January 7, 2011

Nature for the Humanities? No Thank You! Humanities American? Yes Please!

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:30 am by mariawolters

A couple of days ago, Alice Bell mentioned a post by Christopher Pressler, Nature for the Humanities, on Twitter. I read the blog and Alice’s response with great interest, since my own research and personal interests span the sciences and the humanities.

What would a “Nature for the Humanities” be like? A behemoth of a publication, majestic in its impact, expansive in the size of the collaborations it fosters, and mighty in its outreach towards the public. Funders shall fall to their knees in awe before the glamour publications contained therein.


First of all, I hate to break the news, but not all sciences work like the disciplines that populate Nature and Science. In computer science, one of my fields, journals play a relatively subordinate role, impact factors are typically between 1 and 3, and many of the really groundbreaking publications are reserved for extremely competitive conferences with an acceptance rate of 20-25%. A core journal in one of my other fields, phonetics, the venerable and highly respected Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, has an impact factor which makes it unattractive to many medical researchers.

This colourful variety has its drawbacks: papers aren’t properly indexed, subject-specific literature search engines like CiteSeer or the ACM Digital Library are quite limited in their functionality. Computer Science is one field where Google Scholar has made a real difference in literature searching, leading hopefully to fewer reinvented wheels.

And despite a lack of traditional glamour publications, we computer scientists get our funding, we get big grants, and we talk to people about what we are doing.

But this is not about computer science, it’s about the Humanities. Well, let’s see what Christopher highlights as some of the major differences between the humanities and the sciences:

– Less formal engagement with the public
– Vastly differing research practices and disciplines
– Fewer large grant-funding opportunities
– Fewer collaborative research communities
– Prestige exists primarily in monographs rather than journals

He then outlines the following desirable practices for a Nature for the Humanities:

– Ensuring the humanities matter (to agencies and the public)
– Agreeing that subject differences are a strength
– Promoting collaborative research projects and practices

I can see at least two massive holes in Christopher’s argument. The first regards engagement with the public. Now, this observation might be biased because I am used to German media with a wide variety of weekly newspapers and magazines that give a voice to psychologists, sociologists, and historians. I have spent countless hours reading reviews of the latest historical treatises – many of these were books that were used to obtain postdoctoral qualifications at German universities. Nevertheless, these monographs (which could be eBooks in the age of Kindle) were designed to be accessible to everybody with an interest in history. Often, books by major theoreticians and philosophers in history, sociology, and philosophy were extensively discussed in the full glare of the public view.

Sociology, history, philosophy, and literature are fascinating – they deal with phenomena that are familiar to many people, they address pressing issues, and articles in magazines and newspapers (and, for the Web 2.0 fiends among you, blogs) can and will find their audience. You don’t even have to manufacture an impact culture-friendly motivation of cross-cultural exchange – people are fascinated by people, period. If we live in a culture where humanities don’t appear to matter, there are deeper cultural issues involved which a journal modelled on a particular style of academic communication won’t solve.

What might motivate Christopher’s assessment – and it would need an anthropologist or an expert in comparative media studies to assess this properly – is the different media landscape in Britain. In France, the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur not only put the highly influential Pierre Bourdieu (sociologist, innovative theorist) on its cover when he died, but devoted pages upon pages to a retrospective of his life and work. I can’t see that happen in Britain. The closest you would get to that here is probably a cover on the tired science versus religion debate with a fierce Dawkins or a sage Grayling.

(Again, I could be wrong, and I’d love to be corrected if I am. The British press might be more open to discussion of theoretical sociology than I have observed, or the German and French press might no longer be the comparative hotbeds of theory they used to be. I am well aware of the tits and blondes that pervade the Italian press, thank you very much. But oh look, the semioticist and historian of culture Umberto Eco has a regular column in L’Espresso where he talks about culture in its manifold forms.)

The second problem is with Christopher’s insistence on collaborative research. While collaborative work is indeed essential when working on large projects such as dictionaries, surveys, or inventories of artists’ works, the humanities have plenty to offer for the lone theorist ranger. But does that mean there is no collaboration? No – what you find instead is a strong spirit of discussion and debate. Collaboration does not happen in the form of co-authored papers, but in the form of a web of articles that, over time, yield new, improved theories and concepts. The literature is awash with elaborations, explanations, extensions, criticisms, and rebukes of the work of these theorists. Influential writers will even use – gasp! – textbooks to synthesise their thinking and influence generations of scholars.

To conclude, while there are some aspects of research in the humanities for which Christopher’s concept of a Nature-like journal might work, there are plenty of others for which it might be downright detrimental, in particular basic research, which often involves theoretical edifices and elaborate arguments that cannot be compressed into four pages plus supplemental material. Not to mention the substantial problems involved in forcing all kinds of research endeavours into the Procrustean bed of biomedical publication structures, but that’s another post.

Now, if you’d proposed a “Humanities American” in addition to “Scientific American”, that would have been another matter entirely.

(In this context, it might also be instructive to look at Melody’s discussion of the difficulties Nature and Science have with processing and reviewing papers on language.)


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