three generations later, history has been excluded from the social sciences under the authority of an international institution, UNESCO. History is not numbered among the so-called nomothetic sciences covered by the first volume published by UNESCO on “Main Trends in the Social and Human Sciences”. The historians do not appear to have reacted very vigorously to this affront. Indeed some historians have come to terms with it. Thus for Pierre Chaunu, “the progress of history in the last 50 years is the result of a series of marriages: with economics, then with demography, even with geography with ethnology, sociology and psychoanalysis. When all is said and done, the new history sees itself as something like an auxiliary science of the other social sciences” (Chaunu, 1979: 5). And here we have the word “auxiliary”, which was previously such a sore point, used today by a great historian. This is clearly not the opinion of the Annales School (Annales, 1989: 1323), resolutely committed to interdisciplinarity: “History will progress only in the context of interdisciplinarity, and one of its tasks is to renew the bases of interdisciplinarity” (Le Goff, 1991: 4).

Provided that the focus is on the long time-span and the comparative approach, there is agreement between Durkheim and Braudel. Sixty years a part from each other, using different words, they say much the same thing: “History can be a science only in so far as it compares, and there can be no explanation without comparison… Once it starts comparing, history becomes indistinct from sociology” (Durkheim in the first issue of Année Sociologique). Braudel, for his part, is just as accommodating: “Where the long time-span is concerned, the point is not simply that history and sociology tie in with each other and support each other but rather that they merge into one” (Braudel, 1960: 93). But here we are talking about only a part of history, that part which compares while considering the long time-span, for other fields of history have nothing or very little to do with sociology. Similarly, there are not many sociologists who do not need to have recourse to history for the purposes of the problem with which they are concerned. Durkheim and Braudel would have been more explicit if, instead of considering their discipline as a whole, they had referred clearly to their common territory which is now called comparative social history or historical sociology. Once it is accepted that history and sociology overlap in certain delimited areas, for instance in quantitative analyses (Scheuch, 1988) the long territorial dispute between history and sociology becomes a thing of the past. Only one sector of history is brought face to face with a sector of another discipline. Exchanges with economics have thus generated economic history, which is of interest only to some historians and some economists, in sufficiently large numbers however to provide material for several major journals.

Each human activity has its historian, who, in order to perform his task, has to hunt in other people’s lands. In the history of urbanization, for example, where he meets geographers, demographers, economists and sociologists, the historians can hoist his own flag. However, urban history is not an independent field, whereas economic history is well established.

History, in its turn, is helped by other disciplines, sometimes unexpectedly. One odd example is the contribution made by biology, or more precisely by one speciality of biology, haematology, to a particular sector of history, namely the study of the origin of ancient preliterate peoples. Blood is a historical record, for the characteristics of a person’s blood live on after his or her death in the blood of the descendants. As has been noted by Jean Bernard, “the geography of haemoglobin E and the geography of the monuments of Khmer art are virtually superimposable… The limits of the ancient Khmer empire were defined by archaeology. They can now be defined by haematology” (Bernard, 1983: 49). Haematology has been useful in the study of the migrations of the Vikings and the Ainu and in elucidating certain mysteries of the Andean high plateaux.

Numerous scholars from a dozen disciplines have inquired into the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. One of the most important was not guessed at until 1924 and was demonstrated only in 1965 through the chemical analysis of bones, namely the lead poisoning of the Roman governing class over many generations (Gilfillan, 1965). The specialists in saturnism thus… poisoned Pareto’s theory of the circulation of elites! Moreover, many theories, in the social sciences and the natural sciences alike, suddenly die as the result of an interdisciplinary onslaught. I have deliberately chosen these two examples of recourse to the natural sciences by history, for within the field of the social sciences many examples of exchanges come to mind.

