The Humanities and the Politics of Knowledge

In the doctoral thesis Folkhemmets styvbarn. Humanioras legitimitet i svensk kunskapspolitik 1935–1980 (Daidalos, 2020), Hampus Östh Gustafsson (Uppsala University) investigates the renegotiated role of the humanities in the context of Swedish politics of knowledge, a period that saw the establishment of a new regime of legitimacy based on rational planning. While higher education and research in general expanded and were turned into prioritised sectors of the welfare state, the humanities were not successfully integrated. Using the perspective of the sociology of expectations, Östh Gustafsson demonstrates how the humanities were excluded from progressive narratives focused on material welfare. In contrast to other categories of knowledge, such as science, technology, medicine, and the social sciences, the Swedish humanities were described as traditional and elitist – eventually depicted as exceptionally marginalised from a transnational point of view.

Using a diverse range of sources from the borderland between science and politics – such as reports from university commissions, conference proceedings, and programmatic articles in the press – this historicising analysis of shifting alliances, negotiations and contests of legitimacy fills an important gap, since previous work on the history of the humanities lacks comprehensive empirical studies on the formation of the discourse of marginalisation. Transcending common interpretations of the so-called “crisis of the humanities” that either focus on the new left circa 1968, or the rise of neo-liberalism about a decade later, this study displays that the humanities encountered severe challenges at an earlier stage than is generally assumed, and also how they were marginalised in a context of increasing prosperity. Rhetorics of crisis were eventually included in novel strategies of legitimation in the 1970s, as humanities scholars more actively attempted to improve their positions in contrast to previous generations who rather sought to adapt the humanities to the standards of the predominating regime of legitimacy.

One of the most common claims for the value of the humanities in current debates stresses their particular function for democracy. This thesis problematises this claim by looking into historical cases which, on the contrary, emphasise a strained relationship. The Swedish humanities struggled to adapt to the new egalitarian democratic society of the 20th century welfare state. In this way, this book provides much-needed nuances to ongoing debates on the legitimacy of the humanities as well as the relationship between knowledge and society in general.

The dissertation will be publicly defended 5th February. For details, see:

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

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