Friday, 24 January 2014

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School visit: research methods in the humanities and social sciences


Yesterday I paid a visit to Bergen Katedralskole, in order to lecture and advise students in their final year of high school on research methods in the humanities and social sciences. My university each year awards the Holberg International Memorial Prize for outstanding research within these disciplines. In connection with that they also organize a research competition for senior high-school students. Bergen Katedralskole has entered two classes this year, and I am their appointed university liaison. Going there was a great chance to meet and talk with the people who will be starting college or university studies this August, and hopefully also convey why research in the humanities and social sciences is fun as well as important. For me, it was also an opportunity to think about some aspects of what we are doing and why we are doing it. 

The humanities and social sciences engage in the study of human life and culture. Their importance should be obvious, nevertheless it still has to be repeatedly emphasized and also justified. Doing research is about creating narratives. Narratives about the human experience, past and present, tell us who we are and where we come from, and in thus shaping identity, they also serve to create groups and draw boundaries between them. History, identity, and culture are continuously invoked in political and public discourse, for better and for worse. An important role of researchers is to create, uphold, question and dismantle these narratives. We do that by doing research, by teaching and by taking part in these discourses. Engaging with the distant past and far off corners of world is equally important as engaging with the present and the close by, not because we learn directly from history, but because it widens our horizon of what it means to be human, and thus allows us to better understand others as well as ourselves. That is certainly fun and useful on a personal level, but also, I think, relevant to society at large. As far as I'm concerned, there is no crisis in the humanities.

That said, those of us who are so fortunate as to make a living from research certainly have an obligation to make what we do available and relevant to the public This is also the idea underlying SAMKUL program of the Research Council of Norway, which has funded the NeRoNE project. "The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome" of Edgar Allan Poe is hardly a useful narrative of the past for the 21st century. Researching social networks in antiquity gives insights into how traditional societies work, and by better understanding historical dynamics, we also, hopefully, better appreciate how we ended up were we are, and how traditional patterns of interaction continue to influence interaction in many parts of the world, albeit to different degrees. 
As for recommending the students I met yesterday to pursue degrees in the social sciences or in the humanities, I am unapologetic. The competition they are entering now, will give them a chance to see how research is produced, and this will give them a platform for understanding and also evaluating the products of research, so often relied upon by policy-makers and bureaucrats. If they decide to go on to university studies in Old Norse, French literature, ancient history, social anthropology, or any other among the multitude of exciting subjects we can offer, the education they'll receive will enable them better to understand the world and their place in it. Few of them will continue doing research in their professional lives, but their education will train them in amassing, processing and presenting information, and it will make them highly qualified, flexible and independent candidates, able to adjust to a changing labour market for the approximately 45 years they will spend working after studying human culture and society for three to five years. 


 
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