Friday, June 11, 2010

Research in the Humanities: Intellectually Central, Economically Essential, and Probably Doomed

Research in the humanities is, we are told, is in peril. One group of handwringers glances at a set of data about whose work gets cited in English departments, and tells us the humanities have become an intellectual backwater. Another set of worriers tells us that the humanities are helpless in the face of fresh demands to prove their utility. Neither group, though, knows how to read the data held in their trembling hands — data that, in fact, tells us that the humanities are both intellectually vital and of enormous (albeit indirect) social utility.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m pretty sure there is no cause for optimism. The dark clouds looming on the horizons have nothing to do with any real intellectual or utilitarian deficiency on the part of humanists, though. No, those clouds come from the narrow-mindedness and, more importantly, the historical ignorance of those in charge of allocating research funding. The only good news for American humanists is that we’re not going to suffer nearly as much, or as soon, as our British colleagues, who must find a way to exist under a regime of odious knuckleheads who seem to be willfully set on the ham-fisted destruction of the only system of humanities research in the world that rivals, and in many instances exceeds, our own.


The first sort of worry — the fear that the humanities have become an intellectual backwater, incapable of producing important thought — comes from what I take to be a misreading of a set of data provided last year by Thomson Reuters’ ISI Web of Science (the data itself is from 2007, but it was disseminated by the Times Higher Education Supplement in March of 2009). The data consists of a list of the number of times different thinkers were cited in books of humanities scholarship. Here’s the list:

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) Philosophy, sociology, criticism 2,521
Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) Sociology 2,465
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) Philosophy 1,874
Albert Bandura (1925- ) Psychology 1,536
Anthony Giddens (1938- ) Sociology 1,303
Erving Goffman (1922-1982) Sociology 1,066
Jurgen Habermas (1929- ) Philosophy, sociology 1,049
Max Weber (1864-1920) Sociology 971
Judith Butler (1956- ) Philosophy 960
Bruno Latour (1947- ) Sociology, anthropology 944
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) Psychoanalysis 903
Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) Philosophy 897
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Philosophy 882
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) Philosophy 874
Noam Chomsky (1928- ) Linguistics, philosophy 812
Ulrich Beck (1944- ) Sociology 733
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) Philosophy 725
David Harvey (1935- ) Geography 723
John Rawls (1921-2002) Philosophy 708
Geert Hofstede (1928- ) Cultural studies 700
Edward W. Said (1935-2003) Criticism 694
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) Sociology 662
Roland Barthes (1915-1980) Criticism, philosophy 631
Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) Anthropology 596
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) Political theory 593
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) Criticism, philosophy 583
Henri Tajfel (1919-1982) Social psychology 583
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) Philosophy 583
Barney G. Glaser (1930- ) Sociology 577
George Lakoff (1941- ) Linguistics 577
John Dewey (1859-1952) Philosophy, psychology, education 575
Benedict Anderson (1936- ) International studies 573
Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) Philosophy 566
Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) Psychoanalysis, philosophy, criticism 526
Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996) History and philosophy of science 519
Karl Marx (1818-1883) Political theory, economics, sociology 501
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) Philosophy 501

What, one wonders, gives cause for concern here? Well, according to Mark Bauerline, the problem is this: the list reveals the intellectual moribund nature of the largest swath of humanities scholarship, the work done in literature departments. Here’s what he says in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Literature departments make up the bulk of the humanities, but when it comes to humanities scholarship, literary thinkers and theorists and critics and scholars are overlooked for leading minds in other areas—philosophy, linguistics, sociology, psychology, anthropology.

I don't know the criteria by which thinkers are placed in particular intellectual fields. I suspect it isn't particularly rigorous. Judith Butler, for example, is listed as a philosopher, but she is employed not by a philosophy department, but by the Rhetoric and Comparative Literature Departments of the University of California — Berkeley. Roland Barthes is listed as a specialist in criticism and philosophy, but his training was in classical literature, grammar, and philology, and his academic posts initially concerned lexicology and sociology. Later he held a chair in “Sémiologie Littéraire,” and his most-read writings are on literature and on popular culture. So when Bauerline lets out a plaintive cry about what he takes to be the “near-total absence of people who were trained in and inhabited literature departments,” one has to wonder just how merited that cry really is.

But to concentrate on the dodgy categorization Reuters sets up and Bauerline picks up is to miss a larger point: Bauerline makes the assumption that, because it draws on research in a wide range of fields, literary scholarship has become in some sense a backwater, a place that must look elsewhere for “guidance and inspiration” and that doesn’t originate ideas itself.

As another set of data reveals, though, it is precisely because of this drawing on interdisciplinary sources that humanities research has become of central importance to academic research as a whole.

Before we look at the data about the centrality of humanities research, and the role of interdisciplinary inspiration in creating that centrality, we should take a look at the other kind of worry about the humanities: the fear that it simply cannot justify itself in the utilitarian terms in which it is increasingly forced to justify itself.