Geography as a Cross-Road

Large universities list 20 odd branches of geography. Its subdivisions involve relations with every discipline, from anthropology to zoology. These divisions have assumed such an importance that they obscure the old split between human geography and geology. So far-reaching is the fragmentation that we may well ask, along with Roger Brunet: “Does geography have its own specificity? What is its real contribution, does it have its own field or is it no more than a relic of a former division of labour, now superseded? Can the geographer be said to have an identity, and if so what does it consist of?” (Brunet, 1982: 402). Geography is flanked by numerous hybrid fields. On the side of demography we find geography of population: the Third World population explosion is giving considerable importance to this field, highlighted by the publications of the World Bank. One sector of political science, international relations, is directly linked to population geography. Economic geography is more important for geographers than for economists, since for the latter the spatial dimension is not central.

“Geographical factors” long attracted the attention of sociologists until the publication in 1924 of Civilization and Climate by the sociologist Ellsworth Huntington, severely criticized by Pitirim Sorokin. From that time on and for more than three decades, sociology, at least in the United States, severed all compromising links with geography. It is only recently, in the context of environmental and ecological research, that sociologists have again shown an interest in “geographical factors”, in particular, climate. The most fruitful collaboration between geography and sociology has been in the field of town planning. In the field of cartography, which is the prime technique of geographers, in recent times “meteorologists, geologists, geophysicists, geochemists, plant ecologists, and other scientists have been the major innovators and users” (Jones, 1979: 103). Satellite photography, which can cover areas measuring 100 km in diameter, has rekindled interest in certain aspects of old-style human geography and urban geography. As for the exchanges between geography and history, they are so well known, in the Annales tradition, that not a single word can usefully be added here.

Political Science: Eclecticism

Specialization in political science is shown by the variety of journals to which political scientists can have access for the purposes of documentation or publication. According to a recent survey (cf. Brunk, 1989) conducted in the major American libraries, there are some 500 academic journals of interest to political scientists, 80 per cent of them in English, only one-tenth of which can be considered to be “general”, the others being specialized (public administration, comparative politics, political institutions) or attached mainly to other formal disciplines, or devoted to a particular region of the world, like Latin America or Asia (area studies, which are pre-eminently interdisciplinary). Most political sciences consequently keep informed by means of specialized journals that do not overlap much within the mother discipline, but that do however lead into fields connected with other disciplines.

In their preface to the Handbook of Political Science, Greenstein and Polsby (1975), the editors of this important work, confess their embarrassment at the “amorphous” character of the discipline. They acknowledge its far-reaching fragmentation, reflecting its diversity. The theoretical and methodological dispersion of the discipline is underlined by William Andrews: “political science had no necessary logic to its separate existence, that is, it had no distinctive methodology. It had no clearly-defined subject-matter that could not be encompassed within one or more of its sister disciplines. Its various parts could have survived simply as political history, political sociology, political geography, political philosophy and political psychology—subfields in other disciplines… Each of the other social science disciplines claims a piece of political science” (Andrews, 1988: 2).

Political science has undergone the beneficial influence of many sociologists (Parsons, Lazarsfeld, Adorno, Dahrendorf) and many economists (Downs, Arrows, Galbraith, Schumpeter, Morgenthau, Myrdal), not forgetting the philosophers (Popper, Friedrich, Habermas). In some fields political science and social history cannot be dissociated, both being often linked to economics. Structuro-functionalism, which for several decades dominated international comparative analysis, found inspiration in the theory of the anthropologist Malinowski, who showed that a cultural institution transferred to another culture may take on another meaning and fulfil a quite different function in the new context. Game theory, which has been adapted for the study of international conflicts, was formulated by the mathematician John von Neumann and the economist Oskar Morgenstern. The economist Herbert Simon borrowed from the psychologists the concept of limited rationality and drew from it a theory that is enjoying great success in American political science. The political scientists have borrowed not only theories but also methods. As Benson testifies, the bulk of the mathematical literature in political science is the work of outsiders, of people who do not identify themselves as researchers in political science, (Benson, 1963: 30).

