Social Sciences in general

According to Wallerstein (1996) the existing disciplines within the social sciences appeared in the period 1850-1914 where the present structure received formal recognition at the universities. There were five main locales for social science activity during the nineteenth century; Great Britain, France, the Germanies, the Italics, and the United States.

In the middle of the 19th century existed a very broad range of social scientific “subjects” or “disciplines”. In 1850 existed about 250 disciplines, which were reduced to the limited number that we know today before the First World War, each establishing its specific object of study and its own specific research methods. According to Wallerstein the following subjects were established as modern disciplines in this period and in the mentioned order:  

History studies the past in an idiographic way, whereas economy, sociology and political science seeks general laws with the modern society (nomothetic science). Because of its ideographic and anti-theoretical attitude history is, however, often seen as belonging to the humanities rather than to the social sciences.

Economics was earlier studied together with politics as “political economy", but economics became a “pure” field. By removing the adjective “political” the economists could claim that economic behavior reflected a universal, individualistic psychology, rather than social constructed institutions (p. 56). Because of this separation between economics and politics, there was made a room for a new discipline about the specific political issues (political science). Political science on its part was contributing to the legitimization of economics as an independent discipline.

Sociology developed as a discipline in the second half of the nineteenth century principally out of the institutionalization and transformation within the universities of the work of social reform associations, whose agenda had been primarily that of dealing with the discontents and disorders of the much-enlarged urban working-class populations. But sociology has always nonetheless retained its concern with ordinary people and with the social consequences of modernity. Partly in order to consummate the break with its origin in social reform organizations, sociologists began to cultivate a positivist thrust, which combined with their orientation toward the present, pushed them as well into the nomothetic camp.

Political science as a discipline emerged still later, not because its subject matter, the contemporary state and its politics, was less amenable to nomothetic analysis, but primarily because of the resistance of faculties of law to yield their monopoly in this area. The resistance of law faculties may explain the importance given by political scientists to the study of political philosophy, sometimes under the name of political theory, at least until the so-called behaviorist revolution of the post-1945 period. Political philosophy allowed the new discipline of political science it claim a heritage that went back to the Greeks and to read authors that had long had an assured place in university curricula.

Anthropology (and Oriental Studies) became the only discipline, that was not Eurocentric. It studied foreign, non-modern cultures (“tribes”). To this purpose it developed methods like field studies and participant observations. 

According to Wallerstein the following disciplines were not considered social sciences:  

Law was considered as being primarily normative in its interpretation of the meaning of texts and as more a profession than a scientific oriented field and therefore not fully accepted as a social science

Geography (cultural) was not really institutionalized as a social science, which is regarded as a symptom of the neglecting of the spatial aspect in the social sciences,

Psychology was more connected to medicine. The field of social psychology was only established as a subdiscipline in sociology.  

The conclusion of the first chapter is: "Thus, between 1850 and 1945, a series of disciplines came to be defined as constituting an area of knowledge to which the name “social science” was accorded. This was done by establishing in the principal universities first chairs, then departments offering courses leading to degrees in the discipline. The institutionalization of training was accompanied by the institutionalization of research: the creation of journals specialized in each of the disciplines; the construction of associations of scholars along disciplinary lines (first national, then international): the creation of library collections catalogued by disciplines”. (Wallerstein, 1996, p. 30; underlining added).

“After the Second World War, however, at the very moment when the institutional structures of the social sciences seemed for the first time fully in place and clearly delineated, the practices of social scientists began to change. This was to create a gap, one that would grow, between practices and intellectual positions of social scientists on the one side and the formal organization of the social sciences on the other” (Wallerstein, 1996, p. 32). There seems to be three main causes to this change:


1. The Validity of the Distinctions among the Social Sciences

According to Wallerstein, there existed three clear lines of cleavage in the system of disciplines erected to structure the social sciences in the late nineteenth century:

A. The line between the study of the modern or civilized world (history plus the three nomothetic social sciences) and the study of the non-modern world (anthropology, plus oriental studies)

B. Within the modern world , the line between the past (history) and the present (the nomothetic social sciences).

C. Within the nomothetic social sciences, the sharp lines between the study of the market (economics) the state (political science), and civil society (sociology).

Each of these lines of cleavage came to be challenged in the post-1945 world.


Among the innovations after 1945 was the creation of multidisciplinary “area studies” as a new institutional category. It led to that disciplines, which earlier had concentrated on the western world now began to show interest in the non-western world. This undermined the logic by which the existence of separate disciplines like ethnography and oriental studies, why anthropologists began to redefine their subjects (p. 73). It also led to doubt among the nomothetic social sciences about whether the generalizations (laws) they had found also were valid for the non-western areas. This again caused a questioning of the very distinction between nomothetic and idiographical disciplines and with it to the incorporation of historical methods in economics, political science, and sociology as well as a change in the discipline of history from collecting facts towards the mapping of underlying institutions, ideas, etc.

