Problems with interdisciplinarity in the humanities

At a recent workshop on interdisciplinarity for researchers from the Coimbra Group in Trinity College Dublin, at the Long Room Hub, there were some interesting presentations (especially by Britta Padberg of ZiF and Christoph Horn of Bonn University) and conversations had about the challenges and opportunities within this area. It got me thinking about some of the theoretical and structural peculiarities of the humanities that makes the discussion of interdisciplinarity in the arts and humanities different from the STEM, and perhaps also the social sciences. As always, there are counter-examples and caveats, but here are some thoughts under the follow headings.

(i) The place of common theoretical structures in STEM and AHSS interdisciplinarity

(ii) Disciplinary and professional drivers and barriers to interdisciplinarity

(iii) Intra- and interdisciplinarity – or precision versus purity Continue reading

Finding an alternative to the market discourse of culture via Iain M. Banks

This post started when I was reflecting on our inability to theorize culture, the arts, and humanities except within the paradigm of the market. We know the standard responses – and more often reactions – to this question of “what good are they?” (I will slip between culture, humanities, and the arts in this post, as I think they have many things in common in terms of theoretical justification).

There are various possible approaches. One might be via justification itself, and how to secure meaning and significance in a secular world (Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, Karl Löwith). Then there might be an analysis of the market and its internal logic (Debra Satz). Another is via the matter of value, of the worth of arts and culture and the humanities. This is seen in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic value, and it is a difficult and indeed perilous route to take. It is, however, the road more travelled. Continue reading

Humanities IN crisis, or humanities AS crisis

Reading Eleonora Belfiore and Anna Upchurch‘s edited collection of essays, Humanities in the Twenty-First Century: Beyond Utility and Markets, I noted how Belfiore draws attention to the fact that the humanities seem to have continual identity drama. We have, as they say, issues. Now, this takes many forms, be it in terms of the job crisis for recently doctored researchers, or issues of public funding, or university organization, or may go even deeper to the very metaphysical justification of the humanities themselves. A nadir of this was to be seen the culture wars of the 90s and 00s, which I think we are all tired of revisiting, but which certainly moulded my early years of university education.

In reading Belfiore’s introduction chapter, “The ‘Rhetoric of Gloom’ v. the Discourse of Impact”, a tweet I had read a while ago popped into my head. It was a propos one of those periodic Twitter squalls that whips up over something or other, but unlike many tweets in such circumstances, it cut straight through the particularity of the situation, presenting a view of the grand, long, universal view.   Continue reading

Report: Arts and Humanities Research measurement, impact, and evaluation

Recognising the Value of the Arts and Humanities in a Time of Austerity

I link here to a report I co-authored while in Dublin Institute of Technology’s (DIT) Higher Education Policy Research Unit (HEPRU). It was undertaken under the auspices of HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), a partnership between 21 Humanities Research Councils across Europe and the European Science Foundation (ESF), which has ‘the objective of firmly establishing the humanities in the European Research Area and in the European Commission Framework Programmes.’ I quote from the introduction:  

“It is against this backdrop that the HEARAVLUE project (funded by the HERA programme, an ERA-NET network funded by the European Commission and 19 research councils responsible for arts and
humanities research across Europe) was undertaken. Drawing on experiences in three countries
(Ireland, Netherlands and Norway), HERAVALUE seeks to increase our understanding of the
contribution that university-based arts and humanities research makes to society and the economy
by exploring how it is defined, appreciated and accounted for by researchers, policymakers and civil
society. It aims to explore assumptions held by these different stakeholder constituencies, and to
compare and contrast their perceptions and considerations of creative values, creativity and
innovation, and impact and benefit. Furthermore, it aims to identify appropriate practices and
methodologies to assess and demonstrate quality and value beyond the academy. The key objective
is to better understand what really matters rather than what is easily measured.

While many of the issues identified above were not fully formed at the beginning of the project, over
its duration, the project’s necessity has become more obvious – and has been eagerly awaited. It has
become clear that arts and humanities researchers, policy makers and funding agencies, and civil
society more widely are, each in their own and different ways, looking for ways to recognise and
value the important contribution of arts and humanities research within the new policy paradigm.
Important discussions have taken place within and between the academy and the policy community,
and an all-island Irish Humanities Allliance has been formed to “generate public awareness of the
importance of humanities teaching and research in higher education and society at large, and to
inform and shape public policy”.

The Irish national study gathered the views of a diverse range of people across multiple stakeholder
groups – researchers, policy makers, and civil society. Both sectors of Irish higher education,
universities and institutes of technology, were interviewed, in addition to representatives of both
the private-sector and state agency policy-makers; members of civil society included communitybased and national-level arts organisations and bodies, as well as the media. In total, the views of
forty-one people were gathered during 2011 and 2012 for this study.”

Digital humanities: a discipline unto itself, or just another methodology?

How do you define an academic discipline? Or indeed a sub-discipline for that matter? If one goes to enough conferences and seminars concerned with digital humanities, this is a question which will raise its head. The way it goes is usually as follows: there have been papers presented regarding research being undertaken within the digital arts and humanities, and there is a discussion among practitioners about the relative merits of different metadata standards, or questions about the broader implications for other types of research which would build upon the work which had been presented. Then comes the question nobody wants to hear, which usually comes from an established member of the academy (a tenured professor if you’re really lucky, in something like Classics) who asks a question which attempts to pull the rug from under proceedings.

“But what is actually different about what you’re talking about? Why is it different? Why call it digital Humanities as though it was separate? You are a part of the humanities.” The implication is that somehow research and knowledge creation is a zero-sum activity. If you do work over there, that detracts from what is going on in our well-established discipline. Continue reading

Why wisdom is redundant nonsense in the light of information theory

The key, therefore, is to find the wisdom necessary to wield this sword of science. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.” In my opinion, wisdom is the ability to identify the crucial issues of our time, analyze them from many different points of view and perspectives, and then choose the one that carries out some noble goal and principle.

Michio Kaku, The Physics of the Future, p. 304

I view the interventions of scientists into the realm of philosophy with something akin to an all-consuming disappointment. This is only fair, as they view the interest of philosophers in the implications of scientific discovery as the dangerous meddling of intellectual infants. The assumption is that philosophy (and other areas of the humanities) is done via language, and they speak the same language, only plus the precision of the scientific languages they also have at their disposal. Accordingly, what they have to say about philosophy is more valid than what we have to say about science. These are some observations, but they are not everything I want to say. I want to point out a contradiction in what Kaku says, and the implications of this. Continue reading