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1For several years now, the “studies” have been a matter for debate. Being part of the ordinary logic and the internal struggles of academia, the attempts to academically and discursively develop research fields into “studies” are in particular based on the tacit or explicit opposition between “studies” and “disciplines”. However, if these studies appear from the outset to proceed from a thematic construction, it has to be observed that many of them refuse or elude the restriction to specific subjects. Conversely, they often claim their aptitude to intervene across the spectrum of the human and social sciences on the basis of a conceptual or paradigmatic shift (cultural studies, gender studies, animal studies, environmental studies, etc.). In return, the established disciplines in the human and social sciences do not escape either from a logic of specialization around a subject or rather around concept-subjects (the “political”, the “social”, the “individual”, “culture”). The visibility and the growing number of interdisciplinary fields of knowledge organized around a subject-delineated labeling has given rise to a range of scholarly discourses within which the essentially apologetic or critical viewpoints are, however, prominent. At a distance from the purely internalist accounts of such and such a “case study”, but taking seriously the epistemic and analytical issues raised by the noticeable advent of the “studies”, this issue innovates by unprecedentedly placing itself in the perspective of the sociology of science and knowledge (Mullins, 1972; Ben-David, 1997; Lenoir, 1997; Collins 2000; Heilbron, 2004; Gingras, 2013; Heilbron & Gingras, 2015). The latter chiefly entails that we comprehend the development of interdisciplinary fields of study in view of the long-term process of the institutionalization of science.

Institution and division of the sciences: the contribution of a historical sociology

2Historical sociology has underlined the centrality of the academic disciplines within the institutional transformations of modern science. The disciplines, “relatively stable and delineated universes”, structure an institutional order made up of departments, journals, certification procedures, international and national bodies and associations (Heilbron & Gingras, 2015: 8). They cognitively and socially condition the work of all the practitioners of the academic and scientific world, organizing the control of the production as well as of the diffusion of knowledge and its division into specialized fields around relatively delineated subjects and “collective capitals” made up of concepts, references, methods, etc. (Heilbron 2004: 23, 26; Vinck, 2007: 71; Fabiani 2012: 133; Heilbron & Gingras 2015: 8).

3The formation of the disciplines seems to go hand in hand with the advent of the modern specialized and professionalized university. The German context proved to be the most favorable to the emergence and the generalization of modern research universities in the 19th century, leading to important institutional and methodological exports towards the other industrialized nation-states, in particular the United States (Ben-David, 1997b; Lenoir, 1997; Heilbron, Guilhot & Jeanpierre, 2009: 135). But it is the formation of the French natural sciences that seems to have played a pioneering role in the development of the modern disciplines and their international export (Ben-David, 1997: 113-114; Heilbron, 2004: 33). The latter have resulted from the structural transformations of higher education that took place between 1750 and 1850. These led to the integration of the activities of knowledge production and teaching in the universities in a specialized and professionalized form (Heilbron, 2004; Gingras, 2013). The members of academies and learned societies, willingly generalist and disinterested in outlook, were increasingly called upon to provide training in the new State Schools (École des mines, Écoles de santé, École polytechnique, École normale supérieure) for the engineers, scientists, doctors and professors that were to serve the Republic (Heilbron, 2004: 33). This evolution resulted in the formation of specialized and relatively coherent fields of knowledge that were independent of the academies. The emergence of specialized learned journals is one of their by-products and the educational mission is an essential condition of their development and reproduction.

4The observation of this transformation brings out factors of great importance in the development and the institutionalization of science. Firstly, university departments played a structuring role in the development and the reproduction of the disciplines, just as they represented an institutional basis for scientific innovation and the formation of national scientific communities (Gingras, 2013). Secondly, the education and national modernization policies that culminated in the formation and the international export of the modern disciplines in France at the turn of the 19th century are reminiscent of the modernization policies based on science and the import of institutional and methodological models that were adopted by many nation-states in other historical contexts (Heilbron, Guilhot & Jeanpierre, 2009). More broadly, they illustrate the historical significance of the role played by public authorities in the dynamics of the institutionalization of science (in particular through procurement and support). This is also illustrated by the royal support for academies and learned societies prior to the advent of the modern university, among many historical and geographical examples (Gingras, 2013: 29). This observation has to be placed alongside the equally significant role played by merchants and private funding in the historical development of science (Pestre, 2015).

