The Greater Humanities

Jim Clifford as a part of a roundtable on “The University We Are For” presented this paper calling for substantially more unified “Greater Humanities”. You can see video of Clifford delivering his paper too. Click the timeline to start at 71 minutes in. Expect to wait a minute while the video loads to the cued spot. The talk is fifteen minutes in length.

The point of this conference was to set aside practicality in reimagining the university. Think big. Think utopian. What do we want the university to be? If you could have it all, what would you make the university into?

Clifford accepts this “license to want” as an opportunity to resist being put on the defensive in the never ending contest for scarce resources. Instead he aims to actively combat what he calls “belittlement” or the shrinking of the liberal arts to make way for the practical courses of study that lead to jobs or produce goods for sale on the market.

He imagines a coalition, the Greater Humanities, which he sees as “a deeply rooted configuration of knowledge practices.”

Here’s another sketch map of the Greater Humanities—by disciplines this time, most of them internally divided.
* Literature (a vast archipelago)
* History also very widely extended now (including Art History and Visual Culture, and why not? Archaeology…)
* Philosophy (still divided along “two cultures” lines– hard/soft, analytic/continental. But there are signs of movement along this front?)
* Linguistics (also a divided field: do we need to chose between the traditions of Sapir and Chomsky?)
* All the “studies” inter-disciplines: American Studies, Women’s/Feminist Studies, Ethnic Studies, Cultural Studies, Science and Technology Studies… etc.
* Socio-Cultural Anthropology (my own second home) and Historical Archaeology, Human Geography, Qualitative Sociology, some of Environmental Studies…
* Film, Digital Media, Communications.
* Important sectors of Politics, Economics, and Psychology.
* And what we might call the theoretical “Arts”—including Theatre Arts and performance Studies.
This leaves out a good deal, I’m sure. But the map is, I trust, big enough to make my basic, and rather crude, point.

Drawing these disciplines together is a habitus shared across the humanities, some of the social sciences, some of the arts, and with allies in the natural sciences. Clifford identifies this connective tissue as four “knowledge practices”.

The Greater Humanities are 1) interpretive 2) realist 3) historical 4) ethico-political.

1. Interpretive. (read textual and philological, in broad, more than just literary, senses) Interpretive, not positivist. Interested in rigorous, but always provisional and perspectival, explanations, not replicable causes.
2. Realist. (not “objective”) Realism in the Greater Humanities is concerned with the narrative, figural, and empirical construction of textured, non-reductive, multi-scaled representations of social, cultural, and psychological phenomena. These are serious representations that are necessarily partial and contestable…
3. Historical. (not evolutionist, at least not in a teleological sense) The knowledge is historical because it recognizes the simultaneously temporal and spatial (the chronotopic) specificity of…well… everything. It’s evolutionist perhaps in a Darwinian sense: a rigorous grappling with developing temporalities, everything constantly made and unmade in determinate, material situations, but developing without any guaranteed direction.
4. Ethico-political. (never stopping with an instrumental or technical bottom line…) It’s never enough to say that something must be true because it works or because people want or need it. Where does it work? For whom? At whose expense? Contextualizing always involves constitutive “outsides” that come back to haunt us– effects of power.

As anybody who has ever struggled to find funding can attest the deepest pockets are to be found in the so-called STEM fields. Clifford contemplates how to respond and finds an answer, of sorts, in the foundational thinkers of social science: Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Freud, and others. They were, “non-reductive, imaginative, yes “humanistic” thinkers, concerned with the unconscious, with indeterminate behaviors and complex, over-determined motivations.”

The revolt against positivism wasn’t then (and isn’t now) a revolt against science. But against a narrow, instrumentalist vision of science, a vision that fetishizes quantifiable, auditable outcomes—immediately useful (to whom?) and marketable (for whose benefit?)

