National Traditions In The Social Sciences Research Paper

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To a very considerable extent the social sciences in each country nowadays are a local reproduction of the common global pattern of the social sciences. Further, it is clear that the achievement of a universal social science is a widely shared goal amongst social scientists from all nations, although some pursue more nationalistic agendas. Nevertheless, the national context within which social scientists operate continues to have a considerable influence on the content and form of social science work. Some national contexts have been more important than others in the production of highquality social science: for example, in their study of nineteenth-century social science innovations, Deutsch et al. (1986) suggest that, while their set of 64 discoveries is equally split between those made in Europe and those made in the USA, there is a marked switch over time, with most of the European contributions being made in the first half of the period (up to World War II), but the period since being overwhelmingly dominated by discoveries advanced by US-based social scientists.

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In some periods, for some areas of knowledge, and for some geographical areas the national intellectual context is particularly active in shaping social knowledge production, and it is possible clearly to identify national traditions of social science which share particular features and which may have an accepted label. ‘It is a common observation that national intellectual traditions exist in the social sciences. These traditions are often remarkably resistant to processes of ‘‘universalisation’’ or ‘‘modernisation’’ and even provide intellectual resources from which new social theorising can continuously emerge’ (Wagner et al. 1991b, p. 341). The imprint of past national traditions can endure. Behind each of the present universalistic social science disciplines the historical imprint of those particular national traditions which were formative in establishing that discipline can often still be glimpsed. Finally, on occasions, a national approach is so strongly and explicitly developed by a more or less coherent social grouping of social science scholars that we can reasonably talk about a national school, which is often centered on the capital of the nation: for example, the German School of History (founded by Ranke), the French School of Sociology (led by Durkheim), the Stockholm School of Economics, or the Prague School of Linguistics.

Attention in this research paper is mainly addressed to the rather more central nations such as France, Germany, the UK, and the USA. Little is written about national traditions of social science that might contrast different countries in Latin America, Africa, or Asia. Since national traditions are more often identifiable in the half-century between about 1875 and 1925, or more generally the period bounded by a further 25 years on either side, attention is more directed to this period. A further limitation is that the focus centers only on major social science disciplines.

Acquiring a thorough comparative knowledge of national social science traditions is hampered by several difficulties. Appropriate information is routinely provided by ‘country reports,’ in which the state of scholarly activity in some particular area of knowledge is described, fructified perhaps with some interesting but unsystematic observations about the linkages between the content described and the national context in which it was produced. Sometimes such country reports are published alongside each other in a ‘regional report’ or a ‘world report.’ Less frequently, developments across the range of the social sciences are depicted for a particular country or region. Such literature tends to be largely descriptive, and often entirely speculative. The question of national traditions in social science is more often raised than satisfactorily answered.

Nevertheless, more recently a rather more theoretically informed sociology of social science has begun to generate appropriate studies on the comparative history of the social sciences (e.g. Wagner et al. 1991a, 1991b). This newer approach draws particularly from theoretical advances in the sociology of science, and also from developments in social theory. Rather than presenting a picture of the universally uniform, unilinear, and progressive evolution of each of the social science disciplines, somewhat more nuanced treatments are now more prevalent. These stress ruptures and discontinuities, interlinkages, and oppositions, and variations over time and space.

Levine’s study of national traditions in sociology provides a definition that can be more generally applied to other social sciences. He sees traditions as inter and intragenerational conversations amongst intellectuals in a particular country, which tend to share particular assumptions about social reality. In such conversations writers mainly cite fellow nationals.

More important, over the generations they reproduce what are palpably national characteristics. Moreover, when they engage in dialogue with parties from other national traditions, they do so, openly or by implication, in a more contrastive mode—as when Durkheim explicitly contrasts his French discipline with British and German traditions (Levine 1995, p. 99).

The rise and fall of national traditions are shaped by various cultural, ideological, political, institutional, cognitive, and social factors, which will be reviewed in the remainder of this research paper.

The broadest influence is undoubtedly that of national cultural traditions. Cultures which are much more likely to foster the successful development of social science are those stressing the importance, in both the natural and social realms, of the acquisition of explicit, rational scientific principles and of empirical fact-finding, and, even more strategically, the importance of developing systematic ways of interfacing the rational and the empirical. An important influence in each national culture on the development of social science has been those models of natural scientific inquiry advocated in that national culture by philosophers or natural scientists, which have been admired by social scientists.

