Saturday, March 3, 2012

Science and Method in the Humanities

I spent last Friday at a conference on "Science and Method in the Humanities," sponsored by the Rutgers British Studies Center, among others. Hats off to the organizers for putting on a stimulating, well-run event – lots to think about for scholars of all sorts. 


As Carin Berkowitz pointed out, the day's conversation seemed to proceed at two levels. On the one hand, there were epistemic questions about how various methods fit together; on the other, there was disciplinary anxiety about the current state of the academy.  

Of course, we all know that these two sorts of questions are inextricably linked (cf. "Hobbes was right."). But how? First, as Barbara Herrnstein Smith, disciplines coalesce not around methods but around questions, to which different methods are suited. For her, this is the basis for the plurality of available methods and the continued persistence of "the humanities." 


Second, and more to the point, Peter Dear made clear that the idea of a unified "scientific method"(as distinct from a method that was "scientific") emerged in the nineteenth-century as part of a project of demarcating "science" from other pursuits. Elucidating a unified "method" produced a guarantor of knowledge that could be put to use in the social world. 


It's an open question whether "method-talk" (as a sort of "Holy Ghost" unifying the various sciences) can be broken down into the separate spheres of guiding practices within a science and enabling certain forms of distinction between science and something else (the public, for example, or "the Humanities"), the answer to which depends on what you want to know. 

The "Digital Humanities" are (or were treated to be) a case in point: in one sense, they borrow the methods of "science" to answer questions from the "humanities"; in another, the two–methods and questions–bleed into one another. What is the politics behind using new methods for old questions, and what can this tell us about ongoing shifts in the epistemic virtues of the modern academy?

1 comment:

  1. So did the "method-talk" have consequences for scientific practice? That is, even if it was primarily a means of social organization--setting the right sort of knowledge producers apart from the wrong sort--I imagine that new ideas of method could have unintended disciplining effects.

    Or, I could also imagine a world in which the whole world gets taught that there is a "scientific method" while the scientists in their museums and laboratories go doing essentially the same things they did before.

    Did Dear point in this direction at all?

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