To highlight the influence of the various disciplines on political science, Jean Laponce (1989) counted, for each 10 years over a period of 50 years, from 1935 to 1986, the number of references in the American Political Science Review to journals representing other disciplines. At the beginning of the period, law was the only discipline linked to political science. In the 1950s, there were more references to sociology journals than to law journals; mention began to be made of history and philosophy journals. In the 1970s, law journals were cited more rarely, history and philosophy journals to the same extent, references to sociology became frequent, and economics, psychology and mathematics journals made their appearance. In the 1980s economics and sociology became more prominent, as did psychology and mathematics (Laponce, 1983 and 1988). These trends lead Laponce to conclude that “In the last generation those political scientists published in one of the leading journals in the field, those thought by their peers to be creative and forward-looking, often appear to have had their heads turned sideways” (Laponce, 1988: 5). In another study Laponce analyzed import-export flows between seven disciplines, using the same technique of footnote references in 12 journals, including six British ones. The most intense exchanges in political science occurred in 1975 with sociology and in 1981 with economics (Laponce, 1983: 450).

Many of those most renowned political scientists work on hybrid phenomena or problems: political clientelism (in relation with anthropology and social psychology); socialization (drawing on sociology and social anthropology), nationalism (inseparable from history and sociology), development (linked to 11 of the social sciences), and many others.

It is not just recently that political science has opened up. Today we can but confirm what was written yesterday: “Political science is an inveterate borrower. It may, in fact, be the great eclectic among the social sciences. The history of its growth and development is a history of selecting skills and ideas from the other social sciences” (Sarouf, 1965: 22). The title of Gabriel Almond’s (1990) book, published a quarter of a century later is, so to speak, a diagnosis: “A discipline divided, schools and sects in political science”. This book emphasizes the theoretical, ideological and methodological splits in the discipline.

The Dispersion of Sociology: A Discipline without a Matrix

In the space of four decades sociology has experienced, first, a marked monodisciplinary expansion, then a marked dispersal beyond its boundaries. In the period just after the Second World War sociology was adopted as an official academic discipline in only a few countries, in particular the United States and Canada. In Europe, it had to start practically from scratch, especially in Germany and Italy. From 1955 on its growth was spectacular in several countries, particularly Scandinavia. In France, in 1950, the number of academics who could claim in their professional capacity to be sociologists was no doubt under two dozen: two university chairs, a few master’s degrees and a small number of researchers at the CNRS. Other academics, without being primarily sociologists (historians, psychologists, geographers, philosophers), contributed to the revival of sociology. Four decades later, the Who’s Who in Sociologie Française et Francophone contained some 1,500 names, including about 1,300 French, with 1,000 genuine sociologists and 300 related branches, among whom 500 lived in Paris—the biggest concentration of sociologists in the world. In the United States, the number of sociologists registered in the American Sociological Association doubled in the 1950s and doubled again in the 1960s.

Paradoxically, it was at the time when it was still modest in stature that sociology showed imperialist leanings. It would be easy to put forward a whole number of quotations in support of this assertion, but one will suffice. In 1962, at a time when sociology was not yet an independent discipline in Oxford and Cambridge and scarcely so in London, W.G. Runciman was claiming that if sociology was defined as the systematic study of collective human behaviour, the disciplines of economics, demography, criminology or politics should be considered to be branches of sociology (Runciman, 1962: 1). From 1970 on, growth started to go hand in hand with a process of fragmentation, with the result that today, in the developed democracies, sociology is a heterogeneous, centrifugal discipline. Depending on how it is defined, there can be said to be between 35 and 40 sectoral sociologies, going in every direction.