Aspects of religious thinking in a country also affect the development of social science in that country. Prior to the Reformation and Enlightenment, secular social thinking was often discouraged. Moreover, in Protestant countries, close relations developed between intellectuals and churches. Intellectuals were harnessed in the conflict with Catholic ideas and politics; there was more room for debate since (some) Protestant religions were not anchored by a central dogma; and since Protestant clergymen could raise families, intellectual dynasties could be more readily formed. Thus, in the UK, and also The Netherlands and Scandinavia, scientific innovation was linked with religious debate. However, in France secularization of intellectual culture took place with support from the state and the court, and did not involve the development of scientific thought, since literary genres were dominant. Therefore there was scientization without secularization, in contrast to secularization without scientization (see Heilbron 1995, pp. 63–4). The universities in both Italy and Spain tended to be circumscribed by the Catholicism of their societies, and were fairly moribund intellectually, except for occasional intellectual forays animated by links with Parisian thought.

Each culture tends to make similar ontological assumptions about the nature of social reality, and how it might be known and changed. Such assumptions underpin much social science work in that country. In particular, cultural choices tend to be made between stressing the individual level as ontologically prior (as in the UK), or the collective level (France), and between an objective approach (as in both the UK and France) compared to a more subjective approach (as in Germany).

Levine identifies seven national traditions in sociology, although his characterizations are extendable to the social sciences more generally, as follows:

(a) Aristotle, representing the Hellenic tradition, is concerned with the way in which different constitutional arrangements of societies (that is, city-states) shape the conditions for achieving human virtues, and thus human happiness, and with the achievement of that potential arising from the deliberative judgments of the participants.

(b) The UK tradition emphasizes the naturally sociable disposition of individual humans: for example, the preoccupation with the properties, rights, liberties, and utilities of individual actors, and then the conduct of the actors.

(c) The French tradition emphasizes that ‘society formed a supra-personal entity with properties and needs of its own, above all needs for normative regulation and solidaristic integration,’ and that this was a natural phenomenon.

(d) The German tradition emphasizes human freedom as an essential element of moral decision making, and also affirms the creative power of language as a distinctive feature of human action and morality.

(e) The transnational Marxian tradition draws on German idealism, French socialism, and English economics to provide an ideologically committed and yet scientific macrosocial science of the development of capitalism and other modes of production.

(f) The Italian tradition seeks laws about societies as natural systems, with the prominent features of these systems being the functioning of ruling classes or elites.

(g) American pragmatism stresses social activism disposed to solve problems on an experimental, commonsense, pragmatic basis.

Different nations each house much the same range of ideological or political perspectives, but some perduring national emphases can be found. For example, French ideology more often stresses radical change, drawing on its rationalist heritage, whereas in the UK and the USA the emphasis is more on reform, flowing from a strain toward empiricism. In Germany ideology is often idealist, humanist, and antipositivist. Such emphases in political ideologies tend to flavor national social science traditions.

Each culture understands the relationships between its component ‘social fields’ rather differently. Although most modern societies have in common a set of separate economic, political, and social realms (together with many minor arenas of social life), how each is constituted and what its relationships are to other spheres may differ considerably, and this has consequences for social science work in that society. Each discipline tends to have an interactive relation-ship with one of the social realms in that society, with the social science discourse being in part ‘constitutive’ of that realm, and in part being shaped by it. The way a society is organized in terms of its social fields may guide the development of particular national traditions of social science over many generations. For example, in France, the state has long been a very central and powerful institution, although there has been a strong discouragement of scholarship in political science. In France, society (‘the social’) became distinct from church and politics, and then the economy, but in Germany the distinction was resisted. The possibilities for the development of sociology in each country were shaped by these differences.

Cultures can differ in how they set the boundaries of the social sciences. In Germany, Sozialwissenschaften is a broad conceptualization, whereas in the Anglo-American world a sharper distinction is usually drawn between the social sciences and the humanities. France is more complex, with economics located within faculties of law, whereas the other human sciences are located within the broader humanistic framework of faculties of letters. Which particular disciplines are separately identified has also differed, with some continental European university systems often presenting more ‘policy-orientated’ types of knowledge such as demography, criminology, and public administration. More recently, that division of labor among which has developed in US universities has successfully diffused worldwide, and has become the norm against which the array of disciplines in other countries is measured.

During the period of German university development from the late 1700s through to the mid-1800s literary and artistic intellectuals were not accommodated in universities. One result of this appears to have been that ‘the independent non-university intellectuals became hostile to the new professorial form of knowledge production’ (Olson 1993, p. 24). This involved a Romanticist rejection of cold hard facts, which developed alongside, and in reaction to, the professionalization of knowledge, and provided an alternative and oppositional stock of intellectual resources, which has most recently been drawn on in the development of postmodernism.

