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Social Dimensions of Humanities Research

Published on
13 Apr 2011

Eleven years after Brown & Duguid (2000) released their Social Life of Information, we find that even in humanities, a field that typically conjures an image of a lone scholar toiling in dusty archives, the process of research is very much a social endeavor. Last week, in collaboration with the Research Information Network, we released Reinventing Research? Information Practices in the Humanities, a study of 54 humanities scholars across disciplines such as history, English, and philosophy in 25 institutions in 5 countries. Through interviews, focus group discussions, and web history logs, we examined their use of information, dissemination practices, and collaborative activities.

The scholars we interviewed described the tradition of collaboration within their respective disciplines. Unlike the sciences, in which research frequently involves large teams and multi-authored articles, collaboration in the humanities is more nuanced. One of our case studies, The Digital Republic of Letters, traces correspondences during the Enlightenment. These correspondences include letters from Descartes, Van Gogh, and Grotius, among others. The centuries-old collaboration methods examined by this group underlie current practice. Then, letters sent back and forth reported, unpacked, tested, and developed theories. Sound familiar? The description could easily be applied to e-mail, seminars, conference presentations, or hallway discussions. Research then and now begins with the sharing of ideas.

While not overtly collaborative in the scientific practice of the term, humanities scholars engage in research that “is done in conversation.” In addition to the above examples, scholars engage this conversation through their work in archives, when they prepare materials to be digitally accessed, when they report on rare materials, making previously obscure knowledge available to a larger public. They support each other in their work by talking through ideas and texts, presenting preliminary ideas that later become papers or monographs. Primarily, their research practices are source-intensive, but the sense-making process is very much accomplished in community.