5Other factors of institutionalization of the scientific disciplines have been advanced, among which the existence of opportunities and means to pursue professional careers in research (Ben-David, 1997b), the increase in the number of researchers, in particular through the structuring of scientific specialisms through journals or associations once a certain numerical importance was reached (Gingras, 2013), the significant increase of data and information (Fabiani, 2012: 130), the emergence of new research tools or the movement of researchers between fields (Vinck, 2007: 73-74; Gingras, 2013; Heilbron, 2004: 36).

6The conclusions of the historical sociology of academic disciplines indicate that a powerful and multiform process of segmentation underpins the modern development of academic and scientific life. Unfolding through the formation of the disciplines themselves during the 19th century, this segmentation process was pursued later on within the disciplines, giving rise to many additional sub-divisions (Gingras, 2013). This phenomenon, intelligible through the prism of a continuously deepening specialization leading to new (sub-)disciplinary specialties, can also be interpreted as the result of a process of fractal differentiation through which certain structuring divisions of the disciplines (like those between positivism and interpretation, quantitative and qualitative methods, culture and social structure, etc.) repeatedly come up within them (Abbott, 2001).

7The formation of the disciplines is itself the result of several mechanisms of fragmentation and realignment of the cartography of scholarly production (Vinck, 2007: 81); differentiation to begin with, which explains the formation of the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology), on the territory of what used to be natural philosophy, as well as that of the social sciences (economics, political science, sociology and anthropology) on the ground deriving from moral philosophy and natural law; promotion next, which characterizes in particular the trajectory of philosophy in France, from its restriction to propedeutic education within higher education faculties to its independence thanks to the separation of literary and scientific faculties in 1808; finally, synthesis, through which certain disciplines, like biology, were born by integrating highly heterogeneous fields of knowledge (Heilbron, 2004: 35).

8Against the functionalist and naturalizing, or even naturalist, versions of scientific differentiation that insist on the efficiency of the social division of labor, the analysis of the development of the sciences speaks in favor of resituating them in historically evolving power structures. The disciplines can thus be seen as a form of political institution, tasked with defending its external (its “academic territory area”) and policing its internal boundaries: “the disciplines are to the academic world what the nation-state is to the political world and the firm to that of trade” (Heilbron, 2004: 25; Vinck, 2007: 71). The area of the disciplines can thus be understood by reference to the struggles taking place within the academic field (Bourdieu, 1984; Heilbron & Gingras, 2015) including the various forms of competition or even of territorial annexation between the disciplines: sociology versus linguistics, neurosciences versus the social sciences, etc. Consequently, “there can be no disciplinary peace. The cartography of knowledge has no lasting character” (Fabiani, 2012: 133; Vinck, 2007: 81-82).

The “studies”, the culmination of the era of interdisciplinarity?

9The rise and then the spread of the notion of interdisciplinarity since the 1960s (Heilbron & Gingras, 2015) seems to have set off a transformation of research modes as much in terms of practice as in terms of aims. The observation of a transition from the disciplinary regime to the era of interdisciplinarity, from a model in which the disciplines were dominant and researchers autonomous in their choice of subject to a research mode that is more “contextualized” as well as oriented towards the solution of complex problems (Gibbons, Limoges, Nowotny et al, 1994) and founded on “cooperation” (Vinck, 1999; Vinck, 2000) or from the “Republic of the sciences” to the model of the “Social function of the sciences” (Gingras, 2013), is at the center of debates and even of the critiques of interdisciplinarity (Pasquier & Schreiber, 2007).

