A madness to the method

It is universally accepted that every dissertation should have a method section. However, in many fields, the concept of what a method is can be incredibly unclear.
Brendan Church via Unsplash

Semi-annual examinations were the norm in the department where I spent most of my degree. An elite group of research associates, doctoral students, postdocs, and professors discussed dissertations, addressed and rejected various theories in a rarefied atmosphere—and drank plenty of wine as well—during “fireside chats”. During one of these evenings, one doctoral student—the one whose events I, as a master’s student, found by far the most interesting—confided in me that she had absolutely no idea what kinds of methods all of these literary scholars were using. “Of course, I do have a theory and method section in my dissertation, to meet the formal requirements. But to be honest, I still don’t understand what the point of it all is.”

Later, when I was doing my own PhD, I had a similar experience. There was a theory and method seminar at my university, but theory and method were dealt with jointly, with no attempt made to separate the two. The table of contents for the “Grundzüge der Literaturwissenschaft” (Fundamentals of literary studies), the bible for literary scholars which we studied during our first semester, does contain the word “theory”, but the word “method” is carefully circumvented by the word “process”. During my PhD programme, I often asked myself whether we literary scholars were ignoring the elephant in the room out of a fear of embarrassing ourselves. Or was there an elephant there at all? Are there humanities methods similar to those used in the natural sciences?

Singular or plural?

The question of whether there are humanities methods at all is actually easy to answer. Of course, a historian looking at ancient coins could use different approaches to examining the coins: He could look at the stamps used to make them, or their typology. That is the goal of numismatics, a secondary historical discipline. “However, these kinds of approaches do not address the larger context,” explains Tassilo Schmitt, himself a historian and Chair of the Philosophical Faculty Association. To understand why these coins were minted or what kind of power they are supposed to convey takes another approach, which is typical for many humanities disciplines.

“Humanities methods are often closely linked to theory,” admits science philosopher and Leibniz prize winner Martin Carrier. This is partly due to the research subjects the humanities address, since humanities disciplines usually deal with artefacts, objects, and works created by people. In addition, the humanities are characterised by an individual viewpoint more often than the natural sciences, for instance, and by an approach that tends to change over time. This relative subjectivity is also reflected in the humanities’ theoretical traditions, and it is precisely why humanities methods can be so difficult to decipher.

“Science” means the natural sciences

The Wissenschaftsbarometer 2017 (2017 Science Barometer) asked the question “What do you think of when you think of science and research?” Disciplines like medicine, health, technology, biology, and physics made up the top five answers of the 850 survey respondents. Social sciences and the humanities, in contrast, were way down in next-to-last place. An empirical approach, verifiability, tangibility—all keywords associated with the natural sciences and with public academic discourse itself—are not attributes that apply to the humanities or to humanities methods. Konrad Paul Liessmann, journalist and philosophy professor from Vienna, believes the increasing use of Anglicisms among the scientific community is partly to blame: “The German word ‘Wissenschaft’ is often translated as ‘science’. However, the term ‘science’ has a strong connotation of meaning the natural sciences.” This is part of the reason academic methods are increasingly being understood as natural sciences methods.

The problem is that, while these methods may make sense in physics or biomedicine, they cannot be applied directly to the humanities. What, for example, is the humanities equivalent of a science experiment that cannot be reproduced? To put it more generally:

Is it possible to fail in the humanities?

Konrad Paul Liessmann, who has already made a name for himself as a cultural critic in previous debates, understands education as knowledge that can be utilised directly, and has a problem with using the term “failure” in the humanities: “Can we say that Luhmann has failed because he is not well received in the USA at the moment? Or does someone fail if their work generates lots of interest when it comes out, but is forgotten a couple of years later?” For Liessmann, the vantage point from which the observer views the failure is key. Tatjana Dänzer is co-editor of the Journals of Unsolved Questions, whose goal since it was founded in 2011 has been to present failed research projects. She sees things a bit differently. “We have had humanities articles in the past as well,” she says. “However, it is true that the majority of submissions come from the natural sciences.”

No matter whether an author comes from the humanities or the sciences, the fear of failing in the eyes of the public is paralysing. This may be part of the reason why discourse in the humanities is more specialised, with fewer major works being discussed by a broader public. The Wissenschaftsbarometer is designed to determine how normal citizens understand the term “Wissenschaft”. Liessmann believes that, fifty years ago, respondents would have felt that the term referred primarily to the humanities—because the humanities at the time were more invested in making wide-ranging theoretical pronouncements. Martin Carrier believes that the humanities used to play more of a “contextual” role in society, which is part of this shift in how the term “Wissenschaft” is perceived. “Contextual knowledge is focused on the big picture. The humanities used to be responsible for this kind of knowledge, but now the natural sciences often interject these issues into public discourse, such as in the debate over artificial intelligence.”

The humanities could be more assertive

The natural sciences are perceived as setting the tone, at least in public discourse. It is no wonder, then, that the humanities want their methodologies to be seen as equivalent to those employed by the sciences, at least in the public eye. Most of the experts we talked to vehemently deny that this convergence is just a one-sided phenomenon: “The humanities are trying to approximate the precision of the natural sciences,” Martin Carrier says. “At the same time, however, today the natural sciences are integrating more subjective approaches to their research subjects, like those used in the humanities. This achieves much the same effect.” In light of this, the humanities could certainly be asserting themselves more in public debates. Liessmann feels artificial intelligence is a good example of this: “This discourse goes back to ancient times; it is truly a pet theory in the humanities. When a twenty-year-old from Silicon Valley shows up and suddenly everyone is hanging on his every word about AI, humanities scholars are right when they say he doesn’t have any idea what he is talking about. Those twenty-year-olds would say the same thing about us if humanities professors started spouting off about digitisation, but we didn’t know anything about it.”