Do the humanities matter?


Picture of coin with Janus double profile.

Double profile of Janus

Do the humanities really matter? Yes, they may be interesting, but aren’t they just a little bit self-indulgent? Let’s face it… can you really make a difference researching literature, art or history?

Such sceptical refrains are familiar to anyone involved in the humanities. To put forth history’s case, the world’s oldest publishing house, Cambridge University Press, has recently launched its first open access ebook, The History Manifesto, by David Armitage and Jo Guldi. It’s deliberately open access to match the spirit of their thesis: that historians must actively engage policy-makers and the wider public with their work.

But Armitage and Guldi argue that historians first need to change their approach to research. By eschewing narrow specialisation and applying a long-term view (the longue-durée) historians will be free to reclaim their influence with policy-makers and decision-takers.

Short-termism prevails in the current political climate. Debates run parallel to election cycles and, as Armitage and Guldi emphasise, economists who target their work to short-term current affairs seduce policy-makers with their easily digestible, but often spurious, charts and graphs.

Scientists, on the other hand, have been less successful selling long-term, man-made, climate change. Armitage and Guldi highlight the fact that when scientists attempt to describe past climate patterns, they are dealing in historical reasoning. And, as scientists grapple with how to sell their findings, it’s historians who actually have the ability to frame a persuasive climate change narrative.

But how can historians make the longue-durée palatable?

By emulating economists’ easy to digest infographics, Armitage and Guldi note that, due to mass digitisation, historical data is now big data. By embracing the digital humanities and utilising new technologies that handle and process data, a field in which our own INS eResearch support specialists excel, historians can engage policy-makers with quantified narratives on the issues of the day.

The History Manifesto is a rallying cry to historians. You can influence public life. You can make a difference. But, although targeted at historians, its salient point – that researchers need to engage the public with accessible answers to the big policy questions – is applicable to all aspiring to research in the humanities.

If this post has piqued your interest, book a consultation with the Humanities Librarian, Ms Colette Smith-Strong, to discuss strategies to maximise the visibility and impact of your research. The Arts, Education and Law team of librarians is available to help.

Picture from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Janus_coin.png