The International Sociological Association is today organized into fifty-three research committees. Among these groups, one notices “sociological theory”, “concepts and terminology” or “methodology”, which attest of the persistence of remnants of sociology as a “pure” discipline. But with a few exceptions it is clear that most branches of sociology are “impure”, mixed with other species. There are fields of specialization in sociology focusing on diverse social phenomena for example, family (main traditional domain of demography); education (traditional domain of pedagogy); ethnic groups (traditional domain of ethnology); alienation (claimed by psychology); and health (medicine and epidemiology). There is no social activity that does not have its official sociologist. There are sociologies of work, migrations, organizations, imperialism, armies, arts, science, leisure, ageing and so on. Some sectors of sociology are proclaiming their autonomy, particularly political sociology, economic sociology, historical, religious, urban, juridical, comparative sociology. The sociologist who studies nationalism encounters the political scientist interested in international relations, the economist observing economic dependence or the inevitable historian. The rural sociologist communicates with specialists belonging administratively to other disciplines. The sociology of knowledge is the first cousin of the philosophy of science. It is legitimate to ask if there is still a discipline that we could call sociology without using an adjective? During the last decades, sociology has transgressed the frontiers of all other social sciences, infiltrating everywhere and expanding unmensurably, to such a degree that it has become a Tower of Babel.

As is pointed out by Neil Smelser in the introduction to his Handbook of Sociology, “the likelihood that sociology will be denotative of an identifiable field will be diminished; it is likely that commitment to the discipline in general will diminish, and that smaller groups will seek their interaction and identification in suborganizations that are inside or outside the American Sociological Association” (Smelser, 1988: 13). This is true, for instance, of urban sociology. There are now more experts and researchers in the field of town planning than in the whole of traditional sociology. It is true that these experts include representatives of urban sociology, but they are a minority in a mass of town planners from a wide array of disciplines: geography, economics, architecture, etc., who have cut the umbilical cord attacking them to the mother discipline. But the most heavily populated subdiscipline in the United States at the present time is the sociology of medicine where most of the research work is becoming bogged down in fields devoid of theoretical horizon.

As soon as the problem being addressed concerns society as a whole, cross-specialization becomes inevitable, so much so that it is often necessary to bring together a variety of specialists. Here is a description of the content of a book which, in its day, enjoyed some success: “Each contributor has been an articulator of diverse disciplines: Boulding spans economics, mathematics and sociology; Coleman relates mathematics and sociology; Etzioni, organizational sociology and international relations; Kardiner, psychiatry and anthropology; Klausner, sociology and psychology; Levy, social theory and sinology; Pool, sociology and political science; Rapoport, biology, mathematics, philosophy, psychology and sociology; and Tiryakian, sociology and philosophy. They were chosen as men familiar with the problems of bridging disciplines, to build an image of a total society” (Klausner, 1967: xv). Replace the word “discipline” by “polyspeciality” and add a generous dose of history, and you will have a better idea of the real content of this book.

As it has matured and put out feelers in every direction, sociology has become aware of its excessive fragmentation and of its dispersal and has felt the need to come back to its centre, without yet succeeding. This process is described by Ralph Turner: “Sociology has gone through a cycle from emphasizing theory with little testable empirical basis to an atheoretical empiricism and back to the evaluation of research primarily for its relevance to grand theory” (Turner, 1991: 63).

The Consequences of Monodisciplinary Confinement: The Case of Economics

What happens if a discipline has a tendency to turn in on itself, if it does not open up enough, if its specialities do not hybridize, if it does not progress “in symbiosis with other social sciences”? In such cases, the neighbouring territories do not remain barren. The case of economics is a good example here. There are two ways of looking at economics. According to some its postulates are fruitful and its field clearly delimited. Others, more numerous however, think that economics is fundamentally divided between econometricians and theorists, who remain oblivious of one another. Between these two extremes there are more qualified positions which, while acknowledging the distinctive identity of economics and its theoretical and methodological foundations, stress its relative openness. But it should be recognized that economics lends itself far less than the other social sciences to interaction with other disciplines (this also being true of linguistics).

