Light shed by lone scholars

September 8, 1995

The Humanities Research Board was established by the British Academy in April 1994 following the Government's decision not to set up a Humanities Research Council.

This was done with the support of ministers and the then Department for Education provided the academy with additional funds to enable it to set up the HRB. The board now administers national schemes for the support of advanced research in the humanities, and for the award of 1,000 new postgraduate studentships each year. About Pounds 16.4 million funding for these HRB schemes is currently provided by the Department for Education and Employment as part of its annual grant-in-aid to the academy.

Over the years the academy had come to be seen as a quasi-research council for the humanities. With the support of the council of the academy, the HRB is now giving added emphasis to that position, formalising it and making for greater representativeness, accountability and transparency.

The chief research function of the HRB is to enable researchers in the humanities to improve the breadth and depth of our knowledge and understanding of human culture, both past and present, thereby enhancing the quality of life of the nation. Humanities scholars make up about one-fifth of all academic staff in institutions of higher education in Britain, with nearly 8,000 research-active staff, encompassing a very broad range of subjects, including the study of (at least) the following generic subjects: archaeology, architecture, art, classics, drama, history, language, law, literature, music, philosophy and theology. In addition, humanistic elements of subjects such as geography and anthropology, and scientific elements in subjects like archaeology and linguistics, make it desirable to have individual understandings with the research councils in neighbouring areas, such as the Economic and Social Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council. Furthermore, common interests in humanistic research topics, such as ethics or the history of science, should command the natural interest of all the research councils, especially within the framework of the Technology Foresight Programme. We each have our central focus and our different methods and perspectives, but I see no natural segmentation of the continuum of fundamental research which should set the humanities aside from its neighbours in the research councils.

Many disciplines in the humanities are concerned with the past. Tangible evidence from the past survives in a very wide range of cultural artefacts from manuscripts and books, monuments, buildings, paintings and sculptures, to jewellery and coins. The cataloguing and classification of these artefacts is one of the basic foundations of humanities scholarship. But in order to reach a view of the historical, cultural, social and intellectual context of human experience and creativity to which they might act as an index, we need to move beyond the objects themselves. The richer, more complex task of humanities scholars is thus to try to reconstruct the context which gives social and cultural meaning to the artefact or event in question, by appeal to a range of related evidence and in the light of their own methodological framework. The implication stands that meaning is never context-free, and that the context-dependent interpretation of meaning is a process which characterises both the analyst and the original actors whose actions are being analysed. In this hermeneutic, interpretive perspective of the humanities, the work of research is not exhaustible.

One example of the use of fragmentary evidence to reconstruct context comes from the work of Michael Crawford, who has offered a new perspective on republican Roman fiscal structure from his analysis of the wider context of Roman coinage. More recently, Crawford and John Richardson have done the same for republican Roman legal documents, with the added advantage that their deciphering of the difficult Latin of fragmentary texts has brought new material into the purview of ancient historians.

A yet more far-reaching example comes from the interdisciplinary work of the archaeologist Paul Mellars in his contributions to the debate on modern human origins in Europe. Drawing together evidence from skeletal remains, stone tools, bone, antler and ivory artefacts and the sites of their discovery, palaeoclimatic and stratigraphic data, adding dating techniques such as thermo-luminescence and electron spin resonance to the longer-established radio-carbon method, and using studies of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA patterns in present-day populations, he is able to argue a plausible case in favour of the (still controversial) population dispersal scenario of modern human origins, against the alternative scenario of multi-regional evolution. In particular, he argues that, in the period 50,000 to 30,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans extended their range from the east Mediterranean zone progressively through the Balkans, northern Italy and northern Spain to south-west France, co-existing with the local Neanderthal populations. He suggests that during this period, the rapidly increasing complexity, size and stability of social groupings support the view that these changes were in part enabled by a step-function increase in the complexity of their linguistic communication, which in turn was reflected in the stylistic and symbolic sophistication of their ornaments.

Humanities research has typically consisted of individual work by a single scholar, often working in great national collections and archives such as the British Library or the Public Record Office. The method of publication most favoured by the humanities is the monograph, often appearing in thematic series of studies, such as Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, edited by David Luscombe. Personal scholarship is certain to remain a dominant research mode for the foreseeable future, but collaborative work is a rapidly-growing complementary mode. This is particularly true of the recent encyclopedic flourish of foundational reference books collaboratively written by large teams of specialists, providing important research tools for the humanities. Outstanding examples are: the new Oxford Companion to French Literature, edited by Peter France, which raises its sights beyond producing a dictionary of great names and well-known literary movements to include substantial comment on work by women and by social groups such as the salons; and the Pergamon Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, edited by Ronald Asher, at 11 volumes and five million words by far the most comprehensive of the modern surveys of the topic.

