The methodology of the humanities (or lack thereof)

chemistry labRight now I’m in the middle of drafting an article to submit to a non-disclosed, science-oriented journal. And, in good researcher fashion, I did a little background research to try and determine how articles are typically structured in this journal. What struck me is the detailed discussion of methodology that is omnipresent – far more than I am used to seeing in more humanities/rhetorical publications.

And, in the middle of this I came across a link to Harlot of the Arts, a relatively new online humanities publication focusing on rhetoric. Curiosity got the better of me and I started browsing the site’s latest issue (at the time it was issue #4). And I noticed that in none of the articles was there a single mention of methodology. My impression is that Harlot is going more for multimedia presentation of interesting ideas than heavy duty research, but I still found the lack of methodological discussion noteworthy.

Author’s Edit: Harlot of the Arts is perhaps mis-characterized here. It intends to be a multi-disciplinary venue with content written by academics and non-academics. It’s not necessarily a venue for Humanities folk.

old bookThat’s because the humanities are famous for not really including methodological discussions in their work. Harlot is by no means unique in this. There’s some pretty good arguments as to why science is so methodologically oriented and humanities is not. The results of scientific experiments can be fundamentally flawed and completely negated by a bad research method. Humanities research, which is more oriented toward someone’s understanding of a common occurrence or the in-depth analysis of an individual text, has findings that are harder to discredit if one disagrees with the way in which the data were collected.

But this distinction becomes important for me because of what I perceive as a blending of the two fields. Scientific research seems to be moving more and more into realms that were once considered solely for the humanities. And the humanities seem to be expanding into analyzing areas that were once in the domain of scientists and social scientists. Take, for instance, social media communication. Both the social sciences and the humanities claim domain over this realm. And they’ve both got a case as to why their field has something to contribute to a discussion of communication/interaction through social media.

But if they want their work to be accepted by the other side, I think there needs to be a better recognition of the other side’s attitude toward methodology. Humanities researchers need to recognize that scientists/social scientists will not take their work seriously if they continue to omit any discussion of where they got their data. Explaining why a particular communication was chosen for analysis or why one individual’s work should be assumed to be representative of the norm is tantamount.

And social scientists need to recognize that their (obsessive?) focus on methodology won’t be all that well received by the humanities folk. Papers in which 1/3 of the content is devoted to an explanation of the data’s validity just isn’t necessary for humanities readers. They’ll be passing judgment on the validity of the analysis and not so much on the source of the data.

If the sciences and the humanities really are starting to overlap more these days (my anecdotal impression is yes – unfortunately I don’t have a methodology to back that assertion up), then they’ll be reading each other’s work more and more. And they’ll be collaborating on that work more and more too. Some understanding of what the other side is looking for, methodologically, is probably a good thing, no?

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2 Responses to The methodology of the humanities (or lack thereof)

  1. Timothy says:

    Very smart article and quite relevant to the field of humanities at a time when the foundation of publication venues is shifting.

    One point worth mentioning, though, is that this post positions Harlot as a journal of the humanities–instead of just a digital journal, ultimately independent of institutional affiliation. This project is quite consciously attempting to transcend the limitations the academy places on rhetorical inquiry by creating a venue that welcomes any and all. The issue referenced (#4), for instance, includes pieces by a Medical Doctor and Law Enforcement Officer; they are decidedly not humanities researchers, so I wonder if it’s fair to hold them to the same standards set by and for humanities researchers.

    But thanks for the post — very thought-provoking!

    • Ryan Hoover says:

      Thanks for the clarification. I guess I missed that when I was browsing the site. Harlot struck me as a quality venue in a humanities-styled format. Hence, I made the assumption that it was based on humanities principles. I’ll clarify.

      Does the point still remain that humanities researchers don’t describe their methodology? Is it just that my example is bad? Or am I mis-characterizing humanities here?

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