So deep do the divisions in economics seem to Michel Beaud that he writes that economists agree “neither about the subject on which they are working, nor about the methods, nor about the theoretical tools, nor about the goals of research” (Beaud, 1991: 157), concluding that “economics does not exist, nor does political economy. Instead, there is a very wide variety of tendentious discourses… the knowledge thus arrived at fits into a profoundly heterogeneous universe, structured by two galaxies, one predominantly axiomatic, the other dedicated to the effort to understand reality”. He considers that economics “suffers from the fact that its main advances—conceptualization, theorization, model building, mathematicization—have meant that it has become excessively cut off from the other social sciences”.

For Jacques Lesourne (1990), reporting on the World Econometrics Congress and the European Economic Association in 1990, economics has been “balkanized, broken up into a multitude of disciplines, each being organized around one or two journals”. The same remark can be made about the world congresses on sociology, demography, psychology or history. The monetarist George Stigler objected to six econometricians (Tinbergen, Samuelson, Malinvaud and their predecessors, Moore, Frisch and Fisher) being described as the authors of “exceptional contributions” because, so he wrote, “econometrics has no unified core or methodology” and “has not yet had a major impact on economics” (Deutsch, Markovitz and Platt, 1986: 342). But three of these six economists have in the meantime won the Nobel prize, as has Stigler himself.

Three lists of major contributions to economics were compiled in 1982 at a symposium in Berlin. The first, prepared by W. Krelle, contained 30 names, the second, by Y. Timbergen, 36 names, and the third, by B. Fritsch and G. Kirchgssner, 44 names. In the first two lists, there were only two names that were the same (including Klein, Nobel prizewinner, and Krelle himself), and in the first and the third, there were only nine that were the same. The last two lists did not have one name in common (Deutsch, Markovitz and Platt, 1986: 350). Such widely differing views about leading figures do not say much for the coherence of economics. This is also the opinion of the economist Kenneth Boulding, who speaks of economics as being “disorientated” comparing it with the story of the blind man and the elephant. The Nobel prizewinner Wasily Leontieff was not more indulgent: “Year after year, economic theorists produce mathematical models without being able to get any further towards understanding the structure and functioning of the real economic system” (quoted in Deutsch, Markovitz and Platt, 1986: 350).

Inspite of its internal division this discipline looks like an isolated island. In many countries large number of economists have locked themselves up in an ivory tower, and as a result whole areas have escaped their scrutiny. Their contribution to the problem of the development of the Third World, for instance, is rather modest when compared with the work of sociologists, political scientists, demographers and statisticians. This is particularly true in the United States, Latin America and India. Economics has had a somewhat condescending attitude towards political science, particularly in the United States and Canada. This has resulted in the development, side by side with it, and in competition with it, of a new corporate body, with an extremely active and large membership in the United States, England and Scandinavia: political economy, protected by only one of its parents, renamed through the revival of an old name from the French nomenclature of the sciences. Political economy is currently one of the main provinces of American political science, with a large output and renowned journals. It is one of the most popular sectors among PhD students in political science. Some eclectic economists denounce the reductionism advocated by other economists, particularly with reference to research on development: “development is reduced to economic development; this is reduced to growth; this in turn is reduced to investment, in other words to accumulation” (Sachs, 1991: 2). And Sachs quotes Myrdal who railed against economists who were in favour of unidisciplinary models.

Because of its theoretical isolation, economics has also forsaken economic history in which not only historians but also former economists have won renown, driven from the garden by their theorist colleagues. At a particular moment, economics reached a fork in the path: it could have chosen intellectual expansion, the penetration of other disciplines, at the cost of heterogeneity and diversification, and at the risk of dispersal (a risk taken by sociology); it chose instead to remain unflinchingly pure, true to itself, thereby forfeiting vast territories. Yet many economists consider that the choice of purity, mathematical rigour and hermetic terminology was the right choice. But many other economists, including several Nobel prizewinners, have left economics in the sense that they are better known and more frequently cited in political science than in economics: Arrow, Downs, Herbert Simon, Hirschman, Buchanan, Tullock, Musgrave, Lindblom, Black, Bamoul, Davis, Rothenberg, Harsanyi, Mckean, Olson, etc. (cf. Mitchell, 1969: 103).

