Higher profile for humanities

The University of Sydney has launched a wholesale revamp of arts and social sciences research that may presage a change in the focus of humanities studies across Australia, focusing humanities research on the important questions of the modern world.

“One of my motivating factors was a desire to counter a popular claim or misconception that somehow the humanities and the social sciences are decorative in the way their knowledge production adds to value in the world; a sense that, ‘yes it’s nice, but nobody really needs it’,” says the university’s dean of arts and social sciences, Annamarie Jagose.

Humanities academics have long complained about their field being treated as irrelevant by politicians and others.

Last year it emerged that former education minister Simon Birmingham had quietly vetoed 11 Australian Research Council-approved grants worth more than $4 million in 2017 and 2018. All were in the humanities field.

Responding to widespread outrage, Senator Birmingham tweeted: “I’m pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like ‘Post-orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar’. ”

Professor Jagose said she was disappointed by the senator’s stance and added that it was no coincidence that all the grants he had vetoed were for humanities projects.

“There was a kind of ridiculing of the expertise of them, and actually no understanding of what the projects might have done,” she said, adding that in reality humanities research was crucial to understanding the pressing questions of the modern age.

Now the university’s faculty of arts and social sciences has come up with six “flagship” multidisciplinary research themes under the umbrella title of FutureFix. These include a fresh take on housing affordability, looking at advantages and disadvantages of asset-based capitalism, and a reconsideration of what it means to be human and how the new biosciences affect concepts of self and the individual.

As well, faculty researchers will investigate the opportunities and challenges of human-machine interactions, including automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, big data and next-gen internet, and social media.

Another theme is centred on “multispecies justice” and how the harms inflicted on animals and the environment are coming to be seen as injustices.

Researchers will also look at community-led research, working with people from local communities and conducting collective research in social, health and education fields, and lastly economic policy — how macro­economic and trade policies affect open economies in countries such as Australia’s.

These themes, Professor Jagose said, have a “real potential to make a difference in how we think about things in the future”. The research projects, she added, would concentrate disciplinary expertise into areas of contemporary relevance and importance.

“The idea of launching these research themes is to make very publicly visible how versatile, how expert and how contemporarily relevant the work that we are doing in the faculty is,” she said.

“If we allow arts and social sciences to be seen as decorative, then we pay the price of seeming to be expendable.”

Many universities were now recognising that multidisciplinary research could get further with specific problems than a single discipline approach could, Professor Jagose added.

The faculty hadn’t had research themes as such until now, but the new approach would combine work from different departments around projects that she believed were “very 21st century and of interest to lots of people”.

The six research themes were chosen following a two-tiered competitive process that attracted applications from across the faculty’s more than 40 disciplines.

The faculty would not abandon any existing research projects in favour of new work within the FutureFix themes, Professor Jagose said.

“We’ve pulled people into teams where they have very senior professors often, leading then right down through junior academics and even PhD students, to have a laddered approach to bringing along a whole set of generations of scholars into this new space,” she said.