Series - Social and Human Sciences Sector publications

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Social and Human Sciences Sector publications

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(1984 -)

Administrative history

In his 1956 article reviewing the first ten years of UNESCO’s Social Science Programme, Arvid Brodersen traces the mandate for the Programme to several articles in the Constitution, including most explicitly Article I calling on the Organization to encourage cooperation among the nations in all branches of intellectual activity. Brodersen continues by suggesting that it is the social scientist’s duty to test, study, identify and define the researchable problems involved in the famous sentence of the Preamble - “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed” - and to seek valid answers to these problems (p. 402).

When it came to taking this mandate and specifying a programme though, there were early problems of scope and definition. In the discussion paper prepared by the Social Sciences Section for presentation to the Preparatory Commission Member States in 1946, the staff wrote that the “term social sciences is a generic label applied to a group of disciplines covering a field as broad and deep and complex as human life itself” (UNESCO/Prep.Com/Soc.Sci.Com./2, 1946). Preparatory Commission staff suggested to Member States that UNESCO should encourage a program for social sciences both as areas of “pure research” and as areas for the application of learning to social action. In other words, it was to be a dual role of both advancing the social sciences as scientific disciplines and of applying and using social sciences in support of all other UNESCO programmes. The scope of the programme was also determined by the distinction made between social sciences, philosophy and humanistic studies. This distinction was clearly made in the Preparatory Commission’s 1946 Report on the Programme of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. From 1988 to 1989, a Special Committee of the Executive Board carried out in-depth studies on the evolution of the Social Sciences Programme at UNESCO. The Special Committee observed that, in early days, the distinction made between the fields based on methodology - with emphasis on the idea of the social sciences as both positive-empirical and critical disciplines - consequently stressed UNESCO’s mission in helping to improve the methodology of the social sciences. (Executive Board, Special Committee, 1989, p.3). The Organization’s differentiation of the fields, apparent after 1947 in the early administrative structures of the Organization, has been deemphasized over time. While some humanistic studies have often been structured under the Culture Programme, in later years human sciences have been coupled with social sciences. Philosophy has also both occupied its own distinct space in the programme of the Organization and been integrated into the Social and Human Sciences Programme.

The administrative structure of the Social and Human Sciences Programme at UNESCO has developed in five main stages: Social Sciences and Philosophy/Social Sciences Section 1946-1948; Department of Social Sciences, 1948-1965; Department of Social Sciences within the Social Sciences, Humanities and Culture Sector (SHC), 1965-1974; Sector for Social Sciences and their Applications, 1976-1984; and, Social and Human Sciences Sector (SHS), 1984-present day.

The first list of personnel published in January 1947 after UNESCO formally came into existence in November 1946 showed a unit called Social Sciences and Philosophy. Later in 1947 the unit became the Social Sciences Section, reflecting the distinction given to the disciplines in the overall Programme of the Organization. In the earliest period, 1946-1948, the Social Sciences Programme was concentrated on encouraging the development of international associations and the study of the tensions affecting international understanding which came to be known as the Tensions Project. Other activities or projects on the international development of social sciences (connecting social scientists throughout the world) included: exchange of persons, collection of information (yearbook and abstracting service); and development of international manuals in the social sciences (standardizing methodology). Work on the aim of finding practical solutions to world problems began to expand beyond the Tensions Project to look at the status of women and struggled to define UNESCO’s role in Home and Community Planning (re-adaption of man’s environment), international studies; and, international and comparative law. In July of 1948, the structure of the Organization was changed and the programme sections were renamed departments, such as, in this case, the Department of Social Sciences.

In 1949, Director-General Jaime Torres-Bodet instructed staff to rethink and broaden the Programme, keeping in mind that UNESCO’s work was to be on a practical, general-level and not speculative or erudite (Plan de travail…, 1949). The work thus far was too slow to be delivered and too dispersed according to Torres-Bodet. This idea echoed the findings in the 1948 Report of the Advisory Committee of Experts on UNESCO Administration, known as the ‘Aghnides Report’ (). The Social Science Programme activities for 1949 were therefore reoriented and began to take more stable form as grouped under three headings: the facilitation of international professional associations and meetings of specialists in various social science fields; the dissemination of knowledge concerning social science findings and improved methods of work; and the study of tensions affecting international understanding as a pilot research project where the incidental by-product of the project might be the experience gained in research planning on an international scale and the development of methods for making data and techniques more comparable on an international scale (UNESCO and the social sciences, 21 April 1949). A statistical service was also created at this time but reported directly to the Office of Director-General. An end was foreseen for the Tensions Project based on the idea of it as a pilot project, and studies on race began to emerge as a clear priority. By 1950, some units were formed in the Department without formalized names. Between 1950 and 1952, there existed the Tensions Project unit, the Studies of International Co-operation unit, the Aid to International Scientific Collaboration unit, the Division of Studies of Social Tensions, and the Division of the Study of Racial Questions. In 1952, the Statistics Division was moved to the Department, though, much like activities on philosophy, statistical activities would shift in and out of the Social Sciences Programme over time. The structure and titles of units were formalized in 1952, leaving: the Statistical Division, the Division of Applied Social Sciences, and, the Aid to International Collaboration Division. Responsibility for research and its application to world problems was thus grouped under one more general division at headquarters, though responsibility was partly decentralized to new institutes created in Cologne, UNESCO Institute for Social Sciences (1951-1960), and Gauting, UNESCO Institute for Youth (1951-1965), as well as to field cooperation officers, first introduced in 1951 in field offices in Cairo and New Delhi. By the mid-1960s, these field structures had gradually been replaced by autonomous institutes, though social science programme officers were intermittently assigned to larger field offices over time. At headquarters, the names of the units changed slightly but the structure remained relatively stable until the study of economic development was emphasized as an area of research, first by the creation of a unit in the Division of Applied Social Sciences in 1959, then with the creation of a distinct Office of Economic Analysis, reporting directly to the department’s director in 1962.