10The suspicion that has developed towards interdisciplinarity rests on a critique of scientific and academic heteronomy (Heilbron & Gingras, 2015). The pressure in favor of interdisciplinarity sometimes comes in the shape of a “social demand” expressed by political, institutional and industrial actors or even by service users. Researchers themselves refer to this pressure in ex post “justification discourses” (Grossetti, 2017). Moreover, the social demand for interdisciplinary education sometimes precedes the interdisciplinary reorganization of research. Disciplinary structures have indeed come under attack starting from the second half of the 20th century in the context of the expansion of higher education by a diversity of actors (innovative researchers, critical student movements or external pressure groups) who denounced their excessively bureaucratic and rigid character and demanded a greater flexibility and the opening up of curricula (Heilbron, 2004: 38). These challenges contributed from the 1960s-70s onwards to the rise, on the one hand, of critical studies fields that took aim at the universalist and positivist ambitions of the dominant currents in the social sciences (one can mention postcolonial studies, the feminist research agenda or subaltern studies – Revel, 2015) and, on the other, to the creation of multidisciplinary vocational training programs encouraged by research administrators (Heilbron & Gingras, 2015: 5).

11What, therefore, remains of the disciplines given the growing importance of practical knowledge and interdisciplinary studies fields? Are we witnessing the decline of the disciplinary model (Fabiani, 2013) and the advent of the post-disciplinary era (Heilbron, 2004), or do the disciplines remain central to the contemporary organization and production of knowledge as witnessed by the major role played by collective disciplinary resources such as journals and professional associations or the important role played by the Conseil National des Universités in France (Becher & Parry, 2005; Heilbron & Gingras, 2015; Louvel, 2015)?

12Between social pressure and suspicion, interdisciplinarity raises questions about the “future of the disciplinary organization of science” (Prud’homme & Gingras, 2015: 41). But these debates cannot spare a reflection on the meaning and the concrete modalities of the application of interdisciplinarity (Vinck, 2000; Origgi & Darbellay, 2010). The very term itself gives rise to misunderstandings and theoretical approximations (Darbellay, 2012; Prud’homme & Gingras, 2015: 41). It can refer to the modalities of translation/circulation, fusion/hybridization, cooperation or confrontation – of a methodological, conceptual or theoretical type – between disciplines, or to the exploration of areas that have remained peripheral to the disciplines and their power (Pasquier & Schreiber, 2007; Vinck, 2007: 84). Moreover, several observations made by sociologists of science call into question the generally accepted opposition between disciplines and interdisciplinarity. Thus, scientific innovation itself often results from research practices situated at the intersection of disciplinary divisions and sub-divisions (Dogan & Pahre, 1990; Abbott, 2001: 66; Fabiani, 2012: 130; Heilbron, 2004: 24). And some disciplines themselves, like molecular biology, medical physics or social psychology, derive from interdisciplinary research forms (Mullins, 1972; Heilbron, 2004: 23), whereas interdisciplinary educational programs, once created, also tend to become established as new disciplines (Grossetti, 2017).

13If the era of interdisciplinarity does not revolutionize academia, it is not without consequences on the careers and practices of researchers. Recent work on interdisciplinarity shows the extent to which costs and remunerations are unequally distributed among researchers according to their capitals, their positions (Renisio & Zanith, 2015) within the institution and their discipline of origin. Some disciplines thus appear more “open” than others (Heilbron & Bokobza, 2015) and “academic constraints” weigh differently on young researchers – potentially suspect of dispersion and led to demonstrate their disciplinary credentials in order to prove their “ability to move up the scale from the particular to the general” – and on more established ones – who can offer themselves such an “end-of-career luxury” (Prud’homme & Gingras, 2015: 48-49). Academia is thus ridden with power relations between the disciplines and the researchers within them, which the practices of interdisciplinarity reconfigure. By asserting that “not everyone is necessarily a winner in an exchange between disciplines”, Michel Grossetti argues that the legitimation discourses of interdisciplinary spaces are thus often developed by “dominated members of the existing disciplines” (Grossetti, 2017: 43). If outsiders can thus find refuge in interdisciplinary spaces, the latter can also provide an opportunity to develop critical perspectives on subjects that were pushed to the margins and dominated in the field of the disciplines and beyond in an attempt to gain acknowledgement (Génard & Roca i Escoda, 2016).

