The Rise of the Social Sciences

New book uses some unusual data sets to trace disciplinary shifts over a century -- and around the entire world.
August 21, 2006

Who's up and who's down?

At any campus or disciplinary gathering, you can find professors swapping gossip about which department lost a faculty line and which one gained. Another loss for the humanities. More growth at the business school. Another physicist replaced with a biologist. And so forth.

But what's the big picture of all of these changes? A new book attempts to add up all of the shifts over the course of the 20th century, all over the world. For humanities professors who regularly complain that science professors are favored, there may be a surprise: Humanities faculty jobs have indeed lost ground, steadily and dramatically. But during the 20th century -- the age when Einstein and Salk and countless other scientists changed the way we live -- the share of science jobs in academe actually fell slightly. The big winner was in fact the social sciences. And more generally, disciplines that focused on applied work saw gains while those focused on basic research fell.

These are the findings of Restructuring the University: Worldwide Shifts in Academia in the 20th Century, just published by Stanford University Press. The authors are two sociologists -- David John Frank, an associate professor at the University of California at Irvine, and Jay Gabler, who is currently finishing his Ph.D. at Harvard University. For their work, they mined a series of worldwide directories of faculty members that were created during World War I, in part out of the idea that sharing knowledge would promote peace.

Some directories, like the Index Generalis, were truly worldwide. But that publication didn't continue throughout the 20th century. So the authors focused many of their comparative findings on the Commonwealth Universities Yearbook, which has been published regularly since 1914. While the British Commonwealth nations are of course a subset of the world, they include countries in every region and a mix of developing and developed nations. The authors also say that they found evidence that the trends in the commonwealth nations are by no means unique to them -- and apply in the United States and elsewhere. The authors say that while they were not able to do country-by-country analysis, the trends in the British Commonwealth were not skewed by any subset of those countries (such as developing nations).

The overall results, looking at changes over decades to minimize yearly fluctuations, are dramatic.

Shifts in Faculty Jobs, by Disciplinary Category, in British Commonwealth

  Faculty %, 1915-35 Faculty %, 1975-95 Change Over Time
Humanities 33.2 19.5 -41%
Natural Sciences 57.5 50.6 -12%
Social Sciences 9.3 29.9 +222%

Within the humanities, the magnitude of the long-term losses vary across disciplines, with the most basic disciplines appearing to be particularly vulnerable.

Share of Faculty Jobs in Humanities Disciplines, in British Commonwealth

Discipline % of All Faculty Slots, 1915-35 % of All Faculty Slots, 1975-95 Change Over Time
Classics and Archaeology 4.5 0.6 -87%
Philosophy 2.8 0.8 -71%
Theology 4.3 1.7 -60%
Art and Music 1.3 0.8 -38%
Linguistics and Philology 0.8 0.5 -37%
Western Languages and Literature 7.3 4.7 -36%
History 3.5 3.0 -14%
Non-Western Languages and Literature 2.3 2.0 -13%

Frank said in an interview that the idea for the book came to him when he stumbled on some of the old worldwide directories of faculty members while he was doing research in the archives at Stanford's education school. "It seemed we had this amazing resource to document these trends."

At the time, Frank was teaching at Harvard, where Gabler joined the effort. "People frequently comment on the decline of the humanities, but less on what is rising," Gabler said. "The common presumption is that what is gaining is the natural sciences, but what is taking up most of the slack is the social sciences."

Frank said that there are important implications for the findings, across disciplines. First, he said it was important for people to recognize that they are dealing with worldwide, long-term shifts, not just changes that are cyclical or the results of one administrator's likes or dislikes.

A big part of the rise of the social sciences, he said, is the practical emphasis within those disciplines. So if you look within disciplines, you'll find the most pronounced shifts away from those with the least practical emphases. "The locus of these shifts is that knowledge, instead of being rarified and located in the inaccessible reaches of the heavens, is located in the person. It's democratized," Frank said. "It's about the decline of masters and the rise of mastery."

In a language or literature department, he said, faculty slots are shifting away from "the genius of Shakespeare" (or any great author) and toward "actor-centric activity." with the student as actor. "The winner here is to teach people to speak everyday language to themselves, to write poetry or novels or journals or whatever. The new master is the individual."

Gabler said that many of the shifts decried in academe today (such as commercialization) may be seen in a new "democratizing" light in the context of their findings. "The opening of the university to various commercial and other interest groups is another manifestation of that shift. It's easy to say that a  university president should turn down the (hypothetical) big corporate grant and distribute his/her institution's resources and  faculty composition differently, but who is to decide where the resources should go?"

He added, "Someone has to decide, and the same paradigm shift that has taken us from political philosophy -- reading Plato and Hume, a couple of men seen to be especially wise -- to political science (polling a random sample of citizens, all of  whom are seen to have something to say that's worth scholars'  listening to) has made this a world in which it is generally seen to be only right and good for the man (or woman) at the top to be responsive to outside influences of various sorts, rather than hewing  to a particular historical or philosophical vision of what ought to be happening inside university walls."

One result of that shift is that "no longer is it necessarily more prestigious to endow a chair in English literature or Roman law than to endow a chair in computer science or psychology or business or bioengineering," he said.

Advance readers offering praise of the book include Gerhard Casper, president emeritus at Stanford, who said that the work surprised him and makes it "more than plausible to think of universities as constituents of a worldwide republic of learning."

To the extent that some in the academy will not like the book's conclusions (as seems inevitable once it starts distribution), Frank urged them to be open not only to the discussion of whether the changes are good or bad, but the worldwide nature of the transformations. That's something that suggests the strength behind the changes, he said, whether or not they are desirable.

"We are making an argument that global cultural change is a driving factor behind change in the university," he said.


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