A group of people walking across the street.

Building a world for humans, with humans

Not all research is created equal. Or so some ministers in government would have you believe.

The revelation in 2018 that then federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham vetoed over $4 million worth of Humanities research grants awarded by the Australian Research Council brought outrage amongst the academic community.

The government minister stood firm, defending the decision to dump 11 Humanities-based research grants as “projects that Australians would rightly view as being entirely the wrong priorities.”

A set of coloured glass windows with figures reading books.

The decision pointed to a perceived value discrepancy between STEM research (that is science, technology, engineering and maths) and research in the Humanities (art, philosophy, history, culture and society).

While research in the Humanities is usually thought to have intrinsic value, knowledge that is said to be produced for its own sake is often overlooked by government and public alike. In our transaction economy, intrinsic good does not trade very highly.

Adding value

Dr Sean Bowden, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University, argues for the need to reconsider how we evaluate research into the Humanities.

A book wooden bookshelf filled with a wide array of books.

“There are many values that sit alongside intrinsic value that don’t receive a lot of attention. In particular, we ought to consider the social, cultural and even economic value of Humanities research,” he says, even if these more tangible contributions can be difficult to quantify.

Hand-in-hand with technology

With the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the pace of technological development has reached breakneck speed. Reflecting on how humans will engage with that technology hasn’t always kept up.

Facebook’s recent changes to combat the source of ‘fake news’ point to an example of tech companies trying to re-insert control after the tech-horse has bolted.

A young man holding up a placard amidst a crowd that says "I wish this were fake news."

“It’s clear,” says Dr Bowden, “that the design of new, marketable technologies requires input from Humanities scholars who are well placed to understand the human dimensions and impacts of these technologies, and to articulate the ethical frameworks that should guide their functioning and use.”

In her consultation paper ‘Future Humanities Workforce’, Prof Joy Damousi (current President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and Professor of History at the University of Melbourne) highlights the link between economic productivity, innovation and the Humanities.

“Research and training in humanities disciplines builds capacity to articulate social and cultural understanding, enables effective international engagement, and contributes to economic productivity and innovation.”

At the heart of it, Dr Bowden says, research in the Humanities should work hand-in-hand with technological innovation to decode and evaluate its human application, that is, its lived, social, cultural and ethical dimensions.

Places and faces

This human-centred approach to our contemporary world can also be seen in the work of Dr Emily Potter (Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies and Associate Head of School in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin), who looks at physical spaces and the place-making that occurs within them.

She notes that often the dominant cultural understanding of a location informs the public’s relationship to that place, creating a synthesised mono-memory.

This desire to flatten the narrative to a single, dominant voice comes at the expense of a plurality of voices, which in turn has significant consequences for the diversity, inclusivity and sustainability of our lived environments.

A cinema sign that says "This place matters."

Dr Potter looks to challenge our understanding of environmental design and asks us to reconceptualise these spaces as locations “in which stories matter as much as tools and technologies; …[advancing] a mode of place-making that is poetically guided.”

“This poetic understanding of place does not deny a place’s materiality,” she says, “Instead, it registers the legends, names, narratives and built forms that accrue in a place as poetic technologies and materialize how and where we live, and give shape to what we see and know.”

Building on a monochromatic physical space, poetic understanding of place offers a high definition image, with each layer of voice and story bringing colour and depth so the full picture of the lived environment is revealed.

Arguably, only a researcher in the Humanities is in a position to identify and clarify such a poetic understanding of place, and offer it to our consideration as a way of intervening in and shaping our shared world.

Politicians take note

But research in the Humanities does not just offer up a human-shaped mirror to developments in technology and the lived environment. Dr Bowden also highlights the value research in the Humanities can have on informing government policy-making.

Professor David Lowe, Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Contemporary History at Deakin, champions the integral relationship applied history plays in the political sphere.

The relationship between politics and history is twofold, says Professor Lowe. History provides politicians with an established platform to communicate policies, giving them more gravitas than they might otherwise muster.

A library with bookshelves filled with classic texts.

“History remains a powerful source of legitimacy and authority for politicians seeking to persuade listeners… Historians therefore have a role to play in building greater awareness of suggestive analogies for policy-makers, and encouraging discerning judgement as to which are the most suitable to circumstances.”

On the flip side, the dismissal, rejection or concealment of historical precedent is often needed for politicians to write a fresh narrative, unencumbered by the lessons of the past.

Lowe references former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s narrative on the 2003 ‘war on terror’ where Blair claimed that there were no examples of historical guidance to navigate this new territory the world was about to plunge into.

Calling out this historical amnesia and alerting us to its dangers, Lowe notes that “by removing recourse to precedents, lessons and judgements about morality and effectiveness of government actions, he was trying to carve out a space more free of public scrutiny.”

Change in the conversation

Perhaps the challenge, then, is for Humanities researchers (and their STEM counterparts) to take control of the conversation around research and highlight the need for synergy over segregation.

Professor John Fischetti of the University of Newcastle explained recently in an article on the future of universities, “Most knowledge does not reside in separate disciplines as we have typically chunked them in universities. Instead, experiences should cross the dotted lines of discipline and expertise, mixing the arts and sciences in truly human ways.”

A lecture theatre full of students with their hands up.

The value of Humanities research might often be difficult to pin down. But this is only because it is as multi-dimensional as the human world in which we live.

Research in the Humanities should not be silenced, and we devalue it at our own peril.

Sara Ryan
Staff writer

Join Dr Bowden and panellists on 31 July 2019 in Melbourne as they argue for the value of research in the Humanities in economic, social, cultural and other terms.

Are you a Deakin academic with a passion to share your research? You may be interested in writing for us.

Find out more