This stage saw the establishment of professional associations and engagement with existing associations. In 1952, for example, the International Social Science Council was founded by UNESCO. Social science information and documentation was disseminated through professional associations or by periodicals published by UNESCO, such as, for example the International Bibliography of Social Science. The research studies commissioned and published under the Tensions Project constituted, in Peter Lengyel’s words “a cascade of material of very different quality and durability” (1986, page 22). The publications on the question of race are some of the most well-known products from the Department during his period. For Lengyel, later publications issued from research-based projects from the early 1960s “were clearly all contributions to the great international debate then in progress, but they did not cohere or cumulate, did not converge into a scientific paradigm or model” (1986, page 43). However, from its in-depth studies of the Social Sciencs Programme, the 1988-1989 Special Committee of the Executive Board found that the 1950s surveys on “Teaching in the social sciences” at university-level made a considerable impact on the development of social sciences (Executive Board, Special Committee, 1989, p.7).

When the Secretariat was reorganized in 1965, larger Programme Sectors were introduced and the social sciences were brought together with culture and humanities programming to form the Social Sciences, Humanities and Culture Sector. The Department of Social Sciences continued to exist, but reported to an Assistant Director-General equally responsible for the Division of Philosophy and the Department of Culture. The 1989 Special Committee of the Executive Board found that in “this new sectoral structure, the social science programmes had lost their autonomy and their scientific components had become less significant” (Executive Board, Special Committee, 1989, p.4). The Office of Economic Analysis was moved from the Department of Social Sciences to report directly to the Assistant Director-General, only to be dissolved in 1968. However, research into social sciences methods and analysis was undertaken again by a distinct unit in the Department of Social Sciences in 1971. A shift was signaled in 1974 again when the departments were dissolved and all units reported directly to the Assistant-Director General of the Social Sciences, Humanities and Culture Sector. The following year the sectors began to be reorganized. The Office of Statistics was transferred from the Sector at the end of 1975.

In the period 1965 to 1974, the Department worked on the extensive survey of the Main Trends of Research in the Social and Human Sciences with the International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies. Part One of this work was published in 1970 and Part Two in 1978. In 1989, based on its review of the Programme, the Special Committee of the Executive Board found that these surveys also had considerable impact (Executive Board, Special Committee, 1989, p.7). Work on the teaching of social sciences included the continuation of the series on works on teaching in the various disciplines at the university-level, and it included activities on a regional-basis through support of the African Training and Research Centre in Administration for Development (CAFRAD) and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO). Collaboration with international non-governmental organizations continued. The 1989 Special Committee of the Executive Board cites the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO) and the European Co-ordination Centre for Research and Documentation in the Social Sciences (Vienna Centre) as two successful efforts in networking and institution-building, but also named the Centre for the Co-ordination of the Social Science Research and Documentation in Africa (CERDAS) and the Arab Regional Centre for Social Sciences (ARCSS) as less successful (Executive Board, Special Committee, 1989, p.8). Studies on apartheid policies, peace research, and cultural rights as human rights were examples of how the Department sought to encourage the application of social science research to current social and political problems. Socio-economic indicators and simulation models were tested as part of general studies on development.

In 1976, the Sector for the Application of Social Sciences was created and its units were organized principally by thematic field of research. The new units were: the Division for the Study of Development, the Division for Socio-Economic Analysis, the Youth Division, the Division of Human Rights and Peace, the Population Division, the Division for Human Settlements and the Socio-Cultural Environment. From the old structure, there also remained the Division of Philosophy and the Division for the International Development of the Social Sciences which continued the networking, institution-building, knowledge dissemination, and capacity-building activities. The thematic units were created to facilitate research, as well as practical application of that research to social action in Member States.

