By Niamh Cullen
Last Friday the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences celebrated the 10th anniversary of its foundation. The council, as many postgraduate and postdoc readers will know, has been of enormous benefit to Irish universities, research and to the careers of young researchers over the last decade. As someone who has been funded by them for both my postgraduate and postdoctoral work, I am among the first to recognise this. However now that the country is broke, as we are all tired of hearing, funding for IRCHSS, along with many other state bodies, is under threat.
At Friday’s event, which included speakers drawn both from Irish academia and from further afield, everyone could agree on the intrinsic value of the humanities. No one was really there to argue the merits of funding such research, many audience members having indeed benefited from it themselves. But, at a time when such funding is under serious threat of being cut, the aim of the event was much more than self-congratulation; nor was it enough to repeat vague and reassuring platitudes about the values of humanities and social sciences research. The aim of Friday’s gathering was to find a way forward from the financial impasse – caused not just by the recession but by a more general and worrying trend to privilege science research and education over the humanities – and to persuade the wider public that such research really does matter.
Sir Adam Roberts, head of the British Academy and a guest speaker at the IRCHSS event, made the striking observation that the leaders of all three main political parties in Britain declared in their manifestos for the 2010 election that they would concentrate on education and research in the sciences – men who, themselves were all educated the humanities. One even held a PhD in history, but paradoxically none of them now seem to value their own learning. In a society where students consistently flock to study liberal arts subjects in much greater numbers than science or engineering, why is it that we, as a society, don’t seem to value then?
Perhaps it’s because many of these subjects play some part in people’s everyday lives, that we put little store by specialised education or research in these areas. We are used to reading novels in our spare time, going to the cinema at weekends, maybe watching a history documentary on television. Subjects like literature, film studies, history and so on thus seem easily understandable to the general public; there is little magic or mystery surrounding them and no specialised lab equipment needed to research them. Some might find it difficult to understand then, why a specialised education might be needed to read novels, history books and films. But it is precisely because subjects such as these are entrenched in our everyday lives, and in contemporary culture, that they are so necessary. In fact, I have a problem with the term ‘blue skies research’, because most humanities research I know of is firmly directed towards a greater understanding of our own human society. Subjects like history, sociology, media studies, geography and anthropology – to name just a few – are firmly directed towards helping us to better understand the world we live in, its languages, cultures and power structures, how it has become the way it is, and how it compares to other communities different to ours in space and time. It is precisely these reasons that make it imperative for our future law-makers, politicians, teachers and even bankers, business people and managers should appreciate the value of such and education and of humanities research.
But if this is not always appreciated, who exactly is to blame? Can we really expect people who are not steeped in this tradition, or engrossed in humanities research at a day-to-day level, to immediately recognise its intrinsic worth, and to simply accept at face value that ‘humanities research is valuable and needs state funding’? People could be forgiven for simply shrugging off such limp platitudes and moving on. It’s up to us to make them stop and listen, and instead of simply telling them that what we do is of value, to show them how.
My own research is in the history of dress in 1950s and 1960s Italy, a topic which might seem to have little to do with post-boom Irish society. However my real concerns have little to do with fashion, and are much more concerned with how identities and attitudes to the self, the body and the wider world are transformed by rapid prosperity and modernisation. Italian society was dramatically transformed by an economic boom in the late 1950s and early 1960s, resulting in an exodus from the land to the cities where better employment opportunities awaited. Gender roles changed as single women moved to the city where they were suddenly free from the pressures of family, tradition and the local parish priest and could live, dress, socialise, date and marry as they pleased. The sudden and unprecedented prosperity meant that many found themselves deciding how to spend a disposable income that they had never had before. I’ve chosen dress as a way of exploring the ways that Italians negotiated these rapid and dramatic changes in their day-to-day lives. I’ve come across many examples of young women who wanted to dress like the glamorous icons they saw in films, magazines and television programmes, or even to dress in the modern fashions that they saw in shop windows or modelled by other women in the city streets. However they were also conflicted because the Catholic Church forbade women from wearing modern fashions; good Catholic women had to dress modestly with sleeves covering the elbow and skirts well below the knee. In one popular Catholic magazine, women were even advised that since the Virgin Mary was always modestly dressed in apparitions, there was no excuse for Italian women. There were many women who wanted to be good Catholics but didn’t see how this should preclude them from taking part in the new, exciting world that was unfolding around them, and were conflicted about how to dress and behave.
Shopping and the rise of the department store was also a huge part of the Italian experience of the economic boom. Store window displays grew steadily glossier and more elaborate and new shops sprouted up all over Italy too. Images and slogans in advertisements, radio and television programmes and magazines also worked to create a new consumer consciousness in Italians. Despite all this, Italians didn’t spend much more on fashions and ready–to-wear clothes during the boom years. The reasons why not form one of my main research questions at the moment.
The tradition of making clothes was much more deeply entrenched in Italy than elsewhere at the time, and even when Italians were seeing the new ready-to-wear fashions in shop windows, they still chose to make rather than buy. Often taking their inspiration from the styles they saw in magazines, films and department stores, they made the clothes up themselves, or adapted last season’s wear to the new trends. When people had a choice, they didn’t simply run to the shops and choose the glossiest products and the latest fashions. At some level they may have wanted to, but other values and concerns held them back. They also used their own creativity and skill to craft their own versions of the latest fashions. The history of modern fashion and shopping is not one of passive consumerism; it is far more complex and interesting than this.
There are striking similarities between Italy during the boom of the 1950s and Celtic Tiger Ireland; both were predominantly Catholic, rural societies catapulted to sudden and unprecedented prosperity. Looking at the Italian experience of prosperity – the challenges of adapting to it and the changes in attitudes and habits that it wrought in everyday life – may go some way towards helping us to understand and contextualise the changes that Irish society has undergone in the last decade or so.
I’ve used my own research as just one example of the ways in which humanities research could help us to understand better the society and culture in which we live, and to formulate the right questions about it. The challenge now, is to show others outside the academy what we do and how it can be of relevance to society. Because until we do this, people can’t be blamed for dismissing such research as a barely relevant luxury in times like these. However it is just such an inquiring frame of mind – whether ultimately grounded in classics, film studies, politics or geography – that can help us to see our own society in new ways and to develop meaningful strategies for coping and moving forward. Unless we want to be sidelined, the need to find new ways to communicate our research to a wider public, and to demonstrate its relevance to the contemporary world is more urgent than ever.