RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

N 37 - May 2003
  SOCIAL AND HUMAN SCIENCES  -  An anthropologist takes stock

A philosopher by training, an expert on the societies of Oceania, and director of research at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Maurice Godelier is a man of many talents. In particular, he is passionately interested in all questions of scientific policy, both national and European.

Maurice Godelier : ´The global clashes we are seeing today show the ever greater need to look to the social sciences to understand their origin and their nature.´
Maurice Godelier : ´The global clashes we are seeing today show the ever greater need to look to the social sciences to understand their origin and their nature.´
It is usual to speak of the human sciences or the social sciences. You prefer the more inclusive 'sciences of man and society'.   Why is this?

You have to put things in their historical context. The Humanities – philosophy, law and even history – appeared in the West during the Greco-Roman era. The social sciences – economics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, demography, etc. – originated from the late 18th Century onwards. Then, in the 20th Century, other disciplines found favour, such as political science or management science. Many universities continue to keep these two fields apart. But in terms of methods and ideas, each influenced the other from the very beginning. Alongside traditional political history – the history of dynasties and empires – we saw the development of economic history, the history of mentalities, and so on. The point of departure of the analyses is not the isolated individual in his specificity, but individuals and groups defined by their social relationships. The humanities try to define the nature of these relationships which make up what is particular about a given society and a given period in all their complexity. In the 20th Century, the idea took hold that the specificity of social relationships are determined by their structure. Research moved towards the discovery of these structures and attempts to reconstitute their inherent logic to understand their appearance, evolution or disappearance.

This complex approach also takes into account what people think of their relationships and the place they occupy within their society. It also includes the representations people make of their own body, as well as the shared or rejected values and symbols within their community. One of the difficulties of the social sciences is the need to also take into account the imaginary realities or symbolic practices associated with the exercise of power and the reproduction of societies.  

Is it possible to dispense with a multidisciplinary approach when dealing with such complex questions? 

No, social reality is, in fact, accessible through a single approach. An anthropologist who knows nothing about the history of civilisations will see just a part of the reality. It is becoming increasingly necessary for research to adopt a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach. In short, to my mind the former separation, even opposition, between the human and social sciences must disappear and be replaced by the field of the sciences of man and society. The global clashes we are seeing at present show the ever-greater need to look to the social sciences to understand their origin and their nature. It is impossible, for example, to analyse what is happening in Iraq without approaching it from various angles. There is history and philosophy, which tell us about the sources of Islamic fundamentalism, including Wahhabism. Anthropology and sociology tell us about what is happening in the lives of these people, while economics gives us the context of globalisation and shows the strategic importance of certain resources and certain regions of the world. Finally, there are the political sciences which analyse the regimes in the West and the East which co-exist in mutual opposition. 

The Baruya society, studied by Maurice Godelier. A tribal leader in charge of initiating boys into manhood wields the Kwaimatnié, a sacred object with which he beats the breasts of the initiated – decorated with feathers from the casoar and birds of paradise – so that they will be penetrated with the strength of the Sun.
The Baruya society, studied by Maurice Godelier. A tribal leader in charge of initiating boys into manhood wields the Kwaimatnié, a sacred object with which he beats the breasts of the initiated – decorated with feathers from the casoar and birds of paradise – so that they will be penetrated with the strength of the Sun.
European Union enlargement can also be seen as a complex change, one which the analyses of the social sciences could shed light on...

The entry of new countries into the EU, with their cultural diversity, their unequal development, and their religious differences, is going to pose problems which are more than mathematical equations or ideological formulae. Their history and their identity oblige us to invent specific routes for their integration into the Union – an integration at two levels: the development of a market economy which could be tempted by unbridled economic liberalism, and the development of plural and democratic political regimes. The response to these changes will be social, cultural and political, and not just technological or economic. 

Enlargement also means enlargement of European co-operation. 

Of course, and in future this is going to be a genuine 'plus' for the Europeans. As you know, in nearly all disciplines the main partners of European researchers are increasingly the Americans. Bilateral and sometimes multilateral partnerships between European research centres exist of course, but they rank second in importance. Through their commitment to promoting the creation of European networks, the Union programmes represent major progress. They are permitting the pooling of intellectual and other resources of which each of the partners was often unaware.