14The rise of the “studies” in research and teaching appears as the culmination of the recent transformations of academia. From Armand Mattelard and Erik Neveu’s Introduction aux Cultural Studies to Maxime Cervulle and Nelly Quemener’s Cultural studies: théories et méthodes, and the Anthologie des porn studies edited by Florian Vörös, textbooks and introductory works are being published in France. Their contents, thanks to their new-found legitimacy, are now destined to be taught as main courses and not only as specializations and to be fully integrated in disciplinary preoccupations. The “studies” are now a subject of study just like researchers studied the issues raised by interdisciplinarity. Eric Maigret’s article “Ce que les cultural studies font aux savoirs disciplinaires. Paradigmes disciplinaires, savoirs situés et prolifération des studies” published in 2013 in the journal Questions de communication (Maigret, 2013) provoked many reactions. By studying the genesis of cultural studies and their propagation, Maigret asserts that these studies have produced a “post-disciplinary air suction” (Maigret, 2013: 159) and argues in favor of the social usefulness and the critical perspectives that they provide. Maigret’s vision, if not unanimous (Fleury & Walter, 2014), called for debate, and the following issue of Questions de communication provided it with a forum by publishing the reactions of Fréderic Darbellay, Hervé Glevarec, Fabien Granjon, Virginie Julliard, Céline Masoni-Lacroix and Christian Ruby. These controversies that accompany the development of the “studies” in academia are proof of the contentious and non-linear dimension of their institutionalization within the French scientific landscape.

The “studies” under study: policies and dynamics of institutionalization

15Recent scientific events in France [1] have contributed to the reflection on the issues raised by the organization of research in “studies”. The contributions brought together in this special section focus on the institutionalization trajectories of the “studies” and on the power issues that come with and are inherent in them. They also contribute to the further development of the reflection regarding the critical horizon of the “studies”, as well as its material and political conditions. The recent debates around gender studies in the French political context have provided a reminder of the issues raised by the connections between academia and activism and, more broadly, the links between evolutions taking place within academia, social movements and public policy (Achin & Bereni, 2013). For example, feminist research in France has emerged in the wake of the Mouvement de libération des femmes (Lagrave, 1990) and porn studies on the basis of a critical “activist Anglophone approach” of the mainstream and heterosexist industry (Landais, 2014; Paveau & Perea, 2014). What should we think today of the effects on their critical edge of the academic recognition of certain studies and of the more or less significant autonomy they have developed in relation to the social movements to which they are related? What political or critical uses, within and outside of academia, do the “studies” generate? The contributions brought together here focus on recognized fields of study within academia in the process of being institutionalized, emerging or enjoying a lesser degree of visibility. These contributions thus allow for an examination of the great heterogeneity of the “studies”, both in terms of subjects and theoretical orientation and internal coherence or structure.

16The contributions all highlight in different ways the vital importance of national, political, intellectual, economic or social contexts in the cognitive and institutional trajectory of the studies. Anne-Claire Collier’s article analyzes the logics of the reception and translation into French of postcolonial studies between 2006 and 2007 through the study of a collection of dedicated thematic issues. In this way she provides information on the process of “repoliticization of the French intellectual field following the year 2005” and shows that journals situated differently at the intersection of the activist and academic fields – Contretemps, Esprit, Hérodote, Labyrinthe, Mouvements et Multitudes – offer an “activist reading of the postcolonial translation” which notably varies according to the political positioning of the authors and the guest editors. In a related way, Claire Ducournau’s article sheds light on the “dual career” of Richard Hoggart’s work in France and in the United Kingdom, with regard to the distinct fields and academic uses that presided over its reception in these two countries. Julien Debonneville’s analysis of the differentiated recognition of postcolonial studies in France and the United States contributes to an understanding of the logics that underpin the circulation and the resistance to this intellectual and scientific tradition, in the process seemingly suggesting that these logics reproduce or at least partly shift the old opposition between empirical social science and the disciplines deriving from the declining humanities (Henry & Serry, 2004; Sapiro, 2004).

