Humanities research… what’s the point?

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.

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9 Responses to Humanities research… what’s the point?

  1. Conor R says:

    I think one of the main factors here is the ‘return on investment’ which is more obvious where scientific research is concerned. Those putting money into research are presumably more likely to do so where the end result is financially profitable, or can be shown to be so. Unless the humanities can illustrate a similiar ROI then its research funding will always be less than the sciences.

  2. Siobhán Mc says:

    Its not necessarily about the ‘return on investment’ being financially profitable but rather getting the numerous returns we are already making there to the wider public. We need to start demonstrating what we are doing and why its important. We have to bridge the gap between our ivory towers and daily life. Simply things like recognition of popular publications by the funding bodies, publishing content in online commons, an emphasis on using accessible language, as well as factoring wider society into our research frameworks are vital considerations.

    Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves is ‘why am I doing this?’…is it to further my career and mark my little piece of intellectual turf or do I really want to help understand the world, and by doing so change it?!

  3. TOR says:

    The economic boom and demographic shift that transformed Italian attitudes, gender relations, religious observance etc were themselves founded on massive structural shifts in the economy as you know better than most. Quite obvious etc .

    ‘Return on investment’ is key only when endemic economic growth is seen as the only game in town among those who accept neo-liberal capitalism for what it is. This provides a strong explanation for the bias towards non-humanities research in Irish 3rd level institutes. Many understandably do not agree with this way of thinking about higher education, society and so forth, especially those outside of the new managerial culture in the senior administration of 3rd-level institute. This culture feeds off research funding, external grants, and are slaves to bibliometrics and publishing records and such like. There are other options.

    I have seen many senior university vice-presidents flying business class, with a blackberry, and a mac book air running windows XP expound on how industry must be heeded…… look where that has gotten us

    Ireland is a centre right country, with strong populist leanings, and unfortunately has much more in common with the American Republican party that it likes to admit. Elite education works in America, for the elite; same with health care there. Those outside these golden circles struggle to gain access.

    Same stands true for Ireland; ‘free fees’ is a cruel joke – access from non-traditional backgrounds has not been improved in the near 15 years of the schemes operation. Those without private health insurance have poorer outcomes than those who do. Both schemes operate broadly in favour of the privately educated middle class. Much of the funding that went into 3rd level should have been aimed at opening and widening access and improving facilities in the broadest sense. There is nothing wrong with non-research liberal arts colleges. At the same time there is no need for Regional former RTC’s to be awarding Research PhD’s in the humanities. The Germans and Nordics have very well balanced third level sectors, not without their problems admittedly.

    Personally I think the IRCHSS has done great work in some parts, and been wasteful in others. Yes, 3rd level humanities requires and deserves greater funding, but humanities research requires little more than paper, pen, book, brain, archives, subtle consideration…… not a plethora of expensive new buildings and the awarding of research grants willy-nilly across the board ….. There are a huge amount of well (and not so well) qualified Irish PhD grads now facing a long future of unemployment because they assumed academia is what one does when one gets a 2:1, and likes the lifestyle. Sadly their optimism and intellectual rigour will not bring them a lot of sustenance in the decade ahead of us.

    Some of the best public output from the humanities and social sciences in Ireland can be found on blogs; reading papers to one another in the ‘academy’ just doesn’t quite cut it.

    Siobham Mac posits: “Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves is ‘why am I doing this?’…is it to further my career and mark my little piece of intellectual turf or do I really want to help understand the world, and by doing so change it?!”

    Surely the answer is a little bit of both; those with many bows and tools will thrive; those brilliant minds who cannot live outside a University life that ‘recognises their brilliance’ have unfortunately missed the boat…

    Sometimes close and detailed study is warranted, sometimes it really isnt; echo-chambers produce a inert lobby groups and staid thinking. There are always those with specialised interests inside and outside of academia….. I have three humanities degrees; their attainment was the formative influence on my early adulthood and my ongoing critical thinking. But I didn’t have a right to funding.

    Ask questions, be bold, and be self-reliant.

    Everyone made their choices in the Celtic Tiger.

  4. Conor R says:

    Even scientific researchers aren’t satisfied with the expected model:

  5. Thanks for all the comments. I was away for a few days so only getting a chance to reply now. That Nature piece is very interesting Conor, maybe the divide between science and humanities research is not all that clear cut, if not all sciences can, or should, lead to a direct return in investment. In answer to the first point I would say that humanities research costs much less than science research anyway as no expensive lab equipment is needed – so the humanities don’t need to be funded as much as the sciences, just to be funded adequately. And in terms of a return on investment, does this return always have to be financial?

    Tor, I think you make some excellent points about how funding for humanities research and third level education was managed during the Celtic Tiger. I do think that greater thought about what PhDs and postdocs are being funded were for, and how this research could enrich Irish culture and society (and not in a narrow ‘return on investment’ sort of way) is needed, both in terms of career development for researchers and communicating the research to a wider public.

  6. Pingback: What’s the point of universities? | The Little Review

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