Thursday, 2 February 2012

Why the social sciences are valuable to the humanities


I've been reflecting today on the value of the social sciences to the humanities. I'm currently revising an article about consumerism, representation and the citizen in the National Health Service from the 1950s to the 1970s. And many of the revisions the journal has asked for involve programming, specifying and sharpening my terms of reference. It's all very well having great material from the archives: but what does it mean? What cases does it speak to? How might these revelations be useful in the overall field - or even in terms of contemporary policy? The reader should be told.

They're right. No-one would try to write about nations and states today without including work by the great Palestinian scholar Edward Said, or by the that intellectual powerhouse Benedict Anderson (above), whose Imagined Communities told us so much about the 'invention of tradition', about national myths as new stories told about ourselves, and about the trappings of nationhood invented in the late nineteenth century. I couldn't have written my latest book without the concepts latent in (and, er, borrowed from) complexity theory, chaos theory or concepts of 'governance' and 'overload' - let alone the idea of the public sphere, critical to another of my books.

This on the day when it becomes clear that the arts and humanities overall have taken a kicking in student numbers under our new loan-and-payback Higher Education system. Why, after all, take apparently empirical subjects when all the talk is of 'skills', 'earnings', monetary 'value' and 'efficiency'? Well, I suppose the answer is that all this holds the other way around: that without new revelations hewn from the archives, without 'what actually happened' in Ranke's famous formulation, there's not much raw material to work with either.

So why do we do it? Why do we lapse too far into the empirical, the piecemeal, the archaic, the local, the merely chronological? Because it's interesting; because we get fascinated by the scraps we find in archives across Britain and the world; because we're so close to the 'action' (if we can count it as 'action'!); and because we want to showcase all our hard work.

Still, without all the wider ideas we breathe all the time, we'd be floating, adrift in a sea of 'facts' without interpretation and without reference points. I must remember this the next time I tell students that they are being 'too theoretical'. Perhaps they're right, and I'm wrong...

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