Sociology in Strasbourg: a short history since 1871

revue40.jpgI recently stumbled upon a very interesting issue of the Revue des sciences sociales, 40 (2008), a journal published by my very own employer, devoted to 'Strasbourg, a crossroad of sociologies'. I discovered that the University of Strasbourg has indeed had a very strong sociological background and the city welcomed some very interesting - and important! - figures of the discipline.

So let me give up some heads-up about this issue which, unfortunately if you can't speak the language of Molière, is entirely written in French (see the table of content on this page, select 'issue 40 (2008)'). You'll realize that Strasbourg might be a city worth visiting - either for it's sociological past or for itself!

Strasbourg has a complex history, but to sum up it was alternatively French and German since the Romans and was the subject of great strife between the two countries. In 1870, after a long spell under French rule, Strasbourg and its region were merged into the Prussian Empire. The Kaiser Wilhelm Universität, as it was then called in German, or Imperial University was founded in 1871 to attract and showcase the best talents: Gustav Schmoller, the political economist involved in the Methodenstreit against the Austrian Carl Menger, is teaching in Strasbourg between 1872 and 1882 ; Ferdinand Tönnies studies at the University in 1872 while Max Weber himself does his military service there in 1883-1884.

Robert Park, the founder of the Chicago School, was awarded a doctorate in sociology at the University of Strasbourg where he read for it between 1900-1904 (who knew that?). It is incidentally through Weber's intervention that Georg Simmel, the famous German sociologist, coming from Berlin, secured a chair in sociology at the University in 1914. Simmel was actually buried in Strasbourg in 1918 and his grave is still visible today!

gs.pngSimmel's grave at the Cronenbourg cemetery, near Strasbourg
(Photo: Cesare Salami, from the RSS, issue 40 (2008), p. 45)

The end of WWI was a turning point for Strasbourg because it was reclaimed by the French and turned its back to its Germanic developments. In 1919, Maurice Halbwachs, then 43, the famous Durkheimian, was appointed to the 'chair of Pedagogy and Sociology' left vacant by Simmel the year before. In 1922, and for the first time on the French territory, it was renamed the first full-fledged 'chair of sociology'. In the 1920s, sociology was largely under-institutionalised in France, contrary to the popular belief, with one chair teaching some form of sociology only in Bordeaux (with Gaston Richard), Strasbourg (with Halbwachs), Montpellier (with Georges Poyer) and two in Paris, with the Durkheimians Paul Fauconnet and Célestin Bouglé, at la Sorbonne (see Heilbron, 1985, pp. 204-205). For the sake of comparison, it is very interesting to recall that Britain had its first chair in sociology founded in 1908 and bestowed upon Leonard Hobhouse, while France had to wait until 1922!

Halbwachs was unfortunately not very productive in those years and, when he left for la Sorbonne in 1935, he had had few students, supervised no 'doctorat d'Etat' (the highest qualification in French universities) and produced no major book except a surprisingly forgotten manual on statistics (Le calcul des probabilités à la portée de tous, 1924 with the mathematician Maurice Fréchet).

Halbwachs was offgg.jpgicially replaced by Georges Gurvitch, a Russian-born philosopher-turned-sociologist of law naturalised French in 1928, at the University in 1935. Gurvitch does not seem to have been very active either while there, although he did publish various 'Essais de sociologie (1939)' and an interesting manual entitled 'Eléments de sociologie juridique (1940)'. Cécile Rol describes 'Gurvitch's Strasbourg "moment"' in a very learned and fascinating article and explains that it was there that Gurvitch gradually left philosophy to turn to sociology. However, Gurvitch had the unfortunate chance of being both naturalised and Jewish, which in 1940 France was not a good thing.

Gurvitch fled to America, at the New School for Social Research in New York like so many, and, although he did come back to France in 1944, never set a foot again in Strasbourg where he still officially held the chair of sociology there. In 1948, he was awarded a chair at la Sorbonne, which put a halt to the prestigious succession of world-class sociologists in Strasbourg.

In 1965, though, Julien Freund got the chair in Strasbourg after obtaining his doctorate under Raymond Aron in Paris. He did much to popularise the work of Max Weber and Georg Simmel in France, developed the sub-field of 'polemology' (the study of conflicts) in sociology and founded the Revue des sciences sociales (of which the 2008 issue in question I am discussing) in 1972. He died in 1993 and the chair does not seem to exist any longer as such - although there still is an active departement of sociology in Strasbourg focusing on Europe (see DynamE and SAGE, the two competing laboratories of social sciences).

strasbourg.jpgThis issue seriously asks the question whether one can speak of a 'Strasbourg school of sociology'. I think, given its sociological past, there might be something and this probably puts Strasbourg at heart of Europe and at the crossroads of sociologies indeed.

As you see, the sociological history of Strasbourg was intense and very exciting and I hope this will give you some food for thought as well as a desire to visit it. As if it were not enough, may I recall that Strasbourg is nowadays the capital of Europe, with Brussels, and home to the European Parliament?

PS. One last word about the archives, for those interested: I have been to the university and departmental archives in Strasbourg myself and didn't find anything original. I'm afraid all the useful material has already been seen and published!