CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1What is a discipline? [1] Above all, a discipline is a category, and is therefore the object of many different social uses, within the academic field and sometimes within other social fields. In the academic field, this category allows for a whole series of categorizations within a very varied group of institutions, like the Conseil National des Universités (National Council of Universities, CNU) (”this is not political science”). If this is so, it is because each discipline is inseparable from classifications institutionalized in a division of labor that is indistinctly scientific and administrative (”section 04 political science of the CNU”) and whose origins are lost in limbo. [2] These taxonomies with multiple superimposed dimensions are made of categories within categories (”group 1 of the law, economics, and management domain”) and each of the subcategories can sometimes achieve a respectability to rival that of the ”top” category, for instance in the national nomenclature of master’s degrees in which ”public policies”, ”comparative politics”, or ”international relations” equal ”political science”. One aspect of the potential importance of the category lies in the truly ”disciplinary” power it confers over individual careers, both institutionally and intellectually, insofar as, in Pierre Bourdieu’s words, ”disciplinary divisions, or divisions of intellectual tradition, are often places where censorship is exercised”. [3]

2A discipline is therefore also a group or even a series of groups which, to varying degrees, identify themselves with the category. It is first of all a group of ”professionals of (political science)” for which the category relates directly to the social identity of the individuals thus classified (”legal, social, political scientists”). These individuals recognize themselves, more or less enchantedly, in this category which, through a series of rankings, examinations, and positions, has for better or worse made them what they are. Sometimes, just as ”primitively” as in the past, ”when segmentation [.. . ] becomes necessary” as a result of the variable affective power binding individuals to a category or subcategory (”we must create an international relations section!”), part of the group may potentially break away to form a new group, ”and the subtotem then becomes a totem”. [4] But then the founding or refounding group will need considerable social energy in order to extract a new category from beneath the weight of the established division of labor, as Guillaume Sacriste showed in the case of ”constitutional law”. [5]

3A discipline is, secondly, a set of groups related to the first through the ”pedagogical transmission” that lies at the heart of the ”discipline” (as opposed to the ”doctrine”), [6] but which recognize themselves only vaguely and confusedly within this discipline or doctrine, through the degree they have been awarded (”chemical, electrical, sound engineers”). Such self-recognition no doubt depends upon whether, to paraphrase Robert Merton, the discipline is held in low or high regard within the ”social system of values”. [7] If individuals’ perception of their social condition is indeed ”mediated through a filter of words and images”, [8] then political science’s worlds of reference seem extremely disparate; sometimes they may even be vectors of confusion, for both students (”You went to SciencesPo®?!”) and teachers (”You teach at SciencesPo®??!!”). This relation of transmission is overlaid by a relation of representation, in which a series of groups are, as it were, ”spoken” for professionals of political science. Laying claim to this relationship in various ways, the professionals draw from it an authority, a sort of ”mandate”, [9] in a silent delegation that is both undeclared and unnoticed, entitling them to speak in the place of ”voters” or ”citizens”, ”workers” or ”teens”, ”local authorities” or ”social movements”, and so on.

4A discipline, then, is a set of relations within a space of relations. It is a set of relations in the sense that the discipline has its rites of passage and its rules of the game, and even its distinctive collective modes of behavior, especially when it comes to politics (”right-wing and left-wing faculties”). [10] It exists within a space of relations in the sense that a discipline is a subfield of the academic field, one that competes with other disciplines, in a series of power relationships, for the allocation of resources, the distribution of posts, and the conquest of prestige, in direct conflict with the often contradictory logics of other social fields. [11] This is the case with degrees, caught between the logic of the scientific field, expressed in terms of knowledge, of ”theoretical culture”, and the logic of the economic field, expressed in terms of skills or ”practical ability”. This is a double bind that the bureaucratic field constantly mediates, for instance by linking together in the best possible way disciplinary and professional taxonomies. In a more complex way, degrees also establish relationships between entry and exit points (”opportunities”)—that is, between class fractions and types of jobs—according to the unequal distribution of these ”flows” between disciplines with varying levels of economic and cultural capital—a distribution that places political science among the most capitalistic of all disciplines. [12]