History, as one of the most active of all the humanities disciplines, has produced numerous examples: one is the vast project on the History of Parliament, funded by the Treasury and directed by Valerie Cromwell - 23 volumes have already been published, and the project will eventually generate up to 50 volumes of political biography of every Member of Parliament from 1262 to 1832; others are the Victoria History of the Counties of England, now edited by Christopher Currie, and the New Dictionary of National Biography, being edited by Colin Matthew with funding from the Department for Education and Employment through the British Academy. The New DNB will be published conventionally and electronically by Oxford University Press and will provide concise biographies of some 50,000 noteworthy Britons who lived and died before the year 2000. It will contain some 45 million words, and will be a basic resource for humanities researchers and the public alike. Another major reference is the British Library's bibliographical Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue, which has become an important electronic information resource for historians and literary specialists.

Notable developments in medieval history include the surge of interest in questions of ethnicity and identity; related to this theme, Rees Davies has re-established a view of British history which integrates the study of the various parts of the British Isles rather than fracturing them. Medieval history and archaeology combine in an interdisciplinary collaboration in a project on Sutton Hoo. The study of more modern eras of history has seen developments in comparative research on topics as varied as the history of state formation, bureaucracy and government finance in Europe, transatlantic colonisation and cultural interactions. Other research relates different areas of history, linking modern interests in discourse and the social construction of social phenomena to older-style investigations of topics such as class, poverty, health and disease, childhood and old age. Historical research that merges with ESRC interests is being done by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population on social welfare, ageing and health.

There seem to be few high-temperature ideological divisions in the study of history today. The same cannot be said of English literature and literary studies generally, where the factionalist clash between traditional humanistic approaches and postmodernist theory has been represented as a crisis of humanism, for example by Elizabeth Ermarth in her book Sequel to History. The HRB takes a firm and positive view of such paradigmatic differences: it insists that the value of any approach to academic research lies in its intellectual rigour, and that each application for funding therefore must be considered on its merits. The traditional approach to English literature retains its value, continuing to produce authoritative texts and anthologies, producing excellent editors, bibliographers, lexicographers and literary critics attentive to literary language.

Notable critics are often British-trained, such as Frank Kermode, Claude Rawson and Barbara Everett, as are anthologists of widely-acknowledged authority such as Kermode, Roger Lonsdale and Christopher Ricks. The arrival in the study of English of so-called "theory" in the 1960s and 1970s began the process of using other disciplines, especially linguistics and the philosophy of language, to consider literary language in enlivening new ways. It stimulated comparisons with other media employing narrative, from myth, ritual and games to films and advertising, with some excellent writing on film by, for instance, Stephen Heath and Laura Mulvey. The best of this theory-oriented work continues to seed new insights, and has vigorously re-generated the core disciplines of poetry and rhetoric.

11 = /Addressing a relatively wide range of context-establishing materials was already a familiar technique of traditionalist scholars of literature. Since about 1980, a further significant development in English has seen a yet-wider expansion beyond literary criticism to include a very broad range of cultural analysis and cultural history. Work in gender studies and new versions of historicism, for instance, have made the case that documents of every kind can be made to repay the kind of attentive reading that English has traditionally set out to develop. A convergent result is that much current work in the general field of literature now routinely moves into areas that have traditionally been the province of linguists, historians, philosophers, lawyers, economists, geographers and historians of science, perhaps providing the genesis of a new discipline.

Finally, the development that will most influence the nature of research across all humanities subjects is undoubtedly the growth of networked computing for communication, access to resources and dissemination of information. The information technology of JANET, SuperJANET and the Internet, electronic mail, databases, image banks, text archives, bibliographic resources and on-line catalogues has over the past decade transformed the practice of humanities research. In the wake of the Follett report on the future of academic libraries, the significant decision by the funding councils' joint information systems committee to fund an arts and humanities data service, partly on the model of the ESRC data archive and the existing history data unit, will potentially make several thousand databases available to the humanities research community.

Institutions will need to recognise the requirement for humanities researchers to have access to high-resolution multimedia workstations with suitable network connections to view good quality images of manuscripts and artefacts in museum and gallery collections around the world. It is a truism that the library is the laboratory of the humanities: the unification of the world's libraries into a single virtual collection, at least at the level of their catalogues, with a swiftly growing proportion of digitised textual and other material made widely available over the network, will transform the laboratory of the humanities into one of global scale.

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