The policy process is different in different states. In the nineteenth-century UK, fact-finding was institutionalized in the role of Royal Commissions, inspectorates, and social-reform research associations, but these were weakly linked (at least as far as formal ties are concerned) with the processes of policy making. However, social network ties amongst various members of the elite could provide channels for information to percolate to policy makers. Links between social researchers and policy makers ever since have remained generally at arm’s length. In Germany, there was also considerable state involvement in statistics collection. In contrast, in The Netherlands, a tradition of longer-term policy making developed, and this more farsighted orientation was able to articulate with a slew of empirically orientated research approaches, such as sociography and social geography, which were particularly well developed there. The national political culture of states leads to differences in their interest in social research, and their capacity to promote it and then to utilize its findings varies considerably (for an earlier review, see Cherns 1974). Although the attention of historians of social science is particularly drawn to examining theoretical traditions, there are also research traditions (or more broadly methodological traditions) which may not be at all strongly linked with the more theoretical traditions. The state, as the key institution in developing statistical information, is particularly important in shaping the types of empirical research and methodological developments that eventuate in a particular country. But there are other influences. Levine (1995, p. 276) suggests that:

The empirical traditions also bore the mark of national dispositions, if not in such a pronounced form as the philosophical ones. England led the way with social surveys, systematic investigations of living and working conditions, mainly of members of the working class. France and Italy pursued the collection of national social statistics, work that enabled Durkheim to lead off so impressively with his analysis of divorce rates, educational levels, mental illness data, religious affiliation and the like in Suicide. Germany pioneered the experimental manipulation of subjects and also the systematic collection of ethnographic data in broadly defined culture areas. The US pioneered in producing census data and later in systematic gathering of information through personal documents and direct observation as well as interviews.

Later, in the USA, an array of methodological developments occurred. For example, content analysis was developed, especially in the context of World War II and the Cold War, when direct access to totalitarian countries was denied, and so more indirect means of study were especially required. The methodological emphasis of US social science led to the very considerable systematization of social research methods in the USA in the mid-nineteenth century, including the successful forging of a marriage between social research and statistics, which had not been achieved in the UK at the turn of the century, when social research on one hand and mathematical statistics on the other had developed alongside each other.

National social science traditions may be shaped by differences in internal organization amongst social scientists themselves. In ‘state-centered societies’ (such as France or Germany) social scientists tend to consider themselves already organized by virtue of their university posts, with further organization amongst their colleagues not being so necessary; whereas in ‘stateless societies’ (such as the UK or the USA) there has been a conception of a profession of knowledge producers, which has led to considerable associational activity for the promotion of the social sciences.

In many countries there has been a development of semiprofessions, at least partly based on social science knowledge (social workers, planners, nurses, librarians, psychologists, economists, educators, and teachers). Their differential association with social sciences in each national setting has undoubtedly had particular affects.

A range of coalition partners, which differ in particular circumstances, may support particular developments of social science knowledge; especially where there is a cognitive and moral affinity. Such partners may include political parties, trade unions, probusiness groupings, welfare reform groups, or more generally social movements. Think tanks have been set up to mobilize social science knowledge for more specifically ideological purposes, especially in support of the doctrines of neoliberalism. There can be a ‘discursive affinity’ involving an overlapping of key concerns, and some basic similarity in cognitive assumptions and terms. In such circumstances, the social science work provides some of the conceptual elaboration and/or the social information required to support the program of its ally, while the ally may assist in providing identification of what issues are seen as problematic, empirical material (for example, access to research sites) and may assist in mobilizing resource support, as well as in providing more general legitimacy. This relationship is often strengthened when the partner obtains parliamentary power, or, more so, is in government. Social movements can be important in linking national traditions: for example, Marx bequeathed his writings to the German socialist movement (which gained a parliamentary foothold in the 1880s and 1890s) which harbored them, in turn making them available for widespread trade-union and academic utilization at the turn of the twentieth century and beyond.

The era of nationalism occurred over the same period as that of the most powerful discipline building among the social sciences. It is not unusual, then, to posit links between these two processes. Nation building was especially important in Germany and Italy, which were each culturally and intellectually dominated by their ‘national questions’ as they groped toward a newly united nationhood. The effect of nationalism seemed to provide a strong, if diffuse, stimulus to the development of the social sciences.

The effects of different institutional forms and the material basis of the provision of resources has been especially important for fuelling the differential development of social science. A range of institutional forms have been relevant at different times and in different places: coffeehouses, salons, associations, university teaching departments, and research institutes (see Coser 1965, Wuthnow 1989) Salons and coffeehouses can be significant for the flexible innovation of new ideas (as in France and the UK). Universities can be important for providing a more secure and enduring environment, with systematization required for teaching, as well as being rewarded as a goal. University settings propel specialization and divisions of labor, especially in the form of separate disciplines. However, university teaching departments are not necessarily appropriate institutions to support larger-scale research, so that the tackling of larger topics, and also policy research, often requires the development of research centers where a specialized division of labor can be built up and resources for particular products can be mobilized.