It’s hard to look at the contemporary scene and imagine the university as we know it will remain for much longer. For those of us looking to make our livings as employees at institutions of higher learning the future looks very uncertain. And it does seem that anthropology’s share of the pie is shrinking. You can see it now on the horizon, something is coming for our discipline and the institutions that house it.

What is it? And, if we had a choice, what would we even want it to be?

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

23 thoughts on “The Greater Humanities

  1. Matt, thanks for posting this. I will be very interested to see how our friends here respond to it. Intellectually, I think Clifford is on to something and glad that his vision is not marred by going the anti-science route. My political intuition says that this will be a hard row to hoe.

  2. I also think this is a hard sell politically. Also, these Greater Humanities would undermine the status quo, by exposing, historicizing and ‘making public’ current conditions and the power relations behind them. Which is a good thing, but maybe not something suitable for funding applications?

    Having said that, I find Clifford’s vision quite in harmony with the way I go about my research as a graduate student. Probably one needs to incorporate a significant portion of his map of the Greater Humanities to write a meaningful work. But I also find that just browsing the literature of various disciplines has its limits. There is some need for a community in which these various strands can be brought together. In this regard I find it telling that Clifford mentions Hughes. How many times have these issues been discussed, without much effect? Hence there would be a need to think it through in a more organizational sense and to articulate the public service the Greater Humanities could perform (in a broad sense). Clifford’s idea to make use of the departmental reconfigurations could be an excellent start for this.

    Sorry if I’m repeating the obvious here. I do feel that this is one of the few ideas around that can prevent research along these lines to sink slowly into oblivion.

  3. I have an honorary chair at the University Of Pretoria. Faculties of Humanities in South Africa are much broaders than elsewhere in my experience and this is one of the broadest. It has 18 departments: African languages, Afrikaans, Ancient languages, Anthropology and archaeology, Biokinetics, sport and leisure sciences, Communication pathology, Drama, English, Historical and hertitage studies, Journalism, Modern European languages, Music, Philosophy, Political sciences, Psychology, Social Work and criminology, Sociology, Visual arts.

    1. There is huge variation across and within national boundaries, so it would be good to be explicit about where you are starting from and what comparative examples might inform where you want to go.

    2. While the desire to embrace a wider notion of science in the name of the humanities is one I share, the problem is what to do about the institutional entrenchment of the social sciences in the 20th century. Clifford’s shopping list opts for drawing a line between qualitative and quantitative knowledge which cuts across many of the disciplines including our own. Imagine if this scenario came to pass having to opt for which side of that divide you fall on.

    3. Anthropology could play a significant part in any such move to create a more inclusive humanities, but just look at how ugly the expression “socio-cultural anthropology” is. Clifford’s agenda is stuck in the second half of 20th century American symbolic anthropology.

    4. The revamped medieval guild system that became the modern academic division of labour in some sense has to be the starting point for envisating any university of the future. But is also has to change. The local premises of the initial elements and the abstract idealism of the projected future Undermine this particular exercise from the beginning. It may be that the game is up in the old imperial centres, but places like Brazil, Scandinavia, South Africa and East Asia have more room to come up with something genuinely new.

  4. I don’t know what’s so objectionable about “socio-cultural”. I assumed Clifford used this phrase because he went to Harvard, no?

    I think one of the take away points from Clifford’s paper is that as scholars we need to set aside some of the insignificant differences that divide us. He gives the examples of philosophy and linguistics as disciplines that are divided against themselves. Clearly anthropology is just as ready to poke itself in the eyeball.

  5. “For those of us looking to make our livings as employees at institutions of higher learning the future looks very uncertain. And it does seem that anthropology’s share of the pie is shrinking.”

    Things do look uncertain. And there does seem to be less and less pie, so to speak. Maybe we’ll all have to get creative–and this is what Clifford is talking about I think.

    “You can see it now on the horizon, something is coming for our discipline and the institutions that house it.”