5What can socio-history bring to all this? As Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss pointed out, a category is a ”group of things”, and ”things do not present themselves to observation grouped in such a way”. [13] In which case, the task of socio-history here is a genetic one: that of understanding how ”the sciences” have been divided up, not necessarily according to a prior classification but, more likely, according to pre-existing groupings, [14] while taking care not to produce these groups retrospectively. This first step is itself an enormous undertaking. Each discipline is defined by a varying degree of autonomy relative to other disciplines and, as a subfield of the academic field, relative to other social fields. The emergence of a discipline is therefore specific to each case, now the product of scientific logic or of a political aggiornamento, now the consequence of a major discovery or of a minor decree, now founded on an innovative method or on a traditional object, and so on. [15] Some disciplines, such as the ”applied agricultural sciences”, instead seem to be ”the result of a kind of collective claim”, [16] something Andrew Abbott refers to as a ”claim of jurisdiction”, taking ”social work” as an example. [17] Certain disciplines, such as the ”educational sciences”, are apparently defined transversally, in relation to ”one and the same object” [18]—a double hypothesis which, following Foucault, we could agree seems ”plausible” for political science.

6Socio-history has no pretension to form a ”school”, even less to become a ”discipline”. But as a ”point of view” on disciplines situated ideally at the ”fractal” [19] intersection of sociology, history, and political science, where disciplinary boundaries fade, socio-history can indeed contribute to political science. In following this logic, socio-history does not aim to reinvent sociology and history, which have long taken the social sciences as an object of study. We gladly subscribe to the ”framework” Jean-Michel Chapoulie offers for analyzing the history of the social sciences, [20] in order to avoid the pitfalls of ”presentism”, ”nominalism”, ”nationalism”, and ”progressivism” inherent to the native histories of disciplines, and particularly of political science. [21] Nor does this special issue claim to begin the socio-history of political science from scratch; solid foundations have already been laid for this task in France with the work of Loïc Blondiaux, Yves Déloye, Pierre Favre, Alain Garrigou, and Bernard Lacroix. [22] The special issue’s aim is instead to remind the discipline (political science) that its own perimeter—constructed through a series of superimposed disciplinary cleavages contrasting the past (history) and the present and, in the present, market (economy), society (sociology), and the state (political science) [23]—needs to be deconstructed; and that its objects—assuming an object ”does not pre-exist itself” [24]—are social artifacts that political science (in yet another case of Schrödinger’s cat) has itself helped create: ”parties”, ”electorates”, ”regimes”, and so on. [25] As part of this reminder, we must acknowledge that, far from remaining isomorphic from one state n (for instance, when ”political studies” were reserved for an elite) to another state n + x (for instance, when the standardization-through-differentiation of disciplines has run its course), the discipline of ”political science” is indeed mortal. In other words, a genetic point of view is indispensable if we are to take a strategic perspective on the crisis of reproduction gripping political science.

7As Joseph Ben-David and Randall Collins point out, from a genetic point of view, ”the ideas necessary for the creation of a new discipline are usually available over a relatively prolonged period of time and in several places”. But it is typically only when a group of people become interested in these ideas ”not only as intellectual content but also as a potential means for establishing a new intellectual identity and particularly a new occupational role”, that a discipline emerges. [26] In France, with the concurrent development of the social sciences, [27] something happened in the transition from ”political sciences” to ”political science” which, as Brigitte Gaïti and Marie Scot show in this special issue, resembled a collective action or mobilization: a ”science without scientists”, promoted by historians, geographers, philosophers, senior officials, politicians, journalists, and so on. In this sense political science is, genetically, the product of the multipositionality of this founding group which managed to extract this category from the established division of labor. But as Christelle Dormoy-Rajramanan and Laurent Jeanpierre point out, there are in fact many possible ”regimes of social multipositionality” which, give or take the subfield, can make ”Vincennes” and ”Sciences Po” look like non-identical twins. Taking into account the teaching group and student group specific to each institution, a course on ”African revolutionary movements” may appear structurally equivalent to a course on ”African states and their problems”. In other words, the disciplinary group (professionals of political science) differentiates itself into a series of properties—academic, editorial, militant, and political—which are reflected in their publications, whose quantity and circulation are less the product of individual intentions (”Should I publish in the Revue française de science politique or not?”) than of the powerful disciplinary algorithm that distributes publications to various scientific journals according to the subfield’s distinctive mode of censorship. (We eagerly await a history of the articles refused by the RFSP or other journals.) [28]

