Engineering Society. The Scientisation of the Social in Comparative Perspective, 1880-1990


International Conference at the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield,
20-22 November 2008

Organisers: Dr Kerstin Brückweh (German Historical Institute London), Professor Dirk Schumann (Jacobs University Bremen), Dr Richard Wetzell (German Historical Institute Washington DC), Dr Benjamin Ziemann (University of Sheffield)

Supported by the German Historical Institute London and by the German Historical Institute Washington DC

'Scientisation of the social' is a concept that has been developed to analyse the application of the social sciences to social problems. It focuses on the impact these sciences have had on both the structures and the self-descriptions of modern societies since the late nineteenth century. The concept directs the attention to the manifold ways in which various disciplines from the 'social sciences', 'sciences humaines' or 'Humanwissenschaften' have classified social phenomena with statistical means, described anomic situations and social 'problems', developed blueprints for welfare-state planning and have provided means for therapeutical intervention into problems of individual persons.

The "scientification of the social" was (and continues to be) an open field in which various disciplines from the social sciences claimed to have the best solutions for certain problems and competed for strategic influence in the respective decision-making bodies and agencies. The conference will focus on three analytical perspectives that appear as equally productive regardless of the specific field or discipline in question and that will serve as guidelines for the discussions of the panels:

  1. Objectification and Politicisation: The establishment of a group of professional experts is one of the first indications of a process of scientisation. Experts and expert cultures promise to contribute to the objectification of controversial topics on the one hand. The increasing use of expert advise leads, on the other hand, to a politicisation of the social sciences.
  2. II. Knowledge and Power: Scientisation as a Form of Governmentality? Many recent studies on the role of experts in the political system and other social fields have described scientisation as a knowledge transfer from one subsystem of the modern, functionally differentiated society to another. This interpretation is influenced by the sociological systems theory of Niklas Luhmann and his idea of different 'codes' which apply in different functional subsystems. Other historians and sociologists have, however, cast doubt on this interpretation and have stressed the inherent connection between systems of knowledge and the exercise of power over individuals. In this perspective, which is influenced by Michel Foucault's concept of 'governmentality', the social sciences are part and parcel of a discourse of 'normalisation' which is effective in making the system of societal power relations more flexible and individualised. These diverging interpretations will be discussed in both empirical and in theoretical terms.
  3. Scientisation as a Long-Term Process: Comparisons and Caesuras The concept of scientisation is particularly helpful to transcend the political caesuras of twentieth century history, which still dominate the agenda of historical research. International comparisons at the conference will take various European countries (including the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland) and the United States as a point of reference. The comparison with the USA will also provide a starting point for discussions about the extent to which the concept of "Americanisation" can explain post-1945 developments, when in fact many social science methods were imported or re-imported from North America.

The conference will discuss these topics and questions in three panels (Social and Penal Policy; Organizations, Marketing and Polling; Diagnosis and Therapy) in an interdiscplinary perspective.

Professor Lutz Raphael (University of Trier) will give the keynote lecture. A preliminary programm will be posted soon.


Dr. Benjamin Ziemann