Social and Behavioral Research in Western Europe Research Paper

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1. Development After 1945

Modern social science, having originated in Europe, emerged as an institutionalized activity in research and teaching only after—and strongly influenced by—its powerful development in the United States. Its evolution in the twentieth century bears the imprint of the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in continental Europe. While emigrant scholars contributed greatly to the development of the social sciences in the US, the scientific evolution in continental Europe became largely interrupted—more so in Germany and also in Mediterranean countries, and, to a lesser degree in France and Scandinavia. (The summary given in this paper follows the ‘four phases of development in the social sciences’ as delineated by Martinotti 1999, pp. 87–91; for France, Italy, and Germany see also Wagner 1990.)

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By the end of the Second World War, the social sciences hardly played any role in the European universities. For example, in sociology there were only three chairs in France and none in Italy. In West Germany, political science chairs and a disciplinary association did not exist until 1950. To go to the US and study at an American university for some time, therefore, became an almost necessary precondition for the further education and training of social scientists in Europe. Experiencing ‘modern society’ and learning the new skills of its systematic observation, made a particular impression on young scholars from countries like Germany, Italy, Spain, and Greece which had been isolated from modern culture for decades. But it is also true of the Scandinavian countries, where the proximity of the Anglo-Saxon world favoured cultural transfer.

As the postwar economic recovery progressed, it became generally understood that the social sciences were part of the modernization of Europe, seen as the expansion of the capitalist mode of production as well as the democratization of society, both closely linked with the American model. While this caused conflicts and resistance from traditional cultural elites and the Marxist-oriented intelligentsia, there was an increasing diffusion of quantitative methods of data collection, particularly survey and primary data. While it is true to say that the European social science tradition had its own deep experience in quantitative analysis, one must also recognize that empirical research had mainly been based on the secondary analysis of ‘process-produced data,’ particularly statistical data collected by public authorities. What was missing in the continental tradition, and particularly in those countries that had been under despotic regimes, was the experience of field research and the collection of primary data (Martinotti 1999, p. 89). Resistance to the introduction of these new instruments, particularly survey methods and sampling techniques, became expressed from different points of view of traditional European scholarship as well as from administrative agencies with their customary statistical procedures.

Under these circumstances it was not before about 1960 that one can speak of a major expansion of research and acceleration of its academic institutionalization. European societies went through a period of economic ‘upswing’ that made large masses move to the metropolitan centres of industrial development. The postwar generation of young people, mobilized with the rapid expansion of educational systems, grew up as part of a mass culture, reinforced by the media, that provided a setting for the diffusion of ideas, life-styles and new organizational patterns without precedent in the European experience. The social sciences, particularly the younger and newly built-up ones, notably sociology, became highly attractive to the student generation for a number of reasons: the relatively young age of university personnel, compared with more established disciplines; the less precise definition of the academic institutionalization of the social sciences; and the proximity of their subject matter to the intellectual and existential preoccupation of the newly mobilized social groups.

From this background there emerged, in all European countries, a demand for theories of political relevance and of significance for diagnosing and overcoming societal problem constellations (see Dierkes and Wagner 1992, pp. 612–15). This interest, with its commitment to change, stood in opposition to the program of a supposedly ahistorical and value-free explanation of social phenomena. Intellectual controversies and debates within the disciplines pitted the American social science tradition against a variety of Marxist approaches and other ‘critical’ schools with their supposedly more ‘enlightened’ responses to the demand for a more encompassing understanding and a more ‘committed’ interpretation of social facts.

With this orientation, major streams of the social sciences, with Paris and Frankfurt as major centres, acquired a somewhat militant role, linking up with new social movements and entering into debates about the engagement of intellectuals. The traditional social structures and actors, however, managed to retain their overall influence and to uphold traditional explanations for problems of economic and social change. Social science research in much of the 1960s and 1970s can therefore be characterized, on the one hand, by innovative work in many areas, e.g., political participation, labor organization, class structure, the ‘capitalist state’ and problems of personal and sexual relations. On the other hand, theoretical innovation was limited and research perspectives remained concentrated on the nation-state—despite a growing awareness of conflicts posed by North–South differences, the role of multinational corporations, or global environmental problems.