    Agreed. Yet as I look at the world around me, I still think that anthropological perspectives on all sorts of issues (political, social, biological, etc) are definitely valuable. I do think that anthropologists have a lot to contribute–to education, to research, to public debates about key social and political issues. For me, this isn’t really a question of whether or not anthropology has something important to contribute. I think it does. It’s a matter of finding different ways of actually contributing, and rethinking who or what we should contribute to.

  6. The term ‘sociocultural anthropology’ makes sense as a way to work out the identity politics issues of a world in which the department head who used the phrase “our colleagues in cultural anthropology” during a faculty meeting would immediately hear a voice saying, “And in social anthropology, too!”* As far as I’m concerned it makes much less sense as a reference to a way of doing anthropology—that anthropology which is not archaeology, nor physical anthropology, and is sometimes linguistic anthropology is what is usually lumped under the term, but I don’t think that lump is really a coherent thing.

    Clifford’s paper is salutary insomuch as it motivates thinking about ways to work ourselves out of disciplinary boxes. But as HPS it needs serious work. The tradition of Sapir or the tradition of Chomsky? Sapir was without a doubt more catholic in his interests than is Chomsky but Chomsky is nonetheless very much in the tradition of Sapir.

    *My understanding is that Fred Eggan proposed the use of the term to deal with just this issue during his tenure as department head at Chicago. Can any Chicago guys hanging around the blog confirm or deny?

  7. “For those of us looking to make our livings as employees at institutions of higher learning the future looks very uncertain. And it does seem that anthropology’s share of the pie is shrinking.”

    It’s not much different in defining yourself outside institutions of higher learning. You constantly have to explain what you do, what you bring to the table, what you don’t do, etc… It’s so ingrained in my head, that I often use unconscious scripts developed from explaining it so many times; like, my mouth is moving and I’m being perfectly articulate, but I’m not really thinking about what I’m saying from muscle memory.
    I was talking about this with a guy last week, when we were having to put together a proposal, and terms like “socio-cultural” and “insider’s point-of-view” etc… were getting used a lot. He kind of went off talking about how much he hates the term “socio-cultural,” because it’s been used so much, by so many different people, groups and professions, that it begins to loose concrete meaning. Like so many buzzwords in the marketplace, it was thought of like the magic bullet, like an infomercial promising a flat stomach with no sacrifice.
    Part of the problem is that too often jargon is used to mask inexperience, or incompetence. They’re used to over-promise and under-deliver. And, even when you don’t want to do it, you feel intense pressure to use the jargon, because if you don’t then you won’t even get a chance. How else are you going to get the chance to practice, make mistakes, and gain experience? However, it seems like this has lead to a bit of cynicism in the professional world. Just like millions of folks with degrees have shown that they didn’t actually learn anything, employers are taking education less seriously, they’ve also had too many people toss around “socio-cultural,” and not deliver.

  8. Liberal arts has to negotiate and compromise with physical, life, and other sciences to ensure its continued existence and relevance. Visual and media arts extend their uses to robotics, artificial intelligence, and electronics engineering. Diluting the discipline with science and technology is not a bad idea. It can be done.

    Anthropologists should do the same thing. Physical anthropologists whose expertise is in primatology should make themselves useful in clinical/pharmaceutical trials for instance. They are the best ones to do behavioral observation/analysis on the monkeys doctors use for their medical experiments. Medical anthropologists, too, should do more epidemiology, social medicine, and transcultural medical/clinical studies.

    The fact is that even university education is now commercialized. In developing countries, universities educate their students to supply a demand. Unfortunately, the demand is mostly in science and technology not in arts and humanities. The problem with liberal arts disciplines is that, generally, they become too generalist and interdisciplinary among themselves. Sinking ships attaching themselves to other sinking ships, indeed.

  9. Sinking ships maybe, but what really is the use of any of the humanities as supplying some economic demand? One might think of a lot of separate applications, mainly in area studies and languages, but certainly not in the sense of a holistic set of approaches. Any use of that has to be sought in supplying the public with concepts and knowledge so that public matters can be discussed in a more critical manner.

