1Is economics still a social science—that is, a historical science—in the full sense of the term? One of the most interesting aspects of Thomas Piketty’s ambitious volume, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is the emphatic way that it poses this question. The answer is by no means evident, for the disciplines have evolved and diverged over the past decades. Economics has placed an ever-increasing importance on theoretical models, which has distanced it from history and the other social sciences in favor of a sometimes purely predictive and abstract conception of economic knowledge. Conversely, history and the social sciences have gradually come to consider economics as a separate and unfamiliar field, not only because the key position of economic history itself has been challenged by the historiographical trends that have dominated for a generation, but also because the rise of culturalism and social constructionism has sometimes encouraged the idea that economic laws are arbitrary fictions and that the only way to approach them is to relativize—or even denounce—them.
2Confronted with this twofold illusion, the Annales have consistently pursued their project to create a space for intellectual and scientific dialogue between the social sciences, beginning with history, economics, and sociology. Within this space, the work conducted by economists must have its place and be taken seriously, even if this involves discussing or contesting it. This concern for a common space for the social sciences converges with the approach that Thomas Piketty adopts in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a volume in which the economist breaks—at least partially—with the theoretical preoccupations currently dominating his discipline and, based on an exceptional assemblage of data, seeks to construct not a model but a historical interpretation of the inequalities that lie at the heart of modern democratic societies.
3If this choice leads us to reflect on Piketty’s relationship with economics as a discipline, it also raises questions about his relations to history, sociology, and political science. It is on these questions that this collection of Annales articles focuses, for they open up a space in which to pursue an attempt at exchange, even rapprochement, between the different sciences that set out to study human societies and their workings. This is not to hold up a single work as a model, but rather to grasp hold of it in order to measure its influence, its contours, and possible ways of extending its project from the perspective of the social sciences. This is why we have sought to go beyond an internal critique of the book—an exercise that, while no doubt important, is insufficient—in order to operate a series of shifts. Whether they concern the use of concepts such as capital (which is also used in sociology) or involve a change of timeframe (the space and the scale of political institutions), these shifts serve to nourish the debate by providing different perspectives on the parameters of Piketty’s work.
4In this spirit, this issue of the Annales brings together contributions that are deliberately short and plural, and which fall into three sections. The contributions of Jean-Yves Grenier, Peter Lindert, and Éric Monnet seek to present and discuss the strictly economic issues raised by the book. The articles by Nicolas Delalande, Alexis Spire, and Laurent Thévenot confront its propositions with analyses nourished by other intellectual traditions drawn from political science and sociology, highlighting their points of convergence, their differences, and the questions that they leave unanswered. Finally, the texts of Giacomo Todeschini, Katia Béguin, Alessandro Stanziani, and Nicolas Barreyre explore the historical perspectives that the work opens up for different societies and eras in an attempt to demonstrate both its usefulness and some of its limits. It is also possible to read the entire collection as the concrete expression of a shared movement of collective questioning, a concretization prompted and inspired by Piketty’s text. Piketty’s own article provides some answers to these questions and suggests further avenues of research, particularly emphasizing the “multidimensional history of capital and power relations.”
5Of course, in terms of both Piketty’s thesis and the relations between economics, history, and the other social sciences, the discussion remains an open one. However, by placing the issue of inequality at the center of the debate, Capital in the Twenty-First Century also provides an opportunity to reengage with the old but essential question of the nature of capitalism—this is the reason for its success in both Europe and the United States, where studies of capitalism and its effects on society are multiplying in the present context of crisis. Indeed, if the problem of inequality lies at the heart of our modern societies, this is not always true of the social sciences, particularly economics. Affording it a central place is thus not only a way of advancing our scientific knowledge of modern capitalism and its historical foundations. It is also a way of reminding ourselves of the political vocation of the social sciences, which are simultaneously a product of their era and reflexive tools of knowledge and action. It is no accident that the original project of the Annales emerged during the violent crisis of the 1930s, born from these exchanges between history and economy, between the past and the present. Nor is it any coincidence that in the early years of the journal articles on the contemporary financial crisis sat side by side with works of economic and social history focusing on previous eras. A journal such as our own has never aimed to participate in the structuring of society by formulating directly applicable solutions to its problems. Rather, we have always sought to use the tools of history and the social sciences to help societies understand themselves and the impact of their political and institutional choices in a clearer light. In return, this more profound comprehension of the present world contributes to developing the breadth and scope of the social sciences and their methodologies.