If you want an example of the humanities being forced onto the Procrustean bed of utilitarianism, you’ll find the best example in Britain. “What?” you say in disbelief, “Britain? Didn’t U.S. News and World Report just tell us that four of the half-dozen best universities in the world are British?” Yeah. They did tell us that. And they might be right. But don’t expect that to last, at least as far as the humanities are concerned, if the British government has its way. The Higher Education Funding Councils, which are in charge of the vast majority of research funding in Britain, are well on their way to implementing a wretched piece of bureaucratic inanity called the “Research Excellence Framework,” administered by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills. Why is this wretched? Because, with all the arrogance of an administrator who thinks he’s bringing the “assessment of outcomes” to an insufficiently regulated field, the program demands the crudest, shortest-sighted kind of accountability. The REF demands, on penalty of a 25% cut in funding, that humanities departments show the impact of their research on the public and the usefulness of their research for industry. Showing the importance of scholarship for other researchers in the field, or even for scholarship in other fields, is not considered important. Rather, one must show that, say, one’s research on medieval history has, for example, been incorporated into the latest Robin Hood movie, and that it has added value (one assumes economic value) to that movie. And — get this — it is the department’s responsibility to A. bring its research to the attention of the public and of industry and B. prove that the research has had an impact on the public or industry. So not only will research have to be conducted with specific, immediately utilitarian ends in mind — departments will have to devote time, energy, and money to shilling their research, and will have to similarly expend resources tracking its immediate impact, and convincing the suits that this impact is of measurable worth. If this policy is implemented, it will be the end of a world-class system of academic humanistic study. It could bring serious research to an end, and, if it lasts for a decade, it could disrupt graduate education in the humanities to such a degree that Britain will lose its place at the forefront of the humanities for generations, perhaps forever. (If you want to grasp the full breadth and depth of the idiocy of the REF, have a look at Stefan Collini’s essay in the first issue of the Cambridge Literary Review, a shorter version of which appeared in the London Review of Books).

We in the United States are spared from the full force of this crudely utilitarian assault (not, as we shall see, to be confused with enlightened utilitarianism) not through any innate virtue on the part of our administrators. No, we are spared, to the degree that we are spared, by the decentralized nature of our academic system. As Frank Donoghue has pointed out in The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, the American academy is under assault by many of the same crudely utilitarian forces the British face. But higher education in America is composed of a loose network of fifty different state systems, several relevant federal agencies, and many private and religious institutions of size and importance. In the U.K., the Higher Education Funding Councils play a greater role than any single American force. There are times when decentralization is a disadvantage, but this is not one of them. We’ll suffer a death from a thousand blows. The British humanists are being led to a guillotine.

Those who seek to defend the humanities against the crude utilitarianism that demands quantifiable evidence of the impact of humanistic research beyond the academy have, as a rule, not tried to answer utilitarianism on its own terms. Instead, they have appealed elsewhere, to notions of intrinsic value, or of the necessity of humanities for democracy, or the like. Have a look at the letters section of any recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement and you’ll see one kind of example or another. To get an idea of the kind of argument being made, you don’t need to look any farther than the title of the book Martha Nussbaum has written (with characteristic, Joyce Carol Oates-level speed) on the topic: Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

But here’s the thing: one need not change the terms of argument. There’s a perfectly good utilitarian argument for keeping the humanities well-funded. And it comes from the same very same set of data that refutes the idea that the humanities are a backwater because they draw on other disciplines.


Anecdotal evidence for the value of humanities research outside the humanities abounds. My favorite pieces come from “The Unintended Value of the Humanities,” an article Stephen J. Mexal wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Research in history and literary studies has also shaped the world of national intelligence. When the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, predecessor of the CIA) was established, in 1942, the director, William J. Donovan staffed his agency with humanities professors. More than 50 historians alone were hired to develop the OSS's analytical methods. These scholars adopted the framework of humanities research—the footnote, the endnote, the bibliography, cross- and counter-indexing—to give order and form to the practice of intelligence analysis. That, in turn, enabled the OSS to do things like compile a list of foreign targets in order of importance on less than a day's notice.

James J. Angleton, who became chief of counterintelligence for the CIA, understood that the interpretive skills he had cultivated by studying works of literary scholarship like I.A. Richards's Practical Criticism (1929) and William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) could help create new methods of intelligence synthesis and information management. Research methods developed by humanities scholars, in sum, essentially invented the science of intelligence analysis.

Great stuff! So great, in fact, that I demand someone write a novel based on these incidents, that said novel be turned into a movie, and that the movie be available on my cable service tonight. But anecdotal evidence is not the sort of thing with which to impress utilitarian administrators seeking evidence of the instrumental value of the humanities (or, more likely, seeking the absence of such evidence, so that they’ll be able to trim their budgets in these financially challenging times).

What one really needs to placate the utilitarian mind is something by way of quantifiable data about the importance of research in the humanities. Luckily, such data is in fact available, and from a source well-respected by suits everywhere: the Los Alamos National Laboratory. A group there has rigorously tracked the online patterns of scholarly journal reading (a process subtler than the mere tracking of citations), and created a chart of which academic disciplines influence researchers in other disciplines.