It is thus clear that self-sufficiency, to use a word familiar to economists, leads sooner or later to a shrinking of borders. But this does not mean general impoverishment, since the lands abandoned by the economists were soon cultivated by others. Those abandoned lands now have their own flags: management, political economy, development science, comparative study of Third World countries, economic and social history. The position of economics in the constellation of the social sciences today might have been more enviable if it had not withdrawn into itself. This situation is particularly surprising in that few classical sociologists have failed to assign a central place in their theories to the relationship between economy and society: from Marx, Sombart and Weber to Schumpeter, Polanyi and Parsons (cf. Martinelli and Smelser, 1990), not forgetting Pareto.

The Fusion of Specialities at the Highest Level

Monodisciplinary research plays an essential role in scientific progress. It would be ridiculous not to acknowledge it. But such an acknowledgement is not incompatible with a belief in the fruitfulness of hybridization, a belief that might be briefly formulated in the form of a theorem: in the social sciences there are fundamental questions and issues of lesser importance; the more important a problem is, the more complex are the causes; when the causes are many, there is a greater need for an interdisciplinary approach. Barring exceptions, it is not possible to inquire into the major phenomena of civilization within a strictly monodisciplinary framework. Only by taking up position at the crossroads of many branches of knowledge can one try to explain the collapse of democracy in the Weimar Republic, the implosion of the Soviet Union, the proliferation of giant cities in the Third World, the decline of England in the last 50 years, the phenomenal economic growth of Japan, the fall of the Roman Empire, the absence of a socialist party in the United States or how a child learns to speak.

Whenever a question of such magnitude is raised, one finds oneself at the intersection of numerous disciplines and specialities. In a library catalogue a book can be included in several sections at the same time, but the actual book can be placed only on one shelf. Where should librarians place Karl Wittfogel’s book on Oriental Despotism or Gunnar Myrdal’s The American Dilemma, Louis Dumont’s Homo Aequalis, Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 9001900, Alfred Kamarck’s The Tropics and Economic Development, or Joseph Shumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy? Under economics, history, sociology, political science, geography or agronomy? In these major works, numerous subdisciplines, or rather numerous specialities, join hands. The analytical index to Paul Bairoch’s De Jericho a Mexico, villes et économie dans l’histoire or to Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy may show 15 to 20 specialities. Many books, past and present, could be referred to here.

In the cumulative index to the seven volumes of the Handbook of Political Science, published in 1975 under the direction of F.I. Greenstein and N.W. Polsby, more than 3,500 authors were listed. Among those who are cited at least 12 times, about half can be considered to be scholars working in hybrid fields. Needless to say, the degree of hybridization varies greatly. Among the hundred or so major innovations listed by Karl Deutsch and his colleagues in their Advances in the Social Sciences, two-thirds lie at the intersection of various disciplines or specialities. The higher one goes up the ladder of innovations, the greater are the chances that the boundaries between formal disciplines will disappear.

Concluding Remarks

To sum up, scientific progress occurs largely through the fragmentation of disciplines and the recombination of specialities. During the last decades most scientific discoveries had been achieved at the frontiers of disciplines, at their interstices, at the cross-over points of specialities. A varied and complex network of hybrid fields comes into being, with the result that the old map of the social sciences is becoming barely recognizable. Most of those who specialize in these hybrid fields are seen at the periphery of the discipline in contact with other scholars, who are also transgressors of boundaries. As this crossing does not engage entire disciplines, but only marginal sectors, many creative scientists are marginalized in the noble sense of the word.

Because of the administrative divisions of universities, we are accustomed to traditional disciplines. It is time to admit, however, that it is by mixing of neighboring specialities that scientific progress is accomplished. This reconstitution is clearly apparent in actual research but does not need to be introduced into university education where monodisciplinarity still plays a very useful role in the transmission of learning: general knowledge must necessarily precede specialized knowledge.