It was in the later part of the 1970s and in the 1980s that the turmoil of debates, the imbalances between issues and approaches, the dividing lines between theoretical and empirical research gradually became superseded by an ongoing process of professionalization, of methodological consciousness and of new theoretical directions. In retrospect, we can speak of a phase of consolidation in the social sciences in the period of economic recovery after the oil crisis. At a time when liberal social philosophies became dominant, with political sentiments tending to be anti-welfare, and economic policies being influenced by monetarism, the overriding mood seemed to run against the interest in social conditions and the study of society. While this indeed in some countries, notably the UK under Prime Minister Thatcher, made for severe cuts and structural changes, the science policy pendulum did not swing to similar extremes in continental Europe. Debates over the social sciences gradually shifted from theoretical controversies to discussions of their ‘uses’ in public affairs and policymaking. But by and large institutional growth continued, then slowing down to reach a steady state on advanced levels. (See Martinotti 1999, p. 90, Wagner 1999, pp. 29, 39.)

Towards the end of the 1980s, the social sciences had become well-established academic disciplines, and their presence in policy-making had been well advanced. The academic expansion had very much been related to, and benefited from, expectations with regard to practical uses of the social sciences in the process of societal modernization which had become an important objective, actively pursued by parts of the political and economic elites. In the process, the role of intellectuals became redefined, turning from persons reflecting in general terms about the fate of humankind in history and society to experts for matters of steering society and the economy, and providing knowledge usable as a tool in reformist policy interventions. After the end of the high expectations about the ‘scientification of politics’ allegedly leading to the ‘end of ideology,’ social research had become a routine element of many policy processes and, more recently, of management in private companies as well (see Wagner 1990, pp. 441ff.).

The increasing specialization of the applied social sciences, as well as the general trends of the professionalization of the disciplines and their institutionalization in universities and research centres, brought about an increasing fragmentation and specialization which has sometimes been related to a tendency of ‘deconstructivism’ with critical attacks on large theoretical systems and linked to postmodernist movements. But these tendencies more often are understood as part of a more general search for theories capable of combining macrotrends with microsocial and individual dynamics, and, in so doing, aiming at overcoming the traditional juxtaposition of qualitative and quantitative methods, looking for integration in unified research designs (see Martinotti 1999, p. 90).

Having developed to this advanced stage, the social sciences in the 1990s had to reorient themselves under two dramatic changes of focus: first, the end of the East–West opposition, and second, the process of globalization and internationalization in world regions, particularly the construction of the European entity.

There is an ever more strongly articulated need to gain a better understanding of and to contribute to problem-solving in the process of European integration. Developing a concept of European society has become a major challenge for the social sciences which have traditionally evolved around the concept of a nation-state and of national societies under the stresses imposed by industrialization. Only slowly, but with increasing intensity around the turn of the new century, has it become recognized that the tools and working conditions of social research need to be made adequate for the study of new problem constellations and supra-national processes, and that social science policy-making and research programs have to be oriented towards cross-national comparison and international cooperation, particularly on the European level. (See Dierkes and Biervert 1992, Kaase et al. 1997, Erikson 1999.)

2. National Environments And Institutional Structures

At the beginning of the twenty-first century it is fair to say that in the Western European countries, as a whole, the social sciences have become a standard element in higher education, in public debate and media coverage, in policy-making, administration and corporate management. While, generally speaking, the knowledge of social reality and the diffusion of social facts have become vastly expanded in the previous five decades, the infrastructural basis for generating this knowledge has developed differently in the individual countries. The disciplinary boundaries of the social sciences, research approaches, problem orientations, and structural differentiations in the build-up of research facilities have become shaped by the respective national environments with their historical preoccupations, their academic-scientific ‘cultures,’ their political and administrative traditions. Expectations regarding the usefulness of social science knowledge for policy-making and the periodically strong demand for social science expertise have contributed to the institutional consolidation and at times—in varying degrees from country to country— to a push for new research structures reflecting characteristic orientations, problem constellations, and modes of public discourse. (See Wagner et al. 1991, Neidhardt and Smelser 1992.)