Different national university systems have provided different contexts for the development of social science. The German universities were reformed from the 1820s on and launched a range of more systematically based scientific work, especially in philology and then extending especially into history, which was placed on a far more scientific footing. The French system, which was not revivified until the 1870s, was (and still is) highly centralized, which can mean the rapid institutionalization of a particular area of knowledge, although the centralization can prove intellectually stultifying in the longer run as it can cramp innovations. As with natural science, the US university system, in which university presidents have strong power to develop new areas, where there can be fierce competition for prestige amongst institutions, and where (at least in larger universities) the appointment of several full professors in each department fosters a democratic climate and a diversity of lines of research, seems to have been a particularly successful environment within which social science has flourished. Although these were pioneered in Germany, the USA has also been especially important in the development of specialized social-research centers. One particular design feature which supports innovation seems to have been the importance of role hybrids—those with one foot in practical concerns and the other in a setting allowing for systematization of ideas are often especially innovative situations. US universities have tended to be better in providing such links.

The institutions within which social science development takes place may also have an effect on the dominant cognitive style through which social knowledge is produced and debated. German scholars were often ensconced in universities, whereas French scholars debated within salons. As a result, a typical style tended to develop: ‘Whereas the German intellectual was systematic, scholarly, even pedantic, the French intellectual tended to be orientated to science as well as to political controversy and to be brilliant and lucid as well as facile and flowery in exposition’ (Collins 1994, p. 14).

National traditions are more likely to develop where the subject matter is strongly localized: for example, the study of languages seems to have nurtured a considerable degree of longevity of localized scholarship. In contrast, more abstractly formulated social sciences are more likely to float free from national contexts.

Three broad modes of formation of social science can be distinguished (Wagner et al. 1991b):

  • comprehensive social science perspectives, which reject specialization and professionalization: for example, idealism, social romanticism, German historical economics, classical sociology;
  • formalized disciplinary discourses, which are appropriate to the internal organization of universities: for example, neoclassical economics, legal theory of the state, and formal sociology; and
  • pragmatically specializing professions: codified professional training.

The first type of broad theorizing developed only in continental European countries during the late nineteenth century, where scholarship spanned both university chairs and independent intellectuals. More formalized disciplines developed as the social sciences became institutionalized within universities, especially in Germany and then in the USA. The third mode developed especially in the USA.

In discussing national traditions in social science, distinctions are often drawn between the English-speaking world (with further differentiation between the USA and the UK) and continental Europe (in turn divided between the north and south). Other countries fall into yet further patterns. In various of the smaller European (and other First World) countries, various early forms of social science developed, often with significant local figures, not yet entirely attuned to a social science framework. Sometimes these were institutionalized. Such local developments tended to be overwhelmed following World War II by the international spread of social science from its US bases. Local variants of social science were then reestablished, usually with a strong US flavor. Gradually, especially out of the pressures for change in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a little more local room for maneuver developed, although usually this did not lead to reconnections with the very early forerunners of national traditions.

The situation of national traditions in developing countries is broadly similar, although more muted, and with a later timescale. Some had local traditions, although usually these were very limited. Again, expansion and Americanization were late postwar phenomena. Although social science establishments now exist, they are smaller and less self-sufficient than in the previous group of countries.

In sum, during the period of the most active development in our current social science disciplines, innovative work was largely carried out in particular national contexts, albeit within a context of the considerable international exchanges of views. These innovative breakthroughs were often centered in national traditions extending back some centuries. Although the high period of the play of national traditions has largely passed and social science now seems to be relatively universalistic, national contexts still continue to shape the work of the social scientists within each national community.


  1. Cherns A B (ed.) 1974 Social Science Organization and Policy. Mouton, The Hague, The Netherlands
  2. Collins R 1994 Four Sociological Traditions. Oxford University Press, New York
  3. Coser L A 1965 Men of Ideas: A Sociologist’s View. Free Press, New York
  4. Deutsch K, Platt J, Rader J 1986 Advances in the Social Sciences, 1900–1980: What? Who? When? How? Lanham University Press, MD
  5. Heilbron J 1995 The Rise of Social Theory. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK
  6. Levine D 1995 Visions of the Sociological Tradition. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  7. Olson R N 1993 The Emergence of the Social Sciences, 1642–1792. Twayne, New York
  8. Wagner P, Weiss C , Wittrock B, Wollman H (eds.) 1991a Social Sciences and Modern States: National Experiences and Theoretical Crossroads. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  9. Wagner P, Wittrock B, Whitley R (eds.) 1991b Discourses on Society. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands
  10. Wuthnow R 1989 Communities of Discourse: Ideology and Social Structure in the Reformation, the Enlightenment and European Socialism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA


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