Can we blame technology for the social isolation of the humanities and social science research students (“Sector must address ‘dehumanising and isolating’ aspects of PhD study”, News, 9 July)?
In my postgraduate days, research was a social activity. Visiting the campus library to check the card catalogue (now online), to search journal back issues (now online) and to queue for the photocopier (now printable from an online source) meant meeting librarians, library assistants and other researchers. Relations were built up with IT teams in the computer centre as punched cards were delivered for processing and the printout collected the next day. These trips had been preceded by days spent with the punchcard machines, also in the computer centre (now all online).
On occasions, it was necessary to go beyond campus to check the holdings in county record offices (now online) and the Public Record Office for 19th-century census returns (now online). Local newspapers (many now online) had to be searched in local libraries or at the British Library Newspapers at Colindale where I recall pub lunches with other researchers.
Writing up also required a campus visit for checking references (now often achieved online). Today, there is little need to visit your university base. In the final year, attendance at research seminars may decline if the topic is seen as not relevant to a thesis and writing is a better use of your time. At least the growth of PhD training modules can provide an incentive to attend in addition to supervisions.
Unlike researchers in laboratory-based subjects, the humanities and social science researcher can operate from home for much of the time. In this way, a culture of social isolation has been reinforced by technological innovation. Research may be much faster, but it is certainly less sociable.
H. Doug Watts
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