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How can we access the non-economic benefits of the Humanities?

  • 14 May 2024
  • By Annabel Dukes
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Annabel Dukes, Research Associate at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York.

In current discussions of the value of humanities research, two concerns come across most strongly: the extent to which humanities research creates skills, and the extent to which humanities research is financially lucrative for individuals, the government and the economy. By contrast, the potential for humanities research knowledge to contribute to society is overlooked and underexploited. And yet it is a crucial element of the value of humanities subjects.

Here are two ways humanities research knowledge can benefit our society:

The first is cultural agency. Humanities knowledge can give individuals and societies more understanding of, and hence agency over, the powerful cultural forces that affect how we understand ourselves, what it means to live a good life, and how societies should work.

The humanities are the study of the arts, history, language, religion and philosophy. They are thus the study of cultural forces that play a huge part in determining how we understand ourselves, right and wrong, and what we should aim for as individuals and as a society. The humanities allow us to understand how these forces work and how each story, picture, idea or religion might affect and influence us. Greater understanding means we can more easily reject, make use of, amend and discuss these cultural forces. In this way, the better understanding generated by humanities research increases the agency of the individual consumer and society as a whole in managing the way it is affected by these forces.

The second is rediscovery. Humanities knowledge can make the world a better place by making centuries of human effort to live well available to the present.

Not all of the ideas, practices, types of organisations, literary genres and so on from the past that could be useful now have made it into the present. Some may have evolved. Rediscovering an earlier stage of their evolution could bring to light an idea or practice that is useful today.

However, ways of life, types of stories and so on can be hard to recover, because their value was dependent on the cultural context of their time. Humanities scholars are specialists at recovering that information. They work towards making the history of human endeavour – centuries of attempts to live well – present to us and available for our use. Additionally, an awareness of ideas that proved to be bad can help us avoid repeating those mistakes.

Knowledge may well be valuable in and of itself, but these benefits are also worth realising.  For people to gain greater cultural agency en masse may require humanities knowledge to be presented in a more accessible form and in some way attached to the cultural forces on which it comments. For example, this might mean having a humanities component to news articles that adds historical, philosophical and literary context to the current event, attitudes to that current event and the way its story is told. Rediscovered good ideas need noticing and often testing – perhaps by social scientists – and developing for the modern day before being rolled out by universities, governments, businesses or local communities. The work needed to move raw research knowledge into these forms is called ‘translational’ and, in many cases, this work can only be done after the knowledge has been generated.

Both mission-led research (seeking knowledge on a specific, known problem) and blue-sky research (curiosity-led research) can be translated. Mission-led research may have a greater chance of yielding knowledge relevant to a specific, known issue. Blue-sky research may be more likely to shed light on opportunities we did not know we had or issues we were suffering from unknowingly, or else generate surprise solutions that were completely out of our sphere of imagined possibility. Blue-sky research, in its broadness, may also do better at preparing us for the unimagined issues and opportunities of the future. Both blue-sky and mission-led research, however, yield new knowledge that can be translated to gain the benefits outlined above.

Understanding the public benefits of humanities knowledge may change how we think about supporting humanities research. Two stages are needed: knowledge discovery and translational. For PhD funding, this might mean a traditional blue-sky research phase followed by a translational phase where extensive collaboration may need to be supported. This two-step model allows the best of many worlds: the protection of rigorous and independent scholarship, the generation of a wide variety of new knowledge, outside-the-box improvements to society being devised and realised, the public receiving the benefit of the generated research knowledge, and – no doubt – humanities PhD students gaining a variety of skills.

As is true in every discipline, not every single piece of research will necessarily yield translatable findings that generate large societal benefits. However, since being on the lookout for knowledge that could be translated into significant public benefit, I have seen it in the vast majority of humanities research I encounter: for example, from thirteenth-century Middle English poetry, more thought-provoking forms of communication which seem highly appropriate for social media. Seeing this potential requires an open mind that can see connections between what at first appear to be vastly different domains.

Realising that potential at times means being willing to take a chance on daring and innovative ideas where success cannot be guaranteed. It also means being open to a long translational phase: as in the medical sciences, big change often takes time and money. It means believing that a reasonable proportion of people are interested in the big presumptions that underpin their society and their own understanding of life, when the discussion is relevant and accessible to them. Yet treating humanities research in this way – being alert for its translatable findings and then realising that potential – means that it can make us more considered and empowered navigators and amenders of the huge network of ideas and systems that underlie much of our internal and external world. If we measure the success of our society not only by monetary wealth, but also by the extent to which people’s lives are fulfilling and by how well we live together, then it is worth striving for these benefits.

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1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    All well and good.

    Privately funded, including self funded, research and development of ideas in the Humanities is a welome activity for all those interested, and long may it prosper and widen.

    The same goes for those more interested in music and sport, games and pastimes. May these people too, grow in joy and happiness.

    However, when it comes to publicly funded support, it is very difficult and probably, impossible to create a structure for funding which will be welcomed by all.

    I am not sure how we could measure and fund “the extent to which people’s lives are fulfilling and by how well we live together, “

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