Humanities in Germany: Sciences Among Sciences

تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.

By Sabine Behrenbeck (Head of Department for Higher Education, German Council for Science and Humanities, Germany)

Sabine Behrenbeck. Photo by Judith Affolter.

There are many common problems and complaints regarding the humanities in anglophone nations and Germany, but there is also one important difference: In Germany the disciplines dealing with culture and language, religion and history are “sciences among sciences” (Wissenschaften unter Wissenschaften). The so-called “Geisteswissenschaften” (Humanities) are not distinguished from other subjects by a special nomenclature (such as humanities or liberal arts) and, hence, are perceived and treated equally concerning the choice of students, career paths or allocation of research funding. The German Council for Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat) is emphatic on the continuation of this politics.[1] Notwithstanding the equal importance, the different scientific practices of the disciplines should not be ignored. The Council advocates collaborations between disciplines, but does not favor interdisciplinary over disciplinary research and teaching programs.[2] I will explain in my contribution some historical reasons for the equal treatment of the disciplines and summarize recommendations on how to facilitate collaboration in interdisciplinary projects.

History and Development of the Humanities in Germany since the 19th Century

The premodern university in Latin Europe held four faculties: The “lower faculty” of philosophy (with the “artes liberales”) for basic and general education as a prerequisite to study in one of the three “higher faculties” of law, medicine and theology, leading up to specific professions. The universities changed a lot during the 19th century; their focus shifted from collecting, structuring and imparting knowledge towards generating new knowledge. During this development, the philosophical faculty became the source of many scientific disciplines. Some of those were the humanities.

In the beginning, they had an eminent societal significance: politically in connection with the emergence of the intellectual bourgeoisie (Bildungsbürgertum) and in the public education system by neo-humanism (Neuhumanismus). Disciplines such as history, German language and literature studies, Latin or Greek philology or archeology contributed to the legitimation of the German nation-state, founded in 1871. By contrast, other disciplines, such as natural and engineering sciences, struggled to legitimize themselves, and their contribution to the prevailing educational concept (Bildungskonzept) remained controversial until the turn of the century (1900). It took some time before the technical sciences were embraced in the canon of subjects of a modern university and gained the right to confer doctorates.

In the emerging modern university, the humanities were not forced to demonstrate their direct impact and usability, but it fell to them as one of its conditions of origin. However, this relief gave the humanities in Germany a historically unique freedom. They used it to establish their own scientific methods which are still regarded worldwide as standards in historical and philological disciplines. The later history of the humanities along with the history of German nation-state can be described as an up-and-down movement of importance and prestige inside and outside academia; they were closer in some political systems, more distant to the nation-state and the dominant political party in others. The liberal arts were not precarious inside the universities; they enjoyed strong resonance in the public sphere.[3] However, since the 1980s and even after the reunion of the two German states, the political drift towards a lean state and the importance of competition captured the publicly financed and steered higher education system. The impact of disciplines for public health, the labor market and economic growth became of greater value than legitimating power or explaining the culture and past. The benefits of the humanities rarely proved to be immediate and have significant economic effects.

Nevertheless, the interest of German students in the humanities is constantly high. In 2019, there were 2,891,547 students altogether, of which 332,440 chose a study field in the humanities, 322,045 decided on math and natural sciences, 774,685 were studying engineering, 128,770 a subject in law, economics or social sciences, and 186,835 studied medicine.[4] Relating only to classical universities (without universities of applied sciences, music and fine arts), 17.8 % of all students are inscribed in the humanities and are taught  by 16.6 % of all professors at universities.[5] In 2018, the professors of humanities at universities gained research funding of an average of 139,730 Euros, the amount is much higher in other disciplines (an average of 326,180 Euros), not least, due to the requirements of technical equipment and personnel.[6] Notwithstanding the appeal of the humanities for students, when it comes to the allocation of resources within the university, the denomination of professorships and the origin of institutional pride and prestige, the humanities no longer play a dominant role. That may have led to a self-perception as disadvantaged and underestimated subjects.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration within the Humanities and Beyond: Recommendations of the Science Council

Political strategies in many countries today expect innovation and societal impact primarily from the natural and technical sciences and incentivize applied research. They often identify applied research with interdisciplinary collaboration – although this combination is not a necessity. Applied research can be conducted in only one discipline, and interdisciplinary research can be only driven by curiosity. The world of scientific disciplines cannot be divided into a sphere of practical, applicable subjects and one of theoretical, abstract subjects with no relation to the economy, welfare state and everyday life. The COVID-19 pandemic has especially shown the importance of interdisciplinary work, including the social and cultural sciences in research teams of researchers from medicine, mathematics and the natural sciences. But those collaborations are very demanding and often difficult because of the differences between the participating disciplines. Nevertheless, the Science Council suggested some ideas to solve the problems:

  1. The practice of communication is different. Scholars in the humanities work with and about language and texts; they do not only use them as tools but analyze them as an object of study. Therefore, they are very accurate and sensitive about terms, grammar, meanings and interpretation. Experimental or empirical researchers use very different methods and often work with numbers, statistics, diagrams, pictures and patterns. For this reason, projects between partners from very different subjects need some time for the initial phase to find a common language and terms. The Science Council recommends funding the initial approaches of such working groups from very distant disciplines.[7]

