For disciplinary identity!

For Disciplinary Identity in Sociology!

Trans- and inter-disciplinary research is the call today in almost any science policy documents , whether they are specific research programmes, more general national or European programmes for innovation policy or justifications for organisational and institutional reforms. University structures in particular have been encouraged to work in an interdisciplinary manner through mergers of departments, even faculties, at the expense of autonomous disciplines like sociology. 

The claim for trans-disciplinary research has always had a dynamic, even radical cling to it.

When Gibbons et al. (1997) introduced the contrast between old-fashioned, academic Mode 1 science and inter-disciplinary, applied and problem-oriented Mode 2 science, the former was made to appear sterilized and antiquated in its reliance on internal academic canons and traditions. Knowledge production in Mode 1 takes place at a distance from the context of application, as ‘pure’ science at the far end of the RD-continuum from research to “development”. Mode 1 knowledge production respects rigorous disciplinary boundaries. Its canon of accountability and quality control dictates that only intra-disciplinary expert authority is qualified to judge the validity of knowledge, the merits of the scientists and the value of their work. Mode 1 science is enclosed in the universities, and – the authors claim in a second book – in fact not accountable at all in practical terms, such as outcomes in welfare or impact in policy effectiveness.  In social science, its illusionary objectivity was associated with the idea of the plan – building consensus and the same good life for all, hiding away the normative presuppositions of what good life is (patriarchal, salaried middle class, familistic etc.).

In contrast with Mode 1 “pure” science, Mode 2 knowledge production takes place in the context of application; it is trans-disciplinary and it is directly accountable also on grounds of its practical usefulness (Nowotny et al. 2001: 220). Mode 2 science corresponds to the pragmatic goals of governance. It has to be accountable not only to academic colleagues but to the society that maintains and provides resources for it. It is a liberal ideal, reflecting on its normative foundations. For  Mode 2 science, the authority of the state does not suffice to define what the good society is, what kind of life is good or bad or how to solve the problems.

Today, the distinction and its value premises are less clear. Trans- or inter-disciplinary claims are voiced not only by liberal anti-positivists but also by ultra-conservatives, like in the case of Italy. Roberto de Mattei, a creationist who believes that Adam and Eve were real persons, that the human race is hardly more than 5000 old, and that Italian identity is based not only on Catholicism but on the presence of the Pope in Italian territory, has transformed the human and social science branch (Dipartimento della Identità Culturale) of the National Research Council into a base of reactionary traditionalism. Social sciences are not even mentioned in its work programme. Instead, transversality and interdisciplinary approach are celebrated in the name of objectivity and innovation.

In more social-democratic contexts the same claim has equally disastrous consequences. In the name of pluralism, the state no longer takes openly normative stands on what kind of life is good. Nevertheless, the political responsibility has to be attested and the officials have to be given grounds for decisions about how to direct state’s money to different purposes. Frame laws and programs define goals, research is needed not to make plans but to evaluate results. For example European Union framework programs formulate goals on many issues: development of technology, employment, prevention of exclusion, regional development, promotion of health, prevention of drug problems and harmonization of education and many other things. These are translated to national strategies, policy programs and eventually to short term action plans. Local and regional governments insert these to their own objectives and action plans.

From the epistemic point of view, governance by s and frameworks rather than plans means that society asks itself different kinds of questions than before. Social sciences that were attached to the plan were expected to say what happens if we do X, and what should be done to make Y happen. Now the questions are: in regard with the three Es (Effectiveness, Efficiency, Economy), which of the projects A, B, C …N meet best the objectives of the program. For example, the objective might be to minimize alcohol-related problems. The central government does not have the means at its disposal to reduce alcohol consumption in the country, or is reluctant to use such policy instruments (price increases, permitted hours of sale and other regulations of the market); instead it asks local communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses, labor unions, churches etc. to establish innovative projects and have them evaluated for economy, efficiency and effectiveness (Sulkunen, 2006).The central concept in goal- and framework management, ‘innovation’, has been used in the science- and technology policy already for a long time. The administration cannot predetermine the results of the researchers or the direction of the development interests of companies, but it can take a stand on the direction of the development in general and make strategic policy definitions. New ideas come from the ‘grassroots level’, from field workers and citizens themselves. Transferred to social policy, the pattern of ‘innovation thinking’ has assimilated traits of romantic rationalism: people are thought to be creative and the solutions have to be given space to develop and grow upwards from down under. The researchers should evaluate and strengthen these tendencies instead of planning. The primary tasks of evaluation are surveillance of expenses, ensuring quality and observance of rules and regulations, tasks which used to belong to inspectors and superintendents of state governance. Often they include, though, more ambitious goals of generalization, which are called recognizing good practices.

The social sciences have played a major role in the making of modern Europe. Social science research has had a significant impact upon achievements such as the construction of the welfare state, the integration of societies facing serious social and political conflicts, and the mobilization of the citizenry to participate in the political process. This has been possible only because they have operated within the framework of the modern idea of society since Adam Smith’s time: an entity which does not depend on violence and the political apparatus that is external to its own functioning. Co-operation is assured by its own laws, and knowledge production about them require not only empirical but also theoretical analysis, which is only possible within a framework of flexible but still identifiable disciplinary recognition.

Today, the substitution of pragmatic management for politics may undermine the presence of the social sciences in the making of history. Their competence is not limited to an assessment of the efficiency of services or policy impacts but extends to the analysis of values and to revealing underlying trends and concepts. The proper historical task of social science is to make interventions in social processes that bear on the sustainability and transformation of society. In these circumstances the once radical claim for inter-disciplinarity has turned sour and become a conservative programme of domination under anti-disciplinary placards.