Skip to content

Uses of humanities research are many – too many to be counted

Interest in solutions to pressing societal challenges is hardly limited to academia. And solutions that have been developed in the academia are usually put into practice somewhere else – by policy makers, by public organizations and NGOs, or as part of a business enterprise.

At the same time, current global challenges are so complex that most solutions to them will have their roots in academic research of some kind. In fact, the quality of the solutions often depends on it. So it matters that academic research gets out there. This applies to humanities as much as it applies to any other field of research.

But because of the growing demand, producing knowledge and translating its results for further use are hard to fit into a same job description.

The covid-19 vaccines are of course a perfect example of the exchange of knowledge between academia, industry, and society. Vaccine development was firmly rooted in the very latest academic research. But vaccination development is an extremely complicated process, demanding a wide variety of highly specialized expertise by academic researchers, clinical practitioners, pharmaceutical companies, and public supervisory authorities.

Well-functioning networks of collaboration are absolutely essential to ensure that knowledge moves smoothly and important pieces of information don’t get lost on the way. Still – despite its complexities, we are talking about a relatively limited number of organizations with specific roles in the process of developing a clearly defined end product.

Now think about vaccine distribution. In hindsight, it might also have benefited from closer consultation with academic research – and research in the humanities in particular.

What if, for example, the communication of the benefits and risks of vaccines would have been better informed by research on the public reception of vaccines at different points in history?

What if, with the help of research on the formation of ideologies, we could have been better able to anticipate the tangle of political meanings that now have become attached to the vaccines?

And what if the global distribution of vaccines had been better supported by a nuanced understanding of the pandemic as a global and transnational problem, instead of a national one?

Compared with the process of vaccine development, it’s much harder to name all the actors involved and how they are related to each other.

WHO has definitely had authority in shaping Covid-19 information and response, but it’s hardly alone as each country – and in some countries, each state, region, or city – has formed their own policies. Traditional media has played a crucial role in shaping the discourse around vaccines, but the influence of social media has been enormous. And pharmaceutical companies may be in charge of patents and logistics, but the global supply of vaccinations is also a matter of domestic politics and international relations (with all of their historical baggage).

The point I want to make is not so much about vaccines as such as it is about the gaps and barriers that exist between humanities research and its potential uses.

It’s easy to say that vaccine distribution (as an example) would have benefited from closer consultation with researchers from the humanities. But who should have done the consulting?

WHO and the national and regional authorities? Traditional and social media companies? The pharmaceutical companies? Politicians and international organizations? Yes! And I do believe many of those organizations did, and do. Yet, if all of them really took seriously the benefits of humanities research, there just wouldn’t be enough researchers to fulfil the demand.

There is a gap in awareness of what humanities and social sciences can offer to inform the search for practical solutions. But the gap can’t be bridged by insisting that all humanities researchers become consultants.

Traditionally knowledge transfer in the humanities happens via popular books, liberal education, and public discourse, with the understanding that the knowledge will then go on to inform the actions and activities of its recipients. All of these are still valid means.

But it seems to me that something else is needed, too. I think there is a need for more direct means for ensuring that questions with humanities insight get asked before decisions are made and action taken, not only after the fact. It could be through white papers and policy briefs, service learning and community engagement, or it could be through direct collaboration with public, private, and third-sector organizations.

The point is, that this is not a job for the academics alone – it’s a whole new job description with its own specific expertise. I’ll get back to these boundary spanners in the next post!

Original photo: Tara Winstead by Pexels