    I know full well that such a role is not easily realized, much less in present circumstances, as clearly articulated in work of Richard Sennett and others.

  10. but what really is the use of any of the humanities as supplying some economic demand?

    They have, of course, historically played an important role in producing audiences for high culture and fine art — thus providing the wherewithal to keep institutions like Sotheby’s, the Vienna Philharmonic, and university presses in business.

    The marketing problem faced by the humanities is similar to that faced by BMW in Japan after selling too many 3-series cars during the economic bubble. When the bubble collapsed, BMW found that when people thought of its brand in terms of the 3-series, a “Roppongi Corolla,” i.e., a starter car for nouveaux riche vulgarians.

    Democratizing the humanities and, in effect, adopting the McDonald’s slogan, “We do it all for you” has predictably destroyed the luxury cachet the humanities once enjoyed. And claiming to teach critical thinking in big lecture classes with shrinking reading and writing assignments isn’t going to rebuild the brand.

  11. I think its interesting how quickly this conversation moved from the utopian, “what do we want the university to be?” to the realist “what do we have to do to survive?”

    I don’t think I’m alone in militating against the neoliberal in academia from branding to producing goods or consumers for the market. As Clifford points out we should answer such calls to be useful with “useful to whom?”

  12. “I don’t think I’m alone in militating against the neoliberal in academia from branding to producing goods or consumers for the market. As Clifford points out we should answer such calls to be useful with ‘useful to whom?'”

    You’re definitely not alone on that one, Matt.

  13. How many anthropologists think of themselves as being members of the Humanities club, though? Wouldn’t that depend on what campus you were in, which is no campus I’ve ever actually been to. Remember, scientific instruments were once called “philosophical instruments,” because science was once a branch of natural philosophy. Many professional philosophers would argue that it still is, but no one else does, so it doesn’t matter.
    The only thing that’s going to help anyone in academia is to promote the professional, applied side, because that is the only thing that will bring students and funding to a department. I think next time someone feels the need to ask the “for whom” question, the obvious answer would be, ‘for the whom that will allow you to not starve and live outside of a homeless shelter’. It’s an obvious answer, and one we all know, yet for some reason it still gets asked. The idea of not wanting to be immediately useful to society is a strange want to me.

  14. The humanities are more likely to be a long-term investment. There are no indications that the ‘immediately useful’ side of the discipline will actually bring benefit to society in a way that justifies that investment. It may bring students and funding from the government, but if no real return comes from it that is just parasitic on the economy. I understand that it may be required to run a department today, but it is not likely to be sustainable long-term.

    It may be that my perspective is influenced by living in a country (Holland) where social democracy used to be very big till recently. Under this regime the social sciences, especially a certain mixture of sociology and economics, were very influential on the shaping of policy. Yet research was not conducted in the ‘applied mode’ but theoretically-oriented and ‘big picture’. The influence on policy was through students entering the civil service and politics, as well as government keeping in touch with developments through reports and the exchange of ideas. To a large degree it worked, especially in keeping unemployment low and in creating good living conditions.

    Of coure there has been a backlash in recent years and all this has become much less fashionable. But in principle I think that in such a case the social sciences can make contributions to society that justify the investment. Broadening this to a Greater Humanities has the added benefit that some of the pitfalls of technocracy could be avoided.

  15. I’m Just wondering. Anthropologists know that pharmaceutical companies send people to the Amazon to gather specimens for new medicines and they even study folk and herbal remedies of the Amazon Indians, yet I haven’t heard of a department that offers pharmacological anthropology. In nutritional anthropology, tools and methods of nutritional scientists should be taught. Psychological anthropologists should be able to do culture-based counseling. It is clear to me that anthropology curricula need some overhauling. Anthropologists on the net, too, should contribute by starting applied and science-based groups. Instead of wasting time on anthropology of toothpicks or anthropology of candy wrappers or anthropology of anthropology, they should do more relevant and useful subjects/fields such as psychiatric anthropology, agricultural anthropology, management anthropology, mining anthropology, resource anthropology, etc. Anthropology should be able to solve problems. What’s the use of studying a certain group’s malnutrition or mass suicide if anthropologists cannot offer solutions? Albinos in Africa are killed everyday and their body parts are traded for a belief that is new to Africans. Have anthropologists done something?