8From the scientific point of view, each discipline may be characterized by its greater or lesser degree of autonomy, which in the case of political science probably tracks political scientists’ relationship to politics. But from the institutional point of view, it is also defined by a varying degree of national isolation, which sometimes renders the juxtaposition of monographs—yet another avatar of ”methodological nationalism”—far too cacophonous. [29] As Christophe Charle points out, ”the division of the object depends on its own history, and those of the disciplines concerned with it—histories that vary according to place and culture, and therefore different social and national models”. [30] In this special issue, Nicolas Guilhot nevertheless describes the ”assembly line, internationalized from the beginning”, that gave birth to international relations, with a ”vast polyglot hum”. The path it took in France is just one of many ”local and dialecticized variations of the same intellectual syntagm”. But transnational strategies aiming to subvert specifically national divisions of labor between disciplines sometimes (perhaps often) encounter forms of resistance within national political and academic fields. These often counteract the expected effects, as illustrated by the case of ”European studies”. Such nationally differentiated nestings of disciplinary subfields may be important in explaining the failures and successes of ”theories” in political science. Francisco Roa Bastos reveals the social underpinnings of such theories by examining the interpersonal and institutional networks, both national and transnational, that promoted a certain ”definition” of political parties in the 1960s.

9Finally, from a strategic point of view, nothing seems more urgent for the survival of the discipline than to revive the principal belief that serves to reproduce a discipline, which—as François Buton, Frédéric Lebaron, and Nicolas Mariot observe in the ”professional review” included in this special issue—as a group, no longer guarantees that all those who are entitled to join it will in fact become ”professionals”. [31]