17Several articles further contribute in different ways to the reflection on the importance of the political, in particular intellectual and activist, context in the rise and institutionalization of the “studies”. They illustrate the ways in which the development of critical studies contributes to the transformation of the tried and tested figure or the modes of intervention of the “politically engaged intellectual” and to the restructuring of the links and antagonisms between political activity and research. Maxime Boidy in particular presents the issues raised by the rise of visual studies in activist circles in the United States, both at the level of the Left-Right cleavage marked by the “culture wars” and within the intellectual left. Jérôme Michalon’s article on animal studies is particularly useful for renewing our understanding of the links between activism and academia. Indeed, the author argues in favor of putting into perspective the unprecedented and specific character of these links by showing that “the links between pro-animal activism and the production of knowledge largely preceded the rise of [animal studies]”. The “rise to the status of studies” is not, however, without political or critical consequences. It asserts and publicizes these links and translates both into a process of “politicization of the sciences” and into that of the “epistemization of activism”. The rise of animal studies does not so much consist in the importation of the animal cause into the scientific field or in the construction of a new subject as in the development of a new way of considering human-animal relations in these different areas. Jérôme Michalon thus shows that the process of subjectivation at the heart of this “rise to the status of studies” goes hand in hand with a growing demand for justice for animals.

18The issue of the influence of state, industrial and commercial actors and demands on the institutional and cognitive trajectories of the “studies” is also at the heart of several articles in this issue. Christelle Dormoy-Rajramanan revisits the circumstances that made possible the creation of multidisciplinary study fields within “experimental university centers” as an extension of the 1968 mobilizations and provides information on the various forms of multidisciplinarity implemented, in particular at Vincennes. Her article contributes to the reflection on the “social demand” for multidisciplinarity by highlighting the role played by the coming together on the one hand of the demands that emerged out of the university protest movement of May 1968 in favor of the constitution of “critical” knowledge and, on the other, the governmental and technocratic project that aimed to develop the professionalization of university courses. Sarah Meunier sheds light on the influence of the “out-of-range legitimacy markers” in the emergence of game studies in France. The construction of the public issue of child and adolescent addiction to video games and the weight of the industrial sector played a determining role in the legitimation of this multidisciplinary study field and its institutional development. The participation of researchers in industrial and economic policies is examined in Rafael Simões Lasevitz’s article on mining studies, which shows the fragmentation of academia caused by the participation as consultants of anthropologists in regional development projects developed around the mining industry. The participation of the sciences in the (re)creation of State knowledge, government techniques and in technical-commercial processes is also examined in this special section through David Dumoulin, Mina Kleiche-Dray and Mathieu Quet’s contribution. Not only do the authors denounce the Eurocentric understanding of the globalization of the social studies of science – “Sciences, Technologies, Sociétés” (STS) or science studies – but they also put forward a new genealogy by focusing on theoretical and empirical contributions from the Global South, thus demonstrating the relevance of the cross-fertilization of postcolonial and science studies. Against the (self)confinement in”cultural areas”, as well as in given disciplines or “themes”, Bastien Bosa also advocates, in a contribution based on his personal trajectory on the relative value of “cultural areas” in the division of labor in research, new cross-fertilizations between fields of knowledge (dealing with such distant subjects as the French Communist Party of the 1930s or the Aboriginal Australians of the 1970s) and for a flexible and progressive “specialization of convenience”.

19Finally, this special section also includes a joint interview carried out by Marion Guenot and Rémi Rouge with Maxime Cervulle on cultural studies, Cornelia Möser on gender studies and Arthur Vuattoux on masculinity studies. The interviewees speak reflexively of the institutionalization dynamics and their consequences on research careers and practices. Due to the proximity of the subjects of these three fields of study, the dialogue between these three researchers proves to be particularly fertile for grasping the institutionalization dynamics of the “studies” and their consequences. In this way, masculinity studies stand in the tradition of gender studies whereas cultural studies, like gender studies, give visibility to and politicize the profane knowledge of socially dominated actors. These fields of study are legitimated and institutionalized in various ways in academia. The joint interview with these three researchers thus allows to examine dynamics of legitimation of knowledge. Finally, these three fields of study lend themselves particularly well to a debate on the flow of knowledge between academia, activist circles and civil society. If gender studies have come to question the distortion of their critical edge in relation to their institutionalization in university courses, masculinity courses have to set themselves apart from the masculinist reappropriation of their analyses. Cultural studies, for their part, make it possible to question the dominant representations of popular culture.