  16. Memo and report writing may not be rocket science but I have an acquaintance who recently retired from a career as a NASA administrator and he will tell you that it is one thing that plenty of rocket scientists can’t do. Let’s assume that degrees in the humanities prepare the holders for nothing beyond further study in the humanities followed by possible employment as a faculty member within a humanities department. Even then the humanities are absolutely necessary to the world we live in. If anyone out there believes that members of the chemistry faculty can teach grammar as well as members of the foreign language faculty or that the Nursing School is both willing and able to teach composition at the same level as the English Department you really need to disabuse yourself.

    Myopia abounds in academia but critics of it seem a bit myopic themselves because they miss it elsewhere. Ownership and management of private industry consistently claim that they above all else want employees who possess good writing and problem solving skills. But when confronted with the choice of hiring those whose formal educations vet them in regards to writing and/or problem solving skills—like, say, holders of degrees in history or linguistics—versus holders of professional degrees whose educations lack the rigor vis-à-vis basic skills which are taught as part of study for a humanities degree they consistently choose the latter. I do not lack respect for the business world but I think any sane person would rather start with an employee with a solid foundation of basic skills and knowledge and teach him/her how the business world works on the job than start with an MBA whose writing is crap and try to turn him/her into a good writer.

  17. MT, I am not going to deny the value of good writing, the craft by which I make my living. I do believe, however, that your casual dismissal of other stuff that business schools may do a pretty good job of teaching is misguided. The plain fact of the matter is that digital technology has eliminated the need for organizations filled with white collar paper shufflers, for whom writing reports and memos were necessary skills. A few good writers are needed, e.g., to write CEO speeches, but writing per se is of only secondary importance compared to number crunching, strategic thinking, and face-to-face negotiating skills.

    I emphasize “strategic” thinking. The “critical thinking” habits I acquired during my long and inglorious schooling equipped me to nitpick endlessly and assemble large amounts of largely predigested information into documents that would pass inspection by superiors who were no better trained that I was in sizing up a situation filled with unknowns, deciding on a course of action, and making a risky move that might lead to glory or to abject failure.

    I know quite a few successful business people and, uncomfortable truth be told, most of what makes them successful appears to have been learned on the playing field instead of in the classroom. These are people who are comfortable with competition and know what it is to get hurt, get patched up and get back in the game. Where in the humanities do people learn these habits these days?

  18. Who said English grammar, composition, diction, etc. are that important in an era where long sentences are shortened by/through technology. Just read how people send texts. If English is that important, there will be no Korean, Japanese, Chinese professors with thick accent and faulty grammar lecturing in American universities. And here’s the news: an Ethiopian immigrant who works as a nurse being a nursing graduate in a so-so school in Addis Ababa and does not know what onomatopoeia is earns 80,000 per year, while an American writer with a comparative literature degree and an MFA in fiction from well-known universities in the US works at Starbucks. What a waste of student loans!

  19. John, my claim is not that business schools teach their students nothing. If the business students who I have had in TA sections are at all representative they certainly do a good job teaching impression management! But there was a time when it was not uncommon for employers to look for promising employees to mentor rather than professional school credentials. How does this process work in Japan? My understanding is that in Japan the majority of education takes place during the secondary school years. Even if business schools were completely spurious a Japanese student would loose nothing but time by choosing a business major. An American student would loose their primary opportunity to acquire the kind of fundamentals Japanese students already possess at age eighteen.

