The Progress of the Humanities

Over on Facebook, my friend Adam Elkus linked me to an article by David Lake, titled “Theory is Dead, Long Live Theory: The End of the Great Debates and the Rise of Eclecticism in International Relations. [pdf]” The piece is extremely strong, and describes International Relations split into two camps: one engaged in normal science capable of progress, and the other a tiresome collection of “Great Debates” that are never answered.

There’s a lot to love in Lake’s paper — it really is very high quality — but the most evocative image from it is the threat that International Relations will split into two fields that do not even study the same phenomenon. What if the scientists focus on experiments (and quasi-experiments) that can be conducted in the here and now, while the Great Debaters retreat into history and just-so stories?

To me, the best hope to save International Relations from such a fate lies in the “digital humanities.” The digital humanities are not just a method for those interested in the past to escape the “humanities ghetto of low employment and low wages
— rather, the “Digital Humanities” use Big Data techniques to understand our common past, in the same way that companies like Facebook use many of the same techniques to understand many private pasts. (Some more information on the digital humanities is available on the personal site of Jason Heppler of Stanford University.)

As an example, take Lake’s discussion of Zara Steiner‘s Triumph of the Dark, a narrative history of the outbreak of the Second World War. Lake notes the rigor of the book, but sadly states such a work can generate no hypotheses or tests. But a digital humanities approach — say working from the massive newspaper, magazine, book, and census corpora at our disposal, is not so limited. It is easy to imagine hypotheses that explain the reason for the motives of leaders with that amount of data to work with. Perhaps the degree to which “Hitler wanted war” can be tracked by measuring the day-to-day bellicosity of the written works of those he met with? Or might the locations that we knew Neville Chamberlain spent certain parts of his life be linked to pro-peace inflections in the lives of others?

International Relations is the science dedicated to predicting, controlling, and improving the behavior of States. This should be done through hypotheses testing, modeling building, and including the methods of the digital humanities. There are many ways to advance science.

In the chaos of old boy networks – in stagnant fields with no progress – it sucks to be young. But in all those areas where science and technology march hand-in-hand toward progress, it is a joy to be young!

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