Beyond ongoing activities for the international development of the social and human sciences such as those supporting international non-governmental organizations, teaching of social and human sciences, and dissemination of documentation, the work for this period was often focused on preparatory and follow-up activities to several major international conferences: the World Population Conference, 1974; the United Nations World Conference of the International Women’s Year, 1975; the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, 1976; and, the International Population Conference, 1984. Preparatory work undertaken by the Department also led to the General Conference’s 1978 Revised Recommendation concerning International Competitions in Architecture and Town Planning and its 1978 Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice.

At the Twentieth Session of the General Conference, Member States recognized recent actions to give impetus to the Social Science Programme and invited the Director-General to intensify his action to consolidate funds and concentrate efforts along three major projects: 1) methods of applying social science research to development planning and public policies; 2) research on substantive issues of development and social change; and 3) activities to increase understanding of the conditions and factors affecting the promotion and realization of human rights, peace and disarmament (UNESCO. General Conference, 20th Session. 1979. Resolution 3/0.1, 3/0.2). The General Conference also called for the establishment of an ad hoc external consultative mechanism to advise on the implementation of these major projects. The International Committee of Experts on the Orientation and Structure of the Programme for the Social Sciences and their Applications met in 1979 and made twenty-four recommendations which were intended to have an impact on the Medium-Term Plan for 1984-1989 and the Programme and Budget for 1981-1983 (UNESCO. 1979. SS-79/CONF.615/7).

In 1984, the Sector changed names to the Sector of Social and Human Sciences. In the Medium-Term Plan for 1984-1989, a Major Programme for “reflection on world problems and future-oriented studies” was introduced, identifying the Organization’s task as “a contribution to a continuing appraisal of the problems of today's world and of the way they might develop in the future (4 XC/4, p. 57). The activities under this Programme were to “be supported by systematic use of the statistical data collected by the Organization. This work will be largely interdisciplinary. It will be based on advances in the social and human sciences, which it will help to develop in certain particular fields, and it will call for philosophical reflection” (4 XC/4, p. 59). The link between social, human sciences, and philosophy was once again emphasized by this Major Programme, hence the change of the Sector’s name. Other aspects of the Social and Human Sciences Programme were concentrated in different Major Programmes described in the Medium-Term Plan for 1984-1989, such as one on the elimination of prejudice, intolerance, racism and apartheid. However, the 1989 Special Committee of the Executive Board found that the recommendations made by the 1979 International Committee of Experts were not implemented or incorporated into these plans (Executive Board, Special Committee, 1989, p.5). The organizational units within the Sector remained unchanged with the exception of the introduction of a Division of Economic and Social Sciences. Responsibility for the activities of the Division for Human Settlements and the Socio-Cultural Environment was shifted in and out of the Sector from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s. The Analysis and Forecasting Office was incorporated into the Sector in 2000 as a new Division of Anticipation and Prospective Studies, but responsibility for these activities was moved again in 2006, only returning to the Sector in 2011. Indeed, the units in the Sector became more fluid in the mid-1990s, reflecting the Programme which in turn reflected responses to world problems as prioritized by Member States at the General Conference. Programme priorities from 1990s to 2000s included: foresight and prospective studies; youth; fighting against discrimination and enhancing protection of human rights; human security, peace-building and democracy; social transformations and intercultural dialogue; the ethics of science and technology; and, physical education and sport.

The heads of the Sector and its predecessors have been: (Acting) Arvid Brodersen, 1947-1949; Arthur Ramos, 1949; (Acting) Robert Angell, 1950; Alva Myrdal, 1950-1955; Thomas H. Marshall, 1956-1960; André Bertand, 1961-1967; Harry Alpert, 1967-1970; Gene Lyons, 1970-1972; Jacques Havet, 1974-1976; Martha Hildebrandt, 1976-1978; (Acting) Jacques Havet, 1978-1979; Rodolfo Stavenhagen, 1979-1982; (Acting) Zala Lusibu N’Kanza, 1982-1984; (Acting) Nicolas Bodart, 1984-1985; Julio Labastida Martin del Campo, 1985-1990; Francine Fournier, 1990-2000; (Acting) Ali Kazancigil, 2000-2001; Pierre T. Sané, 2001-2010; Maria del Pilar Álvarez-Laso, 2010-2014; (Acting) Philippe Quéau, 2014-2015; and Nada Al-Nashif, 2015-.

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Publications of the Social and Human Science Sector and its predecessors

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From 1946-1971:
Bibliography of publications issued by UNESCO or under its auspices the first twenty-five years: 1946-1971, UNESCO, Paris, 1973 (AG 7/1)
Also available as card-index: card-index of publications 1946-1971

From 1972 on (partly also publications before 1972):


  • Most titles available via: UNESCO Document and Publication Database (UNESDOC database)
  • Other available via registers of UNESCO publications by ARC-code, 1946-

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  • English

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  • UNESCO Publications