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Open Access Publications from the University of California

State-building and the Origins of Disciplinary Specialization in Nineteenth Century Germany


Scholars have long debated why the sciences became organized into specialized disciplines during the nineteenth century. The Prussian university reforms and the institutionalization of research in the German universities have occupied a central position in these discussions. Using records of the appointments of full professors in the life sciences at German universities from 1770 to 1880, this paper investigates whether the Prussian and other reforms led professors to specialize into disciplines and universities to hire from an open academic labor market. The results show that the reforms did not encourage competition and disciplinary specialization across the German universities. Until the 1840s, reforms encouraged professors to pursue scientific research to the exclusion of traditional subjects, but not to specialize within single disciplines. Outside of Prussia, Baden, and Bavaria, university hiring practices also continued to favor the internal promotion of students until relatively late in the century. In contrast to theories of disciplinary specialization emphasizing the institutionalization of scientific autonomy through the Prussian university reforms, I argue that the political integration of German territories and the exploding university enrollments of the late nineteenth century were necessary conditions for the initial adoption of disciplinary organization. These changes did not directly follow from the university reforms, but rather we connected to the ongoing political and economic development of German states over the course of the nineteenth century.

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