The stress placed on the quest for excellence will also enable Europe to give new impetus to research in the individual Member States. The constantly repeated message is that we must attain the 'critical masses' of human and material resources required for ambitious research programmes which would place us on an equal footing with the Americans. These two points will now constantly weigh upon the way research is organised within the various Member States.  In many of these countries, the essential national evaluation to judge the scientific quality of researchers, teams, programmes and institutions is still not rigorous enough and this is going to have to change under pressure from Europe.

Also, the development of the European Research Area implies research organised on a bigger scale, with stronger teams and international visibility. This will bring demands for the financing and management of research which are totally new and different to what is usually found at national level.  

The Sixth Framework Programme strengthens considerably the opportunity for research into the human and social sciences, in particular through the seventh thematic priority, 'Citizens and governance in the knowledge-based society'. Presumably, you see this as a good initiative? 

'Considerably' is perhaps going too far. It is true that, for the first time, European funds are earmarked exclusively for the social sciences. But the global amount is still very low and must be increased sharply to meet the knowledge needs linked to European integration – political integration but also scientific integration with the European Research Area. Beyond knowledge and governance, other areas of the Framework Programme also include research themes which could incorporate a social science dimension. But they must learn to identify them and to respond to them.  

Take the example of the nanotechnologies. These are set to bring about a radical change in production systems and, thus, in the economic organisation of modern societies. We therefore need forward studies to prepare and support this change. The development of biosciences raises ethical and deontological issues to which lawyers and philosophers must provide a response. The social sciences can also shed essential light in fields such as the environment and sustainable development. For example, they can study the way in which European policy in this field will be perceived and possibly accepted or contested by the public. But for all these forms of co-operation between the human sciences and other sciences, we must also increase the means of communication between these disciplines – and these points of contact are much too rare. 

There has been a lot of talk about the information society. Today there is a lot of talk about the knowledge society. What does this mean in concrete terms for an anthropologist? 

It means building a Europe in which knowledge is disseminated more widely and influences the lives of individuals, as change in society is a fundamental objective. But a growing volume of information does not necessarily mean the development of knowledge.

I would cite the European ECHO (European Cultural Heritage On Line) programme as an example of the progress which the information and communication technologies can bring to many sections of society. This project aims to make available, for free, access on the Internet to whole areas of European heritage in fields such as the history of science, the history of art and the history of philosophy,  while also presenting the heritage of other parts of the world. This is the patrimony of ethnographic museums and major collections of works from non-European societies in Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. This heritage can be found in London, Berlin, Budapest, Paris and Rome, for example, and consists of masks, statues and objects from the ritual or everyday life of hundreds of non-European societies. Stimulating this systematic census of European collections and providing access to a part of these resources together with the necessary documentation is a major responsibility for researchers and museum curators. But also, what an opportunity for them for exchange and dialogue with all these non-European societies that have a part of their heritage in Europe. That is both a goal and a challenge.

  Priority for the 'soft' sciences  
  A European Research Area in the field of human and social sciences. That is the new objective as stated clearly in the Sixth Framework Programme. With a budget of – 225 million, the seventh thematic priority (Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society') is devoted exclusively to achieving this goal.

At the same time, this desire for the 'soft' sciences to support the 'hard' sciences in many multidisciplinary projects (bringing the total budget to €355 million) is evident in all areas of the Framework Programme.   'The pace of scientific progress is such that the social changes brought in its wake are difficult to gauge. Research in the social and human sciences can help us evaluate the consequences of this progress, and at the same time remain master of it,' believes Jean-François Marchipont, director of  the?knowledge-based society and economy' unit at the Research DG. 

The research fields of the seventh priority can be the subject of proposals for networks of excellence, integrated projects, specific targeted research or coordinated actions. These fields of study are as follows: 

  • Improving the production, transmission and use of knowledge and its effect on economic and social development. 
  • Options and choices for the development of a knowledge-based society. 
  • Variety of paths towards a knowledge-based society.
  • Implications of European integration and enlargement for governance and citizens. 
  • Relationship between areas of responsibility and new forms of governance 
  • Issues connected with the resolution of conflicts and the restoration of peace and justice. 
  • New forms of citizenship and cultural identities.  
To find out more... [ http://cordis.europa.eu/rtd2002/fp-activities/citizens_governance.htm ]