  • [1]
    The aim here is not to flatly restate what has already been better said, and at greater length, by other scholars. Instead, I rely on these authors to “frame“—well after the fact—the socio-historical picture of political science sketched in this special issue, with no programmatic aim beyond encouraging new scholarship. A short list of references should include Jean Boutier, Jean-Claude Passeron, and Jacques Revel (eds), Qu’est-ce qu’une discipline?, Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, 2006, especially Jean-Louis Fabiani, “À quoi sert la notion de discipline?“, 11-34; Yves Gingras and Johan Heilbron (eds), “Espaces des disciplines et pratiques interdisciplinaires“, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 210, December 2015; and the individual work of each of these authors.
  • [2]
    Johan Heilbron, “A regime of disciplines: toward a historical sociology of disciplinary knowledge“ in Charles Camic and Hans Joas (eds), The Dialogical Turn: New Roles for Sociology in the Postdisciplinary Age, New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, pp. 23-42; Immanuel Wallerstein, “Social sciences in the twenty-first century“ in The Uncertainties of Knowledge, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2004, 16-33; and Rudolf Stichweh, “The sociology of scientific disciplines: on the genesis and stability of the disciplinary structure of modern science“, Science in Context, 5(1), 1992, 3-15.
  • [3]
    Pierre Bourdieu, On the State, trans. David Fernbach, Cambridge, Polity, 2014, 151.
  • [4]
    Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification, trans. Rodney Needham, London, Routledge, 2009, 19.
  • [5]
    Guillaume Sacriste, La République des constitutionnalistes: Professeurs de droit et légitimation de l’État en France (1870-1914), Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2011.
  • [6]
    Fabiani, “À quoi sert“, 19; Heilbron, “A regime of disciplines“, 26-7.
  • [7]
    Robert K. Merton, “Science, technology and society in seventeenth century England“, Osiris, 4, 1938, 360-632, here 387.
  • [8]
    Luc Boltanski, The Making of a Class: Cadres in French Society, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987, 16.
  • [9]
    Everett C. Hughes, “The Dual Mandate of Social Science: Remarks on the Academic Division of Labor“, The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 25(4), 1959, 401-410, particularly 403-4.
  • [10]
    Everett Carll Ladd, Jr. and Seymour Martin Lipset, “The Politics of American Political Scientists“, Political Science, 4(2), 1971, 135-44; see also Henry A. Turner, Charles S. Spaulding, and Charles G. McClintock, “Political Orientations of Academically Affiliated Sociologists“, Sociology and Social Research, 47(3), 1963, 273-89.
  • [11]
    Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus, trans. Peter Collier, Cambridge, Polity, 1988.
  • [12]
    Yann Renisio, “L’origine sociale des disciplines“, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 210, December 2015, 10-27.
  • [13]
    Durkheim and Mauss, Primitive Classification, 4.
  • [14]
    Ibid., 48: it is not that “men were divided into clans by a pre-existing classification of things; but, quite on the contrary, they classified things because they were divided by clans“.
  • [15]
    There is no political science equivalent, however, of the Beams ultracentrifuge: Terry Shinn, “Formes de division du travail scientifique et convergence intellectuelle: La recherche technico-instrumentale“, Revue française de sociologie, 41(3), 2000, 447-73.
  • [16]
    Jean-Louis Fabiani, “Savants appliqués: l’agriculture et ses sciences aux États-Unis“, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 64, 1986, 84-5, here 84.Online
  • [17]
    Andrew Abbott, “Boundaries of social work or social work of boundaries?“, Social Service Review, 69(4), 1995, 545-62.
  • [18]
    Françoise F. Laot and Rebecca Rogers (eds), Les sciences de l’éducation: Émergence d’un champ de recherche dans l’après-guerre, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015; Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, New York, Pantheon, 1972, 32ff.
  • [19]
    Andrew Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001, chapter 1. Although his general model is hard to fully agree on, Abbott emphasizes that historical sociology and social science history are closer to one another than they are to dominant currents in sociology and history, respectively, because of the balance they strike between “causality“ and “narrative“ (53).
  • [20]
    Jean-Michel Chapoulie, “Un cadre d’analyse pour l’histoire des sciences sociales“, Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines, 13, 2005, 99-126.
  • [21]
    In this sense we agree with Yves Viltard, “Faire l’histoire de la science politique n’est pas neutre: À propos de Political Science in History“, Revue française de science politique, 49(1), February 1999, 123-36.
  • [22]
    An incomplete chronological list of such work would include Bernard Lacroix, Durkheim et le politique, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 1981; Pierre Favre, Naissances de la science politique en France (1870-1914), Paris, Fayard, 1989; Alain Garrigou, “L’initiation d’un initiateur: André Siegfried et le ‘Tableau politique de la France de l’Ouest’“, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 106-7, March 1995, 27-41; Loïc Blondiaux, La fabrique de l’opinion: Une histoire sociale des sondages, Paris, Seuil, 1998; Yves Déloye and Bernard Voutat (eds), Faire de la science politique: Pour une analyse socio-historique du politique, Paris, Belin, 2002. See also Philippe Gottraux, Pierre-Antoine Schorderet, and Bernard Voutat, La science politique suisse à l’épreuve de son histoire: genèse, émergence et institutionnalisation d’une discipline scientifique, Lausanne, Réalités sociales, 2000.
  • [23]
    Wallerstein, “Social sciences“, 20.
  • [24]
    Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, 45.
  • [25]
    See in particular Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003; Sonja M. Amadae, Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • [26]
    Joseph Ben-David and Randall Collins, “Social factors in the origins of a new science: the case of psychology“, American Sociological Review, 31(4), 1966, 451-65, here 452.
  • [27]
    Alain Drouard, “Réflexions sur une chronologie: le développement des sciences sociales en France de 1945 à la fin des années soixante“, Revue française de sociologie, 23(1), 1982, 55-85. As Pierre Favre emphasized, political science existed only “nominally“ before 1945: “There was no scientific community of political scientists who represent themselves as such, there were no scientific reviews or specialized research centers, and there were no textbooks“ (Pierre Favre, “La science politique en France depuis 1945“, International Political Science Review, 2(1), 1981, 95-120, here 96). See also Jean Leca, “La science politique dans le champ intellectuel français“, Revue française de science politique, 32(4-5), August-October 1982, 653-78.
  • [28]
    For the direction such work might take, see Manuel Cervera-Marzal, “Vers un retour de la philosophie politique dans la Revue française de science politique? Le difficile espace d’une sous-discipline de la science politique française (1951-2010)“, Raisons politiques, 54, 2014, 133-51.
  • [29]
    Speranta Dumitru, “Qu’est-ce que le nationalisme méthodologique? Essai de typologie“, Raisons politiques, 54, 2014, 9-22.
  • [30]
    Christophe Charle, “L’organisation de la recherche en sciences sociales en France depuis 1945: bref bilan historique et critique“, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, 55(4 bis), 2008, 80-97. Online
  • [31]
    The special report introduced here is drawn from a thematic section organized with Nicolas Mariot at the 11th Congress of the Association française de science politique (French Association of Political Science, AFSP) held in Strasbourg in September 2011. I would like to thank the authors of this special issue for their infinite patience, as well as all the contributors to the thematic section: Michel Bergès, Loïc Blondiaux, Thibaud Boncourt, Yves Déloye, Antoine Faure, Ouassim Hamzaoui, Bernard Lacroix, Étienne Ollion, Guillaume Sacriste, and Alexandre Paulange-Mirovic. (Paulange-Mirovic’s article, originally selected for this special issue has been published in a previous issue: “’Nous avons réinventé la sociologie’: L’Association pour le développement des sciences sociales appliquées: genèse sociale d’une entreprise académique (1968-1975)“, Revue française de science politique, 63(3-4), June-August 2013, 545-67.)
Antonin Cohen
University of Paris Nanterre, ISP
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 28/01/2019
Distribution électronique pour Presses de Sciences Po © Presses de Sciences Po. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait