We can do better in providing a clear conception of projects in the humanities

By Professor Barry C Smith

It is often said by funders keen to encourage more successful applications from the humanities that they wish to see bold and ambitious proposals. Too often in funding rounds where researchers from any discipline can apply, the humanities proposals look less ambitious in scale than those from technology, medicine or the sciences. At the same time, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) are encouraging interdisciplinary research and would like to fund cross-council bids led by the arts and humanities. So how do we achieve this?

A cursory look at the mission statements for individual research councils shows part of the problem. Engineering and Physical Science’s Research Council’s (ESPRC) goals include delivering net zero and longer-life batteries, Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBRC)aims to provide people with clean drinking water and healthy food, while the Medical Research Council (MRC) tackles cancer and Alzheimer’s disease: all goals that resonate with the public. By contrast, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), which makes use of cutting-edge technologies and shows plenty of innovation, often speaks of providing ‘outstanding research across the whole range of arts and humanities’. Outsiders may struggle to understand at this stage what humanities is and what we do.

When it comes to funding, medics often say, “You always tell us you do things differently in the humanities but help us to understand what it is that you do.” To avoid the misunderstanding that we create plays, poetry or music, we often give a catalogue of disciplines, including Archaeology, Classics, English, History, Philosophy and more recently, Digital Humanities. But they want to know what the humanities is; and it is certainly true, even for the general public, that humanities is not as unified in their minds as the equally diverse worlds of the arts or sciences. 

We can do better in providing a clear conception of projects in the humanities, for the purposes of visibility to other research councils, and as a way to build support for, and interest in, the humanities among the public. Here, I want to suggest a way of categorising (some of our) projects under the banner of 4E Humanities: Experimental Humanities, Environmental Humanities, Experiential Humanities and Ethical Humanities. (There are other categorisations, no doubt, but this is a start.)

Environmental Humanities and Ethical Humanities are self-explanatory. The issues of climate-change, forced migration, food sustainability and resource inequalities are all too clear and we need to understand the role that politics, culture and conflict plays in tackling these issues. There is a growing awareness in society that we need to address ethical concerns about the environment, biotech, AI and social media, and for this we need a generation of humanities researchers apprised of the technology and able to bring ethical and political considerations to bear on it.

Experimental Humanities is a new name but encompasses much that has already been taking place, whether in reconstructing materials and methods to learn about techniques of printing or production in the past, or by inviting people to participate in experiments where they can learn something about themselves or engage differently with art works.  

Finally, human experience is at the heart of so much of the humanities, which covers everything in the human world. History and literature are concerned with the stories of people’s lives, their lived experience, and this matters in so many disciplines that we can think of as contributing to the Experiential Humanities.

Among other things, these slightly artificial categories enable neighbouring disciplines, and other research councils, to appreciate what we do distinctively that may be highly relevant to what they do, as well as bringing out topics the public cares about. So in this series of Talking Humanities, we have asked four thinkers to lay out their vision for each of the 4E Humanities.