One result — no doubt surprising to some — is that the humanities turn out to be tremendously influential on virtually all other fields. They are, indeed, at the center of the map of influence. The article itself provides a deeply-detailed set of explanations, but the data visualization chart makes the point pretty clearly. The white and grey marks indicate what we think of as humanistic fields:

While the chart confirms there’s no direct link between humanities research and, say, manufacturing or genetics, it does show the influence of humanistic fields on economics, which in turn influences production research and through production research influences manufacturing; and it shows the influence of the humanities on ecology, which in turn influences things connected to genetics and, say, animal behavior. Fields that do have direct, instrumental impact on industry draw from the humanities (as the researchers put it, their data should “correct the underrepresentation of the social sciences and humanities that is commonly found in citation data”). This is not to say that non-instrumentalist arguments for the humanities like Martha Nussbaum’s are wrong. Rather, the data here shows that the influence of the humanities on more immediately utilitarian fields is very real. Along with any moral or civic arguments for the humanities, we have a very strong, very clear, very demonstrable utilitarian argument.

When Stephen Mexal writes about the Los Alamos data, he points out that “the graph suggests that the humanities act as a bridge among disciplines,” which brings us to another point: the intellectual vitality of the humanities. While Mark Bauerline looked at the most-cited figures in humanities books and despaired, we can see the interdisciplinarity as a sign of life. Indeed, it would seem that the humanities function as a place where ideas from different disciplines come together, and then follow new and unexpected paths into other fields. The humanities hold a vital, even central, place in the ecosystem of ideas, and if they suffer, everything suffers.

So: if humanities research funding dries up, we may not be able to show any immediate effect on specific industries. But there will be an effect on industry, since humanistic research effects virtually all other fields, and various fields find their way to influence upon one another through the synthesizing activity of the humanities.

A predictable consequence of reduced humanities research is that some innovations will never occur, and some instrumentally useful effects will never come into being. We just won’t know which ones. We quite literally won’t know what we’re missing.


One would hope that the utilitarian, administrative minds calling on the humanities to justify themselves would be satisfied with what the Los Alamos data shows, but don’t get your hopes up. We face two nearly insurmountable problems in getting these people to recognize the truth about the instrumental value of humanistic research. Firstly, there is the matter their shortsightedness (they are, remember, crude utilitarians, not enlightened ones); and secondly, there is the matter of their historical ignorance.

The shortsightedness is most clearly manifest in the British “Research Excellence Framework,” which can be counted upon to provide examples of boneheadedness in almost any context (it really is astonishing, and makes even our own most egregious acts of administrative cretinism, like the so-called “assessment” movement, seem only mildly dipshitty in comparison). The REF, we must recall, specifies that in order to be considered valid for funding, research must be shown to have an effect beyond an influence on other research. Intervening steps, by which innovation is diffused and ideas exchanged — steps such as those shown by the Los Alamos data — are too subtle for the REF. Furthermore, the structure of the assessment exercise is such that one has to show the direct influence, not of fields of research, but of particular pieces of research. While the Los Alamos data shows that the humanities have a wide influence, it cannot show that a particular humanistic article helps produce a specific industrial effect. There may be some people involved in the REF who think this is some kind of rigor, when in fact it is something else entirely. It’s roughly analogous to a government agency demanding that environmentalists trace the death of a particular shrub to the burning of a specific discarded tire, and refusing to believe that the burning of industrial waste has an environmental impact if such specific links can’t be shown.

The historical ignorance compounds our problems. It’s as if those entrusted with the future of the university research had no notion whatsoever of the history of such research. Since the Brits are leading the way in imbecilic policy, let’s treat this matter in terms of the history of British universities since their reform in the nineteenth century. Prior to university reform, there was little research of any kind done in British universities, which were devoted to the preparation of the clergy. Industries sponsored various kinds of research outside of the universities, generally with an eye toward its immediate instrumental value (the textile industry, for example, sponsored research on chemical dyes). But, as the historian T.W. Heyck makes clear in The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England, this kind of research was, over the course of the nineteenth century, outstripped by the results of research conducted in German universities. The Germans were the first to adopt the modern research university system, in which disinterested research was conducted for its own sake by professionals unanswerable to industry, or to any norms beyond those of their professional field. As it happened, this kind of comprehensive, across-the-board, in-all-subjects, research happened to produce more powerful and far-reaching knowledge than the directly utilitarian research conducted on the British industry-sponsored model. The Victorian bourgeoisie reacted with the kind of intelligence and clear-headedness you’d expect from a class that was daily proving itself capable of global dominance, and set out to replicate the German model in Britain (hybridizing it, where necessary, with the existing model). The results were positive: once directly demonstrable instrumental ends were removed as a criteria for research funding, Britain began to emerge as the intellectual powerhouse it remains. And the results for British industry and public life were incalculably positive.

It’s the incalculable part that’s going to be a problem, I suppose. The current crowd of crude utilitarians at the helm of British higher education — and the similar crowd running our own more unwieldy, and therefore in this instance less vulnerable, system — don’t quite have the vision of the enlightened utilitarians who guided both of our countries into global intellectual and economic ascendancy. One wonders what the Chinese, whose universities are becoming better-funded in all research fields, think of the reduced vision of our leadership. Maybe someday their scholars will make a study of what became of our universities.