Whither art: vanity is killing social sciences and the humanities

Conference hears that scholarly narcissism is leading disciplines to ruin. Matthew Reisz writes

October 29, 2009

"Academic narcissism" and a focus on self-promotion over scholarly substance are being blamed for bringing the humanities and the social sciences to the brink.

At a conference on the future of the disciplines held in Brussels last week, scholars warned that they were on a self-destructive course.

One of those to sound the alarm was Sasa Bozic, associate professor of sociology at the University of Zadar, Croatia, who accused his peers of displaying narcissistic traits.

Those who get to the top tend to be "highly competitive, image-oriented, substance-avoiding, ultra-innovative, quotation-obsessed individualists," he said.

He added that a lack of kudos for research that performed the valuable role of confirming existing work had resulted in a constant search for novelty, which made it hard for the social sciences to build up a solid body of knowledge.

The result, he claimed, was that "theories in the social sciences cannot predict much and their explanatory power is decreasing constantly".

Professor Bozic was not the only delegate to raise concerns at the conference, organised by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Comparative Research in the Social Sciences (ICCR) in Vienna.

Elizabeth Sundin, professor in business administration and management at Linkoping University, Sweden, said she feared she could be witnessing "the suicide of the social sciences".

Useful research in the disciplines had to do justice to the "complex relations and multiple factors" that make up the social world, she said.

Yet prestigious international journals often demanded "one single score and conclusion in each article", which Professor Sundin said had led to "a loss in relevance, which, in turn, means a loss of legitimacy and a decreasing willingness among taxpayers to pay for our salaries".

Future debate

The conference was held to debate the results of the ICCR's SSH-Futures project, a European Union-funded study of the development of the social sciences and humanities in Europe. It brought together experts in everything from psychometrics, medical ethics, transport policy and radical farming methods to Ludwig Wittgenstein and women writers of the Middle Ages.

And not everyone was gloomy about the future.

For Ronald Pohoryles, director of the ICCR, the ideal was clear - scholars must embrace the idea of "the ivory tower with an open door".

Many researchers in the social sciences and humanities believe their insights can help address real-world challenges and, although they want to retain their autonomy, they also want to be heard, he said.

Philippe Keraudren, scientific officer for the SSH-Futures project at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Research, said that the key issue was how to promote the circulation of social science and humanities ideas within Europe.

The conference heard that a number of barriers can make this difficult, including financial and institutional factors. Henriette van Eijl, who is responsible for innovation policy at the Commission's Directorate-General for Enterprise, referred to "the complex policy environment and erratic policy cycles".

Chris Caswill, visiting fellow at the James Martin Institute, University of Oxford, added that it could be difficult to work out the precise relationships between the Framework Programmes, Networks of Excellence and the new Joint Programming Initiatives that have emerged from the Commission.

Other scholars noted ways in which universities themselves were getting things dangerously wrong. Allan Janik, senior research fellow at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, was unhappy with the very phrase "social sciences and humanities".

He said that while "the things we really need to know as human beings can only be studied superficially by the social sciences, the humanities can definitely help us better cope with the needs of society today".

It is the humanistic knowledge provided by the arts that offers "personal insight gained from experience and gleaned from reflection on experience", he said.

Humanistic scholarship ought to aspire to wisdom, but Mr Janik said that most academics "don't rise to the challenge, and address their peers rather than distressed mankind". This, he said, left the world at large to "fall back on 'how-to' books".

Both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment took place largely outside our universities. Mr Janik warned that today's academy could be in similar danger of missing the boat.


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