                      Economics, political science, and sociology remained three separated disciplines, but in reality a greater and greater overlap in both subject matter and methodology develops. The consequence is, that it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between them and that each of them at the same time appears more and more heterogeneous.

                      One way to deal with this problem was to invent new “interdisciplinary” designations such as communication studies, management and behavioral science. Whereas the range of names of fields in the social sciences declined in the period 1850-1945, the tendency since 1945 has been an increasing number of fields. A lot of new names come into existence in research programs, institutions, journals, and in new categories in the libraries.


2. The Degree to Which the Heritage Is Parochial.

This part of the chapter discus the question of whether the claim of the nomothetic social sciences on universal validity is justified or whether this is a kind of Eurocentrism. Are the one-sided social recruitment of teachers and students to the universities influencing their opinions? And do the arguments from feminist researchers as well as from other groups constitute an attack on universalism?

                      Wallerstein finds that the social sciences has been deaf to the justified criticism raised against their narrow-mindedness, which has been stated already before their formal establishing. From the end of the 1960’ties these arguments are, however, beginning to be influential.


3. The Reality and Validity of the Distinction Between the ”Two Cultures”.

The social sciences has earlier been split between two cultures: the humanities and the sciences. Many dividing lines are beginning to be demolished, and the view of, for example, science, has changed radically.


This chapter thus presents hard arguments why the existing classification structure is problematic. It is simply based on problematic principles. Much of the criticism of this principles are as old as the social sciences themselves, but they have been more influential since 1945. Wallerstein's treatment is very general both in the discussion of the single disciplines and in selection of disciplines. Sources such as Social Sciences Citation Index and International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences list many disciplines not discussed by Wallerstein. A more comprehensive listing of social scientific disciplines should in my opinion include the following: 

It is of course an open question what the internal relations between these fields are, and whether they form a group as which should be labeled “the Social Sciences”. The fact that they are sometimes considered social sciences should, however, be included in any serious discussion of the organization of the social sciences.


Wallerstein et al. (1996) admit they have no simple, clear-cut formula for reorganizing the social sciences, and it’s proposals are in my view unsatisfactory for us in classification research/knowledge organization. Although it does not give up the idea of an internal division of labor in the social sciences, its recommendation is more in the direction of strengthening the interdisciplinary work than in discussing the principles on which the disciplines can be identified and separated.

                      My own view is that classificatory principles always are reflecting (whether consciousness or unconsciousness) of the theoretical and philosophical approach to the field being classified. A positivist view of the social sciences thus tends to favor a nomothetic approach which again—as Wallerstein so brilliantly has demonstrated—has strong impact on which these sciences structures themselves. A given structure is thus a reflection of the relative influence different philosophies. To the degree that my view is correct, the first job for us in KO is identify the most important underlying theoretical influences, for example:






Eclecticism, Postmodernism, Post structuralism


Each of these approaches implies it’s own consequences and principles both for the social sciences themselves as well as for they classification. If we are aiming at contributing to the classification of the social sciences, we must engage us in these questions. This may not be an easy job. But what are the alternatives?






Andersen, H. (2000). Influence and reputation in the social sciences – How much do researchers agree?  Journal of Documentation, 56(6), 674-692.  Andersen

Andersen, H.  (2007). Diskurs. Filosofkonger styrer sociaforskningen. Politiken, lørdag den 17. marts 2007, opinion, side 4. Heine Andersen_fig_2007.pdf





Bailey, K. D. (1994). Typologies and Taxonomies: An Introduction to Classification Techniques. London: Sage Publications. (Quantitative Applications in the Social Sciences)


Balkan, L.; Miller, K.; Austin, B.; Etheridge, A.; Bernabé, M. G. & Miller, P. (2002). ELSST: a broad-based Multilingual Thesaurus for the Social Sciences. IN: Third International Conference on language resources and evaluation. Las Palmas, Canary Islands, Spain, 29 May - 31 May 2002,. pp. 1873-1877. Available at:


Ekegren, P. (1999). The Reading of Theoretical Texts. London: Routledge. (Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought, 19). Based on a dissertation: The Reading of Theoretical Texts. A Critique of Criticism in the Social Sciences. Uppsala University: Department of Sociology, 1995.


Hjørland, B. (2000). Review of Wallerstein, I. (1996). Open the Social Sciences, report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.  Knowledge Organization, 27(4), 238-241.


Smith, M. J. (1998). Social Science in Question: Towards a Postdisciplinary Framework. Sage Publications Ltd.


Wallerstein, I. (1996). Open the Social Sciences, report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. 


See also: Social studies (Epistemological lifeboat)





See also specific social sciences: 






Library and Information Science








Birger Hjørland

Last edited: 29-01-2008