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.