The Authority of Popular Science

The Authority, Methods and Functions of Popular Science in the System of Sciences: Wilhelm Bölsche and Sexology

Safia Azzouni

Cooperation Partners: 

Martin Carrier, Wolfgang Krohn, Carsten Reinhardt (IWT, University of Bielefeld), Andreas Daum (University at Buffalo SUNY), Michael Hagner, Philipp Sarasin (Competence Centre “History of Knowledge,” ETH Zurich and University of Zurich), Erhard Schütz, Joseph Vogl (Humboldt-Universität, Berlin), Uwe Wirth (Justus Liebig University, Giessen)

The factual ways by which knowledge travels from the public sphere into a specialized science or an academic discipline have yet to be explored. In this context, popular science is a crucial dynamic factor. The producers of popular science, the so-called popularizers, play a double role: From the perspective of the public, the popularizer acts as representative of the sciences. From the perspective of the specialized sciences, he is a spokesman on behalf of the public.

This can be shown by an exemplary case study of one of the most important German popularizers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Wilhelm Bölsche, and his relation to the emergence of sexology as an academic discipline. When sexology was trying to become established as a discipline around 1900, Wilhelm Bölsche’s three volumes of Das Liebesleben in der Natur. Eine Entwickelungsgeschichte der Liebe (1898–1903) were actually already popular scientific bestsellers. At that time, they were the first successful German books of sex education, and they were closely read by the founders of sexology.

Taking into account the Liebesleben, further writings by Bölsche, his exchange of letters with scientists, and the works of early sexologists such as Iwan Bloch and Magnus Hirschfeld, the project retraced the genesis and communication of terms and methods in a nonacademic network. The project dealt with the question of whether popular science influences the production of new specialized knowledge and to what extent self-educated popularizers can be accepted as relevant authorities by trained experts. It explored the transdisciplinary authority of popular science that challenges acknowledged boundaries and supposed stable hierarchies of the academic system.


  • “Populärwissenschaft als fachwissenschaftliche Autorität: Wilhelm Bölsche, Das Liebesleben in der Natur und die Anfänge der Sexualwissenschaft,” in: Jahrbuch Literatur und Medizin 3 (2009), pp. 13-38.

Funding Institutions

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)