The Social Question and the Rise of Academic Social Science in Sweden

The Social Scientific Gaze: The Social Question and the Rise of Academic Social Science in Sweden, 1830-1920

Per Wisselgren

Per Wisselgren_Leffler.jpg

Johan Leffler and the frontpage of one of his publications for the Lorén Foundation. National Library of Sweden and Stockholm: Lorénska stiftelsen, 1897.

The aim of Per Wisselgren's project was to analyze the discursive formation of Swedish social science in the historical context of the ”social question,” i.e., the lengthy, broad-ranging, and international discussions in which the social problems of Western modernity were conceptualized from the 1830s and onwards. Empirically, the study is centred round the Lorén Foundation, a combined private funding agency and early social research institute, which was set up in 1885 with the explicit and double-fold aim to promote the rise of Swedish social science and to investigate the social question. Composing a heuristic case, the close empirical analysis of the Lorén Foundation makes it possible not only to historically reconstruct its many activities, its ideals and practices, and its strategic changes over time, but also to situate these activities in broader social and cultural context.

A general argument developed is that the formation of academic social science may be seen not only as an ”answer” to the social ”question” but also as one attempt alongside others—including the contemporary social literature, the philanthropic social reform movement, and the introduction of modern social policy legislations—to conceptualize, practically handle, and regulate the social sphere. Another, historiographically addressed, argument is to emphasize the blurred boundaries between the different knowledge practices and epistemic techniques involved in this process, where natural scientific methods and quantitative tables often were combined with hermeneutic literary descriptions in order to describe the social problems as scientific credible, publicly understandable, and policy-relevant as possible. A third argument is that this very methodological mixture, or combination of numbers and letters, Verfremdung and Verstehen, at the same time illustrates another pattern in the early formation of social science and its cognitive style of viewing the social, namely that the ”social scientific gaze” was inscribed in a thought space which in important respects reflected the actual ”lived social distance” between the observers, i.e., the reform-minded researchers of the urban middle-class, and the people of the ”problematic” working-class being observed.

Funding Institutions

Umeå University, Sweden (Umeå University Young Researcher Award)