Call for Papers: Towards a social history of political ideas

Call for Papers: Towards a social history of political ideas
International conference – CEVIPOF/ISP/Triangle
Paris – January 22-23, 2015
Call for Papers
In France, the history of political ideas is often seen as a “Trojan horse” for conservative intellectual revolutions. This attitude may well be deserved as, compared to the dynamism and the historiographical revolutions experienced in         England, Germany, Italy and other countries over the last forty years, the history of political ideas does indeed appear somewhat less vibrant in France. The fact that the subject has not been given institutional recognition and that it has been scattered in disciplines as diverse as philosophy, the humanities, law and political science, has restrained the emergence of a discussion on what might be expected of it from an epistemological and methodological point of view. Such attitudes have also hampered the arrival in France of other traditions such as the Cambridge School or German historical semantics.
In France, nonetheless, particularly under the influence of Pierre Bourdieu, a shift toward a “social history of political ideas” has also emerged. Such an approach is quite foreign to the Cambridge School and the Begriffgeschichte. It focuses on including the subject in the social sciences and reconnecting it with the great French tradition of social history, while rejecting the opposition between the history of ideas and social history, internal analysis (or “content analysis”) and external analysis (by “social” causes). It has remained distant from a certain practice of the history of ideas which is often accused of being locked into Plato’s “place beyond heaven”, lapsing into teleology and a fetichism for the major authors of the genre. However, the phrase “social history of ideas” is still struggling to become a coherent program. Some pioneering attempts have already been faced with difficult methodological issues. Certainly, American researchers such as Neal and Ellen Meiksins Wood have presented their Marxist approach under the label of “social history of political theory.” Numerous empirical studies have also contributed to the renewal of the history of political ideas by considering them as a domain of social activity like any other. They are inspired in particular by the sociology of intellectuals and experts, Foucault’s genealogy, Skinnerian contextualism, conceptual history, analysis of ideologies and political languages, etc. However, the dispersion of all these efforts remains an objective obstacle to collective discussion, which is the only way to constitute a theoretical platform that can bring scholars together without denying their differences.
This conference will take an important step in this direction by federating research that is too often isolated, drawing up an inventory of research, and highlighting its prospects. The idea is to create a community of researchers capable of joining the international scientific field that has been formed around these concerns and engaging in debate with major international historiographical schools, in order to contribute to reflection on a potential program for the social history of political ideas. This conference will provide an occasion for dialogue between researchers from different academic and disciplinary backgrounds, with diverse and sometimes divergent approaches, all of whom aim to understand how beliefs, ideologies and ideas are developed and debated in a political context which cannot be separated from the social context.  It seems indeed that the time is ripe to bring this work, currently spread out in several disciplines, together.
The question asked of all contributors will be: what does a “social history of political ideas” mean? In other words, under what conditions can a history of political thought be constituted as a true discipline in the social sciences? The question aims not only to fill a French “gap” by importing innovations from elsewhere, but also to examine and reinterpret these innovations using the resources available, together with the issues and challenges that make up French academia. This will be the theme of the conference that we hope will be a founding event.
The focus will be on four questions:
1  How should political ideas be contextualized ?
Although there is general agreement on the need to “contextualize” political ideas so that their meaning might be grasped, not all agree on the definition of that context: discursive, scientific, political, social, technical etc. Which of these should be given priority to reach an understanding of how ideas are produced? How can these different contexts be articulated and to what type of causality do they refer? This issue of context is related to another: what does “social” means in the phrase “social history of political ideas”?
2. The role of the sociology of intellectuals in the history of political ideas
The sociology of intellectuals and of their commitment constitutes an essential dimension in the production of a social history of political thought: individuals specialized in the production of symbolic forms, theories, or systems of legitimation or protest are at the intersection of the intellectual and the political         and play a key role in the objectification and imposition of ideas and visions of the world. To what extent does social analysis of an intellectual group enable the meaning of what they produce to be clarified? Does it allow the contrast between external analysis and internal analysis to be transcended?
3. The question of ideology and how it is circulated
However old and sometimes discredited it might be, the notion of ideology has been revisited anew by social sciences such as the history of mentalities or modern cultural history in France, cultural studies in the English-speaking world (based on classic authors such as Mannheim or Gramsci)… Ideologies, Zeitgeist, doxa, common sense, dominant consensus: how can the social sciences deal with a series of massive and anonymous phenomena? How can theories (Marxism, Neoliberalism, Feudalism and so on) “grip the masses”, or rather, how can a plurality of individuals appropriate (or not) visions of the world, twisting them, turning them around and revisiting them as they do so? We are primarily interested in the question of how ideas are circulated in society, the media and cultural intermediaries used to do this (readers, publishers, mass media, etc.), from a national or transnational perspective.
4. Popular classes and political ideas
Continuing on from the previous questions, one problem in particular needs to be dealt with given the fact that it is a sensitive and often neglected one: how can the emergence of a “popular” history of political ideas be envisaged, by reflecting on the intellectual constructs that emerge from social groups often seen as passive receivers of ideas produced elsewhere by the dominant economic, cultural and political elites? Does this mean that a dominated culture is necessarily heteronomous? How can the political sense of the subordinate classes be studied without denying the phenomena of political dispossession but         also without reducing politics to its purely legitimate and institutional definition?

Papers will last 30 minutes and will focus on methodological and epistemological issues. For the purposes of clarity, we invite contributors to develop their thinking from specific examples taken from their own work. Contributors will also be asked to send in the text of their paper two weeks prior to the conference.
Language of the conference: English or French
Terms of submission:
Proposals for papers should not exceed one page and should indicate your discipline and institutional affiliation. They should be sent before June 15 to both of the following addresses: and
Answers will be sent by 15 July at the latest.
Organizing Committee:
Jeremie Barthas (Queen Mary, London), Alexandre Escudier (FNSP / CEVIPOF), Chloé Gaboriaux (IEP Paris / CEVIPOF), Thomas Hippler (IEP Lyon / Triangle), Arnault Skornicki (Paris Ouest Nanterre / ISP), Jérôme Tournadre (CNRS / ISP).