For example, the social sciences in Sweden may, to a considerable degree, be characterized by pointing, on the one hand, to a traditional demand for exact and reliable methods, going back to early studies of migration and social movements, and by referring, on the other hand, to the interaction with social policies in the Swedish welfare state model and thus to particular forms of contributing to problem-solving as well as, in the process, refining the theoretical outlook on society.

Contemporary social science orientations may often be explained in terms of specific historical evolutions. In the Netherlands, for example, there had been an early involvement of social science research in the practical problems associated with the territorial aspects of social planning, and the social sciences had become shaped in a continuous development by the specifically Dutch version of political conflict resolution, the pacificatie, and the corresponding development of institutional networks for interest mediation. While the forms of policy advisory work and research contracting in the Netherlands can thus be characterized in terms of pragmatism, tolerance, and depoliticization, it is quite a different picture that one would paint for Austria. Here, in the prewar period, the constellations of political conflict did not allow for the continuity of similar pragmatic approaches, and the modes of conflict resolution established after the war led to the involvement of social science approaches in the specifically Austrian type of corporatism, making for quite a different variant of a more general continental European phenomenon: the integration of social science research in institutional structures of political representation and in channels of communication between politics, public opinion, policymaking and scientific expertise (see Wagner 1990, pp. 460–3).

These examples, while meant to underline the importance of the diverse national settings, may also serve to illustrate a more general thesis explaining social science orientations with reference to historical paths of social and political development. In these terms, the social sciences emerged in Western European countries in a markedly different way from the way they evolved in England and the US, where the continuity of individualism and civil society made for a more pragmatic style of studying social and political problems empirically and with reformist perspectives. The social sciences on the European Continent, in turn, have been characterized by addressing more basically the foundations of a social and political order which—given the traditional social conflicts, ideological cleavages and propensities for radical change in Europe—have time and again been called into question. They have also shown a greater tendency to ascertain their basic categories and critically discuss their knowledge base.

Institutionally, in all Western European countries, the major part of social science research takes place within the university system. This refers first—and for most countries, foremost—to a multitude of small production units attached to professorial chairs in university departments and loosely organized faculties. Depending on the relative number of students and the weight of the professorial teaching load, university research consists mainly of small projects done with students and often linked to their theses.

At many universities we find, under similar names, institutes for social science research as organizational entities meant to provide better opportunities for cross-disciplinary orientation, for cooperating in empirical research and for contracting and administering larger projects with outside funding. But it is only at very few places that such additional forms of institutionalization, in combination with a considerable number of professorial and other staff positions in the respective departments, have led to larger and more consolidated university research centres. In Germany such larger agglomerations of the social sciences exist at the universities of Mannheim, Cologne, Bielefeld, and Munich. (See Neidhardt 1999.)

By and large, however, it is outside the universities that more extensive research structures have become institutionalized. Extra-university institutes form a second element in the ‘academic research system’ in as much as they are to some degree publicly funded and not dependent in their agenda-setting on short-term opportunities offered by the markets of policy analysis and corporate consulting, but rather able to integrate individual projects into larger programs. While indeed at times working on research tasks aimed at contributing to problem-solving, such establishments usually understand themselves as knowledge-oriented and ‘science-driven,’ and are—at different levels— connected to the universities. (See Wagner 1990, p. 441ff.)

These institutes vary from country to country in number, size, and concept, depending on the respective national environment. In some cases there is only one such extra-university institute as a central establishment, like the Greek National Centre for Social Science Research (EKKE) in Athens. The German case demonstrates a functional differentiation in two directions which, for structural reasons, did not easily develop within the universities and thus called for extra-university institutionalization: on the one hand, the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin fur Sozialforschung (WZB—Social Science Research Centre, Berlin) and some institutes of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft (MPG) and of the Leibniz-Gemeinschaft (WGL) which undertake larger, long-term, internationally comparative or problem-oriented projects in transdisciplinary research groups; on the other hand GESIS, a group of social science infrastructure establishments in Mannheim, Cologne and Bonn, which provide professional services in support of social science research by documenting research projects and their results, by advising researchers on project design, by offering courses in advanced methodologies, and by archiving and giving access to empirical data for the purpose of secondary analysis.