  2. The evaluation process of disciplines is different. In order to evaluate interdisciplinary research projects, the review process has to use the quality standards of the participating disciplines and judge the added value of the interdisciplinary approach. This presupposes the ability of the reviewers to change perspectives and the willingness to recognize and acknowledge the potential or results of a research project not only in their relevance to their own subject but also regarding other disciplines. An understanding in multidisciplinary groups of reviewers is also required on subject-related and interdisciplinary criteria as well as on their weighting in decision-making.[8]

  3. Problems may occur due to a hidden hierarchy between the disciplines of research partners. Collaborative research is often based on a guiding discipline that invites other sciences to contribute their expertise. Temporary projects often mean asymmetric constellations in which some partners have a supportive and accompanying function. This may not cause any problem if goals and mutual expectations are clearly recognizable for all parties involved and the cooperation is self-selected.[9] The humanities should contribute their own strengths confidently: To explain complexity and offer overview and synthesis, reflect and question the present and past, contextualize and deal with change and cultural differences. Their questions and interpretations could somehow challenge the application-oriented subjects regarding their obsession with solving very specific problems. They can offer society common reference points and, thereby, promote social cohesion.

  4. Publishing the results of interdisciplinary research is a challenge. Disciplines are not only constituted as epistemological knowledge orders and institutional structures. They are also social institutions which communicate according to their own rules, through publications, conferences and journals.[10] Therefore, it is difficult to find publication formats to present the results of interdisciplinary work to different disciplinary communities. This is particularly problematic for researchers in an early stage of their academic career when they need highly ranked publications to reach the next position or qualification. Career paths in the German scientific system typically stay within the disciplines, academic degrees are awarded in a subject and the denomination of professorships are also carried out in a highly disciplinary manner.[11] It can be dangerous to choose an interdisciplinary approach for a career within academia, but it can be very helpful for a career outside of the university. Mentors should have that in mind when consulting their mentees.[12]

Therefore, interdisciplinary collaboration between humanities and sciences have to overcome some obstacles, but it is worth the effort. By pushing disciplinary boundaries, research generates new knowledge, new methods. This can lead to the formation of new disciplines and often also has an impact on existing disciplines, changing and developing them further. In this way, cooperation between disciplines contributes to the necessary openness of subjects and the dynamic development of the scientific system.[13] Thus, it is important to support and fund multi- and interdisciplinary research differently from funding the research of single disciplines and, thereby, support it appropriately.

[1] Wissenschaftsrat, “Empfehlungen zur Entwicklung und Förderung der Geisteswissenschaften in Deutschland” [Recommendations on the Development and Funding of the Humanities in Germany], Wissenschaftsrat Publikationen, Berlin 2006, [accessed: 23.05.2021].

[2] Wissenschaftsrat, “Wissenschaft im Spannungsfeld von Disziplinarität und Interdisziplinarität” [Science in the Field of Tension between Disciplinarity and Interdisciplinarity], Position Paper, Wissenschaftsrat, 2020, [accessed: 23.05.2021].

[3] Wissenschaftsrat, “Empfehlungen zur Entwicklung”, 9 ff.

[4] Statistisches Bundesamt [Federal Office of Statistics], “Studierende an Hochschulen – endgültige Ergebnisse” [Students in Higher Education – Final Results], Fachserie 11 / Reihe 4.1, D-Statis, 2019, [accessed: 23.05.2021].

[5] Statistisches Bundesamt, “Studierende”, 2019; Statistisches Bundesamt [Federal Office of Statistics], “Personal an Hochschulen” [Personnel at Universities], Fachserie 11 / Reihe 4.4, D-Statis, 2019, [accessed: 23.05.2021].

[6] Statistisches Bundesamt [Federal Office of Statistics], “Monetäre Kennzahlen” [Key University Statistics], Fachserie 11 / Reihe 4.3.2, D-Statis, 2019, [accessed: 23.05.2021].

[7] Wissenschaftsrat, “Wissenschaft im Spannungsfeld”, 56-57.

[8] Wissenschaftsrat, “Wissenschaft im Spannungsfeld”, 40-41.

[9] Wissenschaftsrat, “Wissenschaft im Spannungsfeld”, 32-33.

[10] Wissenschaftsrat, “Wissenschaft im Spannungsfeld”, 8-9.

[11] Wissenschaftsrat, “Wissenschaft im Spannungsfeld”, 41.

[12] Wissenschaftsrat, “Wissenschaft im Spannungsfeld”, 66-67.

[13] Wissenschaftsrat, “Wissenschaft im Spannungsfeld”, 9.

Sabine Behrenbeck has been head of the Department for Higher Education with the German Council of Science and Humanities since 2004. She studied history, history of arts, Catholic theology, pedagogy and philosophy, and holds a doctorate degree with a very interdisciplinary work on the Cult of the Dead Heroes in Germany between 1918 and 1945 (Der Kult um die toten Helden: Nationalsozialistische Mythen, Riten und Symbole, 1996, paperback 2011). After curating some cultural exhibitions, she worked in research projects at different universities and then changed to research management with the German Science Foundation (DFG) in 1999.

This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021

Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021

Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021

Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History, and ‘Cancel Culture’, 03.06.2021

Nadia Bahra, Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question, 10.06.2021

Roman Singendonk, The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin and Its Quest for Socio-Political Relevance: The Example of the TAMAM Project, 24.06.2021

Amani Albedah, The Humanities in the Age of Digital Information Exchange, 01.07.2021

Citation: Sabine Behrenbeck, Humanities in Germany: Sciences Among Sciences, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research,, 08.07.2021

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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