interpretive theory methodology problems of scale undigitized humanities

The imaginary conflicts disciplines create.

One thing I’ve never understood about humanities disciplines is our insistence on staging methodology as ethical struggle. I don’t think humanists are uniquely guilty here; at bottom, it’s probably the institution of disciplinarity itself that does it. But the normative tone of methodological conversation is particularly odd in the humanities, because we have a reputation for embracing multiple perspectives. And yet, where research methods are concerned, we actually seem to find that very hard.

It never seems adequate to say “hey, look through the lens of this method for a sec — you might see something new.” Instead, critics practicing historicism feel compelled to justify their approach by showing that close reading is the crypto-theological preserve of literary mandarins. Arguments for close reading, in turn, feel compelled to claim that distant reading is a slippery slope to takeover by the social sciences — aka, a technocratic boot stomping on the individual face forever. Or, if we do admit that multiple perspectives have value, we often feel compelled to prescribe some particular balance between them.

Imagine if biologists and sociologists went at each other in the same way.

“It’s absurd to study individual bodies, when human beings are social animals!”

“Your obsession with large social phenomena is a slippery slope — if we listened to you, we would eventually forget about the amazing complexity of individual cells!”

“Both of your methods are regrettably limited. What we need, today, is research that constantly tempers its critique of institutions with close analysis of mitochondria.”

As soon as we back up and think about the relation between disciplines, it becomes obvious that there’s a spectrum of mutually complementary approaches, and different points on the spectrum (or different combinations of points) can be valid for different problems.

So why can’t we see this when we’re discussing the possible range of methods within a discipline? Why do we feel compelled to pretend that different approaches are locked in zero-sum struggle — or that there is a single correct way of balancing them — or that importing methods from one discipline to another raises a grave ethical quandary?

It’s true that disciplines are finite, and space in the major is limited. But a debate about “what will fit in the major” is not the same thing as ideology critique or civilizational struggle. It’s not even, necessarily, a substantive methodological debate that needs to be resolved.

By tedunderwood

Ted Underwood is Professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter he is @Ted_Underwood.

8 replies on “The imaginary conflicts disciplines create.”

Maybe what this helps make clear is our lack of substantive commitment to multiperspectivalism. And I think you’re right that in a way the enforcement of a narrow set of views is what the disciplines are for. I don’t think either of those things is disastrously bad, but I agree that we’d be better off if we were both clearer about this fact and less inclined to conflate analytical style with ethical-political action. Mostly for the benefit of political action.

That’s all really well said. Like you, I’m basically reconciled to the social function of disciplines. Disciplinary boundaries are not in themselves awful things; it’s just that it seems to be very tempting to conflate boundary-drawing with ethical commitment and/or political action.

I think methodological differences become staged as ethico-poliitical battles in the humanities because there is no other basis for arguing one is better than another. That said, they often appear to be made with real conviction. Perhaps disciplinary myopia is benign as you suggest. I tend to have a less generous view. A discipline that cannot accept the possibility of a plurality of methods is an exercise in faith rather than a scholarly undertaking.

I agree — but I sort of tend toward Durkheim’s view that all human communities are exercises in faith. One year when our sports team was doing well, people in Champaign put out yard signs in the school colors reading simply “Believe!” That convinced me that it’s hard to get thirty people together to do anything without founding a religion.

But, re “basis for arguing one [method] is better than the other,” I think it’s actually not too hard to show that some methods are better than others for specific problems. E.g., in literary study, if I want to understand a specific character’s motives, I might use close reading, or, say, psychoanalysis and feminist theory. Distant reading and historical linguistics probably aren’t going to help much.

We might even get people to agree there. Often, I think, the value of the underlying spectrum of methods isn’t really in dispute. What’s in dispute is just, how broadly or narrowly to define the sliding “window” of the spectrum that counts as legit within a given discipline. Which is a real question — but I think we tend to misrecognize this pragmatic institutional question as a debate about first principles (epistemological, ethical, or political).

But — to acknowledge a possible blind spot in my argument — the conclusions I drew above were produced automatically as soon as I chose the term “methodology,” — rather than the term humanists actually prefer, which is “theory.”

Methodologies tend not to be mutually exclusive, but theories often are. So maybe my post is really asking why humanists prefer the latter term so strongly.

The analogy with biology is powerful, and I wonder how these differences play out in (or result from?) the way we allocate positions. As I understand the situation, a biology department staffs itself to cover a variety of objects of study and a variety of methodologies. If an English department hires primarily by period, there is more potential for methodological exclusivity. At the moment, I happen to be reading _Your Inner Fish_, by Neil Shubin of the Field Museum and the University of Chicago. Shubin’s “substantive commitment to multiperspectivalism,” as Matthew puts it, is at the heart of his account of paleontology: in addition to fossil-hunting, he writes, “we can also trace our history inside our genes, though DNA. . . . We’ll use both fossils and genes to tell our story.”

I bet that’s true. I also suspect that assumptions about the likely growth (or contraction) of a discipline play a really powerful role here, shaping our thinking in all kinds of unconscious ways.