Compared with the grand total of resources and activities in the universities, the ‘extra-university’ sector of the academic research system is still rather small in Germany and even smaller in Italy with only a few institutions of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR—National Research Council). In France, however, this sector is considerably larger, due to the historic separation of the universities from the centres of academic research. The dominant institution is the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS ) which runs a large number of research institutes separately from or in cooperation with universities or grandes ecoles; for sociology and ethnology, the CNRS with its division on the Sciences de l’Homme et de la Societe is far more important as a research institution than the universities. Furthermore, there are the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (MSH), the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS ), the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, the social science sections of the Paris Museums, and the College de France. (See Machin in Lisle et al. 1984.)

The basic institutional set-up of the academic research system is—in varying forms of composition—being supported and complemented by a third institutional element: the system of project funding through national organizations and foundations. To take the German example again, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), a publicly funded association of institutions of higher education and research, provides good opportunities for good projects—in whatever kind of research design—to be financed, supplementing the existing institutional resources and using peer review procedures to evaluate project applications. Moreover, the DFG and, with greater emphasis, other funding organizations (like the Volkswagen Stiftung) make attempts to establish researcher networks and cooperative arrangements within larger, more integrated research programs.

In addition to these institutes and programs that are constituted on scientific grounds with a primary interest in knowledge generation, we find in all the Western European countries other types of social science institutions that are— again in different forms and in varying degrees of development—oriented towards practical needs of government agencies and private organizations. These are, first, publicly financed research institutions directly operated by the state and subject to directives from the respective ministry interested in having a particular need covered by research and analysis. As a second type there are privately organized institutes which may have some basic institutional budget, but receive the main part of their resources from contracts for work on projects commissioned by government agencies as well as corporations, unions, the media etc. The ‘state-administrative’ part of this sector, often with longer traditions, comprises statistical and agronomic analyses, research on land use and regional development, on demography, public health, on education and vocational training etc., usually with a strong empiricalquantitative orientation. Such ‘contractual’ research became more developed in the 1960s and 1970s, relating to the policy issues of the day, and sometimes developing a marked expertise through repeated studies over time in a given area.

In some nations and at certain periods in their development, this sector may gain considerable—even dominating—weight in the overall spectrum of social science research. (See Wagner 1990, pp. 443–7.) In the context of this paper however, there is no room for elaborating, e.g., on the importance of the government-directed non-academic research sector in France, on the effects of administrative traditions and statistical-quantitative orientations, or on the channels for linking social science research to the system of ‘planification’ through, for example, the Comite d’Organisation des Recherches Appliquees survle Developpement Economique et Social (CORDES).

These different forms of applied research are indeed part of the institutional environment and the operating modes of social science research in the respective national contexts. However, while they provide career paths for social scientists and demonstrate the public use of social science knowledge, their infrastructural functions remain rather restricted in comparison with the academic research system with its opportunities for research experiences in larger contexts, for methodological training, for internationally comparative ventures, and for exchanges between approaches and orientations.

3. Strengthening The European Research Base

Social science research in Western Europe, in summary, has become institutionalized in a variety of national settings and organizational structures, depending on each country’s specific historical background and cultural contexts. International exchange and cooperation, first with the United States, then increasingly across Europe, have served to develop the social sciences to higher degrees of professionalization, with a growing interest in cross-national comparison, but have by far not yet come near to what might be called a ‘European’ social science. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the ongoing process of European integration had still not become adequately developed as a subject of research aiming at understanding the preconditions, the conduct and the consequences of this process. In addition, the European Union itself, its institutions and major policy areas require the increasing attention of the economic and social sciences, and it has become a matter of ‘social science policy’ concern to evaluate and redirect the structural conditions of social science research in the (Western) European countries and the perspectives of its development ‘towards Europe.’

