‘The global humanities’: mapping trends in the field

This blog-post is a (belated) response to World Humanities Report 2015, by Poul Holm et al., and available via open-access publication. At a time when we hear a lot of rhetoric about the humanities – generally of the ‘crisis in’ variety – this strikes me as a unique and refreshing exercise. The Report sets out to consider the state of the humanities using empirical research methods, and operating on a global scale. Since this approach strikes me as unique, my main aim here is simply to outline what the Report does. Inevitably, there will also be a bit of dialogue: maybe this post may even feel a bit like a book review.

The Report is organized around a number of topics, which I would summarize (paraphrasing the Report itself) as follows.

  • Attempts by researchers to articulate the nature and value of the humanities.
  • Features of the culture of humanities research (e.g. interdisciplinary research; responses to globalisation; the role of the digital).
  • Changes in funding patterns and the influence of funding on research.
  • Relations between the humanities and the societies that fund them.

The methods underpinning the Report include desk-based research (e.g. published reports) and interviews with relatively senior humanities researchers from across the world. The authors focused solely on research. Much has been written about education and the humanities, and much might be said about the difficulty of separating research from education in this field, but there’s a clarity to the focus here.

One of the most interesting aspects, for me, was the survey of how we justify what we do, particularly in the face of a sceptical or hostile audience. While some people have devoted themselves to formulating coherent arguments about the value of the humanities, I expect all of us working in the field have our different answers. Nothing on the (again, paraphrased) list was new to me, but the effort of categorization is helpful.


  • Intrinsic value: humanities research has a value in and of itself, and should be pursued for its own sake.
  • Social value: the humanities benefit society. They help create tolerance and understanding between citizens; they aid decision-making, especially on complex ethical issues; and they help to challenge established positions.
  • Cultural heritage: the humanities enable citizens to understand, preserve and sometimes challenge their national heritage and culture.
  • Economic value: there are direct economic benefits from humanities
  • research (e.g. publishing, media, tourism, education).
  • Contribution to other disciplines: humanities research feeds into other fields (e.g. social sciences, medicine, computer science and engineering/design.
  • Innovation: the humanities deal with questions of motivation, organisation and action, and so promote a culture of innovation.
  • Critical thinking: it is of the essence of the humanities to develop critical thinking.
  • Personal and spiritual development: humanities research can enhance one’s personal and spiritual wellbeing.
  • Aesthetic appreciation: the humanities promote aesthetic discrimination, enhancing the appreciation and enjoyment of artistic works.


Of all these approaches, the researchers found the social justifications the most prevalent, while (perhaps most interestingly) there were no major differences in the responses offered by scholars in different regions. All humanists face these questions, from China to Latin America, and we all have a roughly common stock of responses. The Report expresses surprise, meanwhile, at how little we reach for the ‘economic value’ argument; these arguments appear even to divide humanists, with some people hostile to them. Given the demonstrated importance of humanities research to the creative industries, and the constant need to justify what we do to governments, this is surely a hurdle we need to jump.

The concern with the culture of humanities research is also enlightening. We’re all, it seems, still struggling to come to terms with how the digital humanities will change our research lives. Some remain hostile, many simply befuddled. ‘The real challenge’, the Report concludes, ‘still lies ahead in asking new research questions enabled by the technology … and developing a critical sense of the explanatory power of new technologies’. Ditto internationalization, which is widely embraced, though also feared and resisted in some circles, for perfectly understandable reasons. The push towards English as a common academic language, for instance, is not likely to meet universal approval. But internationalization is happening at pace, and will surely change our patterns of collaboration and publication, as well as the kinds of questions we ask. The Report is valuable simply for the fact that it registers this, from so many different perspectives.

The chapter on research funding moves tentatively towards an analysis of the ways in which different funding regimes lead to different kinds of projects with different kinds of outputs. Anyone considering a move from one side of the Atlantic to the other should read this, because it seems to me that the trends of differentiation are likely to become more rather than less pronounced. The researchers’ determination to focus on research, however, becomes problematic in this discussion, since levels of funding for teaching inevitably affects research. It’s something we all learn to do as and when we bloody well can, so the difference between a six-hour per-week teaching load in a top US university and a load in excess of 20 hours (as I’m informed) at a very good Indian university matters an awful lot. Ditto the largesse of a university with conference travel funds. I would also have liked more consideration of how national and institutional research assessment methods (e.g. the REF in the UK, promotion criteria that stipulate grant income targets) are reshaping aspirations and actions.

By way of conclusion, the Report proposes a grand structure for global exchange, creating the ‘global humanities’. This feels utopian, probably even to the authors; for the time being, there are arguably more forces pulling our perspectives towards the local than the global. But a study that itself maintains such a rigorous global perspective, giving us voices from all continents, is hugely welcome.

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