CASS was founded in May 1977, replacing the old Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Hu Qiaomu was the first President accredited to CASS, and he was followed by Ma Hong, Hu Sheng, Li Tieying, Chen Kuiyuan, Wang Weiguang, Xie Fuzhan and Shi Taifeng. Gao Xiang is the current President.

Before the establishment of CASS, the Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences was made up of 14 research units: the Institutes of Economics, Philosophy, World Religions, Archaeology, History, Modern History, World History, Literature, Foreign Literature, Linguistics, Law, Nationality Studies, World Economy and the Research Division on Academic Information and Materials. The staff members totaled more than 2,200.

From 1977 to 1981, a host of new research institutes and a few other new institutions were established in CASS in quick succession. These included the Institutes of Industrial Economics, Rural Development, Finance and Trade Economics, Journalism (now called the Institute of Journalism and Media), Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, Sociology, Population Studies, Ethnic Minority Literature, World Politics (later amalgamated with the Institute of World Economy to create the Institute of World Economics and Politics), American Studies, Japanese Studies, West European Studies (now called the Institute of European Studies), the Social Sciences in China Press, the China Social Sciences Press, and the Graduate School and Office of the Committee for the Compilation and Publication of Guo Moruo's Works The Institute of Soviet Union and East European Studies (now called the Institute of East European, Russian and Central Asian Studies), the Institute of West Asian and African Studies and the Institute of Latin-American Studies were also incorporated into CASS during this period.

Since 1981 some more Institutes have been established, including the Institute of Quantitative and Technical Economics, the Center for Documentation and Information, the Research Center for Chinese Borderland History and Geography, the Institute of Political Sciences, the Institute of Taiwan Studies and the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies.

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