The Oxford Protocol : Modules

Sciences/Humanities

Science/Humanities

The diagram above represents a set of stereotypes of the ways in which research in the sciences and the humanities are seen to differ.  On the one hand, this list characterises genuine distinctions in how these broad disciplinary areas have developed within the academy, especially in the last few decades.  On the other hand, this blunt dichotomy disregards real affinities among the sciences and humanities and disguises differences within each of their domains.  Does a theoretical bio-physicist work more like an engineer or a philosopher?  Does a linguist using data analysis to understand language formation work more like a literary scholar or a neuroscientist?

In the more problematic policy contexts, such dichotomies are subject to value judgements that see the sciences as significant to society and the humanities as a luxury.  Curing cancer is pitted against what has disparagingly been termed the ‘hobby culture’ of humanities in numerous press diatribes, such as the one reproduced below.

hobbyculture

The ‘two cultures’ arguments have raged for decades, indeed centuries, 1 but they have taken on new and rather poisonous dimensions since the financial crisis of 2007 has put increasing pressure on national research budgets.

Furthermore, the growing recognition that global challenges—the ‘wicked’ problems of our time—require multidisciplinary engagement has not yet fully embraced the humanities, which are still seen somehow as the public engagement arm of big science.  Scientists have learned to work across their own disciplinary boundaries; social scientists have increasingly begun to work with scientists, especially in domains such as health.  We have still not found a really effective method of enabling humanities researchers to interact with their fellow scientists and social scientists in the same way.

Standing back from these policy contexts, one might ask whether we can rediscover some of the epistemological affinities among disciplines that give us common cause.  If you think of the Enlightenment as a time when the Scientific Revolution met the Industrial Revolution within a culture of growing literacy and philosophical engagement, we may also find models of thinking and lively intellectual exchange there that will assist.

However, there are also warnings.  Wright of Derby’s visualisation of an alchemist discovering the philosopher’s stone, offers a metaphor that sees the proto-chemist as a lone scholar who has taken leave of his senses.

alchemist

Hogarth’s success in lobbying for the legislation of the engraver’s copyright act was resented by many scientists whose patents had less protection from copying than art works.

hogarth

Where does all of this leave us in an age when open access of research and data (rather than copyright) is becoming a major policy issue, while patents are seen as a proxy indicator of economic impact?

Every discipline has its habits, its methodologies, its history, its modes of operation, its forms of dissemination, its content or data, its technical jargon.  We can work from the top down, where we address challenges together, or the bottom up, where we seek partners across disciplinary boundaries who are focusing on the same objects or the same content.  These days, we also gain value from understanding the perspective of the users of research, including the public.  The first step must be dialogue, exchange, translation, recognition of difference and mutual understanding.  I would propose that we ask what a 21st-century Lunar Society might look like.

Notes:

  1. Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities, OUP, 2013.

Oxford Group, January 2014: Academy Turned Inside Out | Apotheosis | Core Technology | The Dedisciplinary Environment | Explanatory/Descriptive? | Fiction | Good Explanation | Mediation | Platform | Polemic | Portal | Problems | Protocol | Protocol (II) | Search*/Know* | Sciences/Humanities | Stuckness | Threshold Effects | Topology | Touchstones