At the outset of such assessments, it has widely become recognized that the fragmentation of the Western European systems—in terms of social, political and economic problems as well as science and research structures—should not only be understood as obstacle and retardation on the path to a truly European outlook. Turning disadvantage to benefit, one can see European social sciences, with their subject matter differing to some extent from country to country, as providing a densely developed empirical basis for generalizations across time and space. With its richness of constitutional, institutional and cultural variations across (and also within) nation states, Europe has come to be interpreted as a ‘natural laboratory’ for the social sciences, leading to strong recommendations concerning systematic empirical comparative research. (See Kaase et al. 1997, pp. 3–4.)

While the social science infrastructures in the different European countries have so far been mainly directed towards the study of national developments and problem-solving dimensions, the past decades, with still limited success, have put forward the notion of an increasing need for international cooperation and the corresponding infrastructures that make for exchanges, collaborative work and joint projects. Network linkage has been advanced through the establishment of European journals in different disciplines, through a ‘Network Scheme’ by the European Science Foundation (ESF ) and through European networks of research units. The most successful of these has been the European Consortium of Political Research (ECPR) with more than two hundred corporate members across Europe in the early years of the twenty-first century. The ECPR organizes annual joint sessions of workshops which take place in different countries and bring together about five hundred European political scientists. A similar organization, the European Consortium for Sociological Research (ECSR), exists for the neighboring discipline.

Meeting grounds for groups of researchers from different countries and opportunities for collaboration on joint projects over a period of time are being offered by institutes of advanced study, particularly the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS ) in Wassenaar and the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences (SCASSS ) in Uppsala as well as—with a more general orientation reaching beyond the social sciences—the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin or the Collegium Budapest. The latter, together with other centers of excellence in Central and Eastern European countries, is meant to advance research capacities within its region by, not least, providing links with researchers from Western countries.

In the framework programmes of the European Union the social sciences have not, until the 1990s, played an explicit role other than having been eligible for the funding of networks of younger researchers as part of general ‘Human Capital and Mobility’ or ‘Training and Mobility of Researchers’ programs. The Fourth Framework Programme (1994–1998) did for the first time contain a separate program relating to the social sciences, ‘Targeted Socio-Economic Research (TSER).’ In addition to one part aimed at the evaluation of science and technology policy options in Europe, it included a part on research on education and training and one on research into social integration and social exclusion in Europe. The latter addressed processes of social exclusion and integration, causes of social exclusion, particularly unemployment, the impact of social integration policies, and research infrastructures.

The EU Fifth Framework Programme (1999–2003) contains, as a major instrument, ‘Key Action: Improving the Socio-Economic Knowledge Base,’ directed at research tasks on the management of societal change, on individual and collective strategies in a changing society, on employment and unemployment and on social cohesion in Europe, on new perspectives for learning, on governance, citizenship and the dynamics of European integration, and on the challenge of EU enlargement. In addition, the interest in social science research has become expressed in the proviso that all the other, mostly technology-related, EU programs must include social science research work in a proportion of at least five percent of their respective budgets.

For the researchers, participation in the European research programs has, depending on the background of their experiences in the respective national systems of research funding, meant a reorientation towards new requirements and procedures, sometimes deviating considerably from established modes of competitive research application and evaluation. Following critical discussions and corresponding adjustments of program definition, of evaluation criteria and financing mechanisms, criticism, partly even opposition, centered on the bureaucratic procedures, on the professional status and the scientific excellence brought to bear on program design and project assessment, and on the policy orientation of EU research. (For a general discussion of EU research structures and policies see Max-Planck-Gesellschaft 1994.) It remains to be seen whether the social science research task in the sixth and in subsequent EU framework programs will reflect a convergence between competing principles and complementarity between the research programs of the EU, on the one hand, and the ESF with the different national research councils and scientific organizations, on the other.