    The plain fact of the matter is that digital technology has eliminated the need for organizations filled with white collar paper shufflers, for whom writing reports and memos were necessary skills.

    Is that really a change for the better?

    These are people who are comfortable with competition and know what it is to get hurt, get patched up and get back in the game. Where in the humanities do people learn these habits these days?

    Graduate school!

  20. Rick,

    “The only thing that’s going to help anyone in academia is to promote the professional, applied side, because that is the only thing that will bring students and funding to a department.”

    Right. It’s all about funding. Sure, the applied side is part of the picture…but I think there is more to education than just this. My opinion about this partially comes from my experience in CRM, among other jobs. If all departments did was focus on creating acceptable workers for the business and professional world, I think some important things might get lost. There is good reason–and CRM is just one example–to avoid viewing education in strictly instrumentalist terms. I don’t completely disagree with you, but I think there is more value to education than just producing workers/jobs.

    “I think next time someone feels the need to ask the “for whom” question, the obvious answer would be, ‘for the whom that will allow you to not starve and live outside of a homeless shelter’.”

    Hmmm. So all of our decisions should be based upon the bottom line, period? Would you accept any and all jobs as long as they paid well, or do you draw the line somewhere? My guess is that you probably take several factors into account (economics among them) when making decisions–and that you most likely have some limits (ethical, etc). But I could be wrong. I think that reducing this into such a basic calculus (ie do something that pays, period) is a little silly.

    “It’s an obvious answer, and one we all know, yet for some reason it still gets asked. The idea of not wanting to be immediately useful to society is a strange want to me.”

    Well, it depends on what “useful” means. Franz Boas certainly did a lot of pretty important work in the early part of the 20th century that wasn’t exactly very “useful” or convenient from the perspective of particular scientists or politicians (I am referring to his work that challenged some of the racial classifications in census data and analysis).

    Overall, I think you have a point to make about jobs and employment, but I also think there are other important considerations.

  21. MT, I am not claiming that what I wrote is a good thing. It is, however, if I am right, a real thing, a fact that cannot be dismissed simply because we don’t like it.

    I could be wrong about that. Some years ago, during a similar debate on Anthro-L, someone sent me a link (now lost unfortunately) to an essay by Henry George written in the 1890s in which he remarks that only one out of ten of his students at Harvard are worth anything, the rest being content with their gentlemen’s Cs and an active social life. It strikes me that, while there is an awful lot of buzz these days about how awful today’s students are and how many are graduating without the knowledge or skills that one hoped a college graduate would have, I have yet to see any evidence that this applies to a higher proportion of students now than it did in the past.

    There are reasons to think that it might be so. For example, it might be argued that the democratization of education has increased the number of students without the cultural capital acquired through everyday socialization by members of the classes from whom college students were traditionally drawn.

    Be that as it may, it seems to me likely that what the humanities offer in response to society’s needs have not kept pace with social and technological change—and I do not confine society’s needs to producing evermore insatiable consumers, marketers to feed their habits, or hamburger flippers to feed their bodies. I am still, perhaps foolishly, obsessed with the old progressive vision of a democratic society in which there is opportunity for all and the inevitable greed and ambition of the few is constrained by an educated citizenry. I see a humanities that, while constantly claiming to be critical and to teach critical thinking, seems, outside of a few elite places, altogether complicit in reproducing the state of affairs its professors are constantly venting about.

    The professors have real grievances. Huge lecture classes, declining levels of basic literacy and numeracy in the students they teach, student evaluations that focus more on whether a class was fun than academic excellence, declining financial support with too much skimmed off to support administrators and coaches—the list goes on and on. God, I’m glad I found other ways to make a living.

    That said, however, I’d like to see more of the profs stepping up with serious proposals that get beyond sour grapes and why can’t things be like they were….When was that exactly?

  22. Good points, John. I definitely agree with you about the need to step it up rather than just bemoan the current state of affairs. The good old days probably never were, so it makes sense to do what we can in the present.

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