The Value of Arts and Humanities Research


This week, the AHRC asked me to submit some quotes to them that spoke to the value of arts and humanities research. The request came a couple of weeks after having completed by AHRC training as a member of the Peer Review College, so I was primed for the task.

It proved a little harder than I had expected, but not because I am uncertain about the value of such research. Rather, it is because I take their value for granted that finding the answers proved difficult.  It is like asking me to justify the value of breathing. (nb. A scientist would answer by saying that it helps us to live. An arts and humanities scholar would ask ‘what is the value of living?’)

I am someone who believes that the foundation for all knowledge begins with inquiries that draw on arts and humanities approaches. My own research falls into this category, but it would be wrong to separate this pursuit of knowledge from the kind associated with other research methods. In fact, I believe that all researchers fall into this category at some point in their trajectory.

The distinctions occur when we begin to make assumptions about how the world works. An engineer will assume certain physical laws apply within certain conditions that describe our world. Yet, they began by investigating those physical laws, testing them and scrutinizing them in a way that is similar to how a philosopher may conduct an inquiry into morality.

On this basis, it is important that we are able to look beyond the artificial structures that have been created to separate disciplines of inquiry within research and consider more where they should be rejoined. This is why the value of arts and humanities research is at least similar to the value of all kinds of research.

An historian may not discover a cure for cancer, but a medical historian may help reveal why certain strategies within health care are unsuccessful or demonstrate a limited understanding of the social world of virology.

Alternatively, a media scholar may not develop a new thin film technology that will revolutionize how people consume media content, but they will help us understand how such innovations change human culture and whether it promotes the kinds of lives we want to lead.  Furthermore, a media scholar can help a television broadcaster understand whether their work has promoted certain values they care about, such as maintaining certain broadcast standards and ethical codes.

Yet, these instrumental values to research pale into insignificance when compared to the intrinsic value of arts and humanities insights, the kind that we might not fully grasp today or for some years. Here, again, work of this kind also resembles that of the experimental scientist, trying to figure out how things work, just so we understand the world a little better.

There’s no guarantee that these discoveries will improve our lives, either in helping us pursue the kinds of lives we want to lead, or helping us understand why those lives might be undesirable. However, it is guaranteed that without such insights, we’ve got no chance.

Finally, here’s what came up with, feel free to add your own…

“World-leading research across all sectors relies on arts and humanities scholars to ask different questions, forge different ways of looking at the world, and consider where humanity wants to be in the future. New knowledge never arises without some contribution from the arts and humanities, even if we need to trace those roots back to the very origin of the scientific method.”

“Insight from research in philosophy, sociology, media studies and countless other disciplines, is the glue that holds together our common history. It tells us who we are.”

“Novel research across science, technology, engineering and mathematics always relies on insights from arts and humanities scholars. Whether it is imagining what would count as artificial intelligence or what life would be like in outer space, arts and humanities researchers have always been there, helping to shape the direction of travel. The value of the arts and humanities brings must be measured both in their capacity to bring innovation to the sciences and in their ability to ask the right questions about our past, present and future.”

“Arts and humanities research shapes who we are. Discoveries reveal what matters to us, which investments are wisest, and when governments should change direction. Without insights from the arts and humanities, our society would be rudderless.

“The AHRC is a not just a research funding council, it is a beacon for arts and humanities scholarship worldwide. Its investment into all disciplines - big or small, young or old -  ensures that the UK knowledge industries stay ahead of the game. “

 Postscript: While searching for an image to accompany this post, I found the cover from the book 'We are the real-time experiment', published by FACT, in which I have a closing chapter. This is a perfect fit.