One item of discussion that may lead to a clarification of perspectives and differentiation of roles, is the desirable balance between basic and applied research in response to the ‘European’ dimensions of EU research tasks and their relatedness to EU policy areas. (As one position in the discussion, calling for more basic research, see Erikson 1999, p. 32.) One example is the expression of the overall objective of the program, ‘Improving the Socio-Economic Knowledge Base,’ namely:

to improve our understanding of the structural changes taking place in the European society in order to identify ways of managing change and to involve European citizens more actively in shaping their own futures. This will involve the analysis of the main trends giving rise to these changes, the analysis of the relationships between technology, employment and society, the re-appraisal of participation mechanisms for collective action at all levels of governance and the elaboration of new development strategies fostering growth, employment and economic and social cohesion. (European Commission Publications; see

Under this general headline, there has been a pronounced emphasis on the infrastructure for the intended European research as expressed in the preamble to the TSER program:

Research … will require high priority for conceptual and methodological work on constructing and integrating data and indicator systems as a common effort of the European social science research community with the aim of becoming comparable Europe-wide and establishing a common research infrastructure (databases on the parties involved and research results; directories and manual glossaries and thesauruses, etc). This is thus not simply a matter of harmonising statistics but rather, it is creating a scientific system of social reporting which can contribute to the basic understanding of social and economic development. An appropriate proportion of the resources allocated to this field will therefore be earmarked for the definition of a strategy for carrying out this work and developing such infrastructure and to the associated pilot projects. (European Commission Publications; see

The interest in ‘data integration’ and ‘research infrastructure’ has become reiterated in later policy statements and, with slow progress, been pursued by additional measures, parallel to the thematic calls of the research programs, and with a view to (and seemingly in competition with) EUROSTAT, the European Statistical Office. The same direction is followed by the inclusion of the social sciences in EU actions to support ‘large-scale facilities’ and by promoting ‘access to infrastructures,’ recently widening the notion of infrastructures from establishments for data processing and archiving to functions of opening up particular research experiences by coordinated international exchanges.

This interest meets with a core concern of the ESF, particularly its Standing Committee for the Social Sciences, which has been active, albeit with limited resources, not only in promoting thematic projects in international cooperation, but also in the discussion and recommendation of social science policies and infrastructural development. In this context it has prepared the proposal for a ‘European Social Survey’ which in a number of respect overlaps with, or runs parallel to, projects partly financed by the European Commission, to develop a ‘European System of Social Reporting and Welfare Measurement,’ with about twenty national teams, including some eastern European countries.

With the efforts to create a ‘European System of Social Indicators,’ emphasizing the scientific context and research dimensions of social reporting going beyond ‘mere statistics,’ an early interest of the European Community of the 1970s is being taken up again, very much in line with the corresponding activities of the OECD, following the strong signal given by the so-called Brooks report on ‘Science, Growth, and Society’ of 1971 with its explicit inclusion of social science research in science policy concepts.

In a report of 1997 for the European Science and Technology Assembly (ESTAM), an advisory body to the EU, a panel of leading social scientists completed a survey of the strengths, gaps and weaknesses of the economic and social sciences in Europe. In this they recommended measures for the support and advancement of interdisciplinarity for problem-driven research, particularly flexible organizational modes to link scholars from different, even distant, disciplines for a limited period of time; the comparability of data, especially longitudinal microdata, and the systematic linkages necessary for multilevel analyses; the research training of young scientists through graduate colleges, summer schools, etc.; incentives for independent work at earlier stages in academic careers; networks between funding organizations for granting money to comparative projects; national concentrations of methodological resources (similar to ZUMA, the Zentrum fur Umfragen, Methoden und Analysen, in Mannheim) and links between them across Europe. (See Kaase et al. 1997, pp. 4–10.)

The lack of empirical data collected and analysed on the European level, and the need for methodological advancement and for developing a common European research and training agenda, have also been pronounced by Federico Mayor, the former directorgeneral of UNESCO, following a series of conferences concentrated on European perspectives on the social sciences (see Mayor 1998). Opening the horizon of European integration to include the processes of postcommunist social transition, the notion of a social science ‘laboratory’ built on the diversity of national traditions may also be fruitful in a wider sense: the challenge would thus not only be to comparatively understand social, political, and economic structures in national contexts; it should also call for the study of intersocietal penetration and of arrangements that work towards international cooperation and integration between countries. With this outlook, a pluralist and transnational social science in Europe might also look for closer relations with social sciences in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, in addition to its profound ties with North America.


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