20The articles that make up this issue examine, on the basis of different methods, concerns and subjects, the institutionalization dynamics and the critical and political issues that underpin the contemporary development of interdisciplinary fields of study. It is difficult to come to common conclusions from the variety of subjects, contexts and processes analyzed. The articles brought together in this special section can, however, enrich and refine our global understanding of this development through comparison, historical contextualization and/or the analysis of the flows, thus partly filling a persistent gap in science studies and the sociology of science. In doing so, they also shed light on the profound transformations of the current scientific and disciplinary cartography and on the specificity of the contexts that underpin them, marked in particular by the internationalization of the domain of the sciences, the neoliberal evolution of research policies and higher education and the influence of critical social movements. But out of this special section also emerges another general conclusion: beyond the contextual evolutions and differences, the institutional and political dynamics entailed in the contemporary development of the “studies” follow on from the socio-historical processes of segmentation that have left their mark on the institutionalization of the sciences and academic knowledge. So for example the dynamics that today are leading to the emergence of the “studies” are reminiscent of those that presided over the formation of the disciplines in the past: specialization trends (cognitive and social), territorial realignments (differentiation, promotion, interdisciplinary hybridization, etc.), modes and factors of institutionalization (in particular the importance of higher education policies, university programs and departments), logics related to the very contents of knowledge and investigation devices. However, the extent of the ongoing transformations of the domain of the sciences and scientific production in relation to the development of inter- and multidisciplinary fields of study, by comparison with the major changes embodied in the advent of the disciplinary regime, remains an open question.


This special section has been published with the support of the CRESPPA (Paris Center for Political and Sociological Research) and of the LEGS (Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies), joint research units 7217 and 8238 of the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research).
Marion Guenot and Rémi Rouge, who guest edited this issue with us and whose work and the discussions we have shared with them have directly supported the writing of the above introductory remarks, associate their acknowledgements to ours. We wish to thank Céline Granjou and the members of the editorial board of the Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances for having carefully read the manuscript and made suggestions, and for their interest, right from the start, for this issue. We finally wish to thank Laurent Jeanpierre whose advice, encouragement, and enthusiasm for this project, have been a driving force.


  • [1]
    This special section prolongs the workshop organized by the PhD students of the Cresppa-Labtop research center in November 2014 entitled “Politiques de la scientificité : les studies à l’étude”. Since 2015, Sophie Noël and Bertrand Réau have been coordinating the research seminar “sociologie des studies” at the EHESS. In January 2017, the Pleiade research center organized at the Université Paris 13 Sorbonne Paris Cité the conference “Les désignations disciplinaires et leurs contenus : le paradigme des studies”. The publication of the special section guest edited by Jean-Louis Genard and Marta Roca i Escoda “Sociétés en mouvement, la sociologie en changement” in the online journal SociologieS, following the 20th Conference of the AISLF devoted to the same theme in July 2016 in Montréal (Genard & Roca i Escoda, 2016), should also be mentioned.


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Lucas Monteil
Lucas MONTEIL is a PhD student in political science (Université Paris 8, LEGS). His PhD thesis, situated at the intersection of the study of sexuality and gender, China, globalization, social movements and culture, focuses on the construction of homosexuality in post-Maoist China. He is, notably, the author of “De l’‘Amour vieux-jeunes’ : âge, classe et homosexualité masculine en Chine post-maoïste”, Clio. Femmes, Genre, Histoire, 2015/4, (n°42), pp. 147-164.
27 rue Paul Bert
F-94204 Ivry-sur-Seine Cedex (France)
Alice Romerio
Alice ROMERIO is a PhD student and temporary research and teaching fellow at the department of political science at the Université Paris 8, Cresppa-Labtop. Alice Romerio is the DIM GESTES laureate for her PhD thesis entitled “Le travail féministe. Enquête sur la professionnalisation du militantisme féministe au Planning familial” under the co-supervision of Catherine Achin and Violaine Roussel.
59-61 rue Pouchet
F-Paris cedex 17 (France)
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