Mission Madness, Part II: Methods and the Scientizing of Knoweldge

I’ve been part of a lot of conversations lately about the value of higher education, especially the PhD. And many of these conversations circle around points of funding for the university, jobs for PhD graduates, and accessibility via technology such as MOOCs. In all of these conversations, however, the value discussed is framed by economics. It would seem from my point of view that if we could just eliminate the unduly costs associated with tuition and guarantee that graduates had some meaningful employment after graduation, then the controversies might die down a bit. We’d still have to discuss inequity, access, and diversity, of course, but even these seem to be bookended by conversations of monetary gains. 

Perhaps I should bring this conversation down to an example: methods. Since beginning my PhD three years ago, I’ve noted an extraordinary emphasis on the kinds of methods I’m learning as they relate to funding and jobs. Specifically, the scientific method is the most important, the top of the hierarchy, but it gets operationalized through other processes that are largely technological. Several of my colleagues in the sciences, for example, focus on statistics or algorithms, those mathematical manipulations that help quantify and predict various behaviors.

Image taken from BrainPickings at http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/02/23/systematic-wonder/

Image taken from BrainPickings at http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/02/23/systematic-wonder/

And they talk about remote sensing–the ability to capture, interpret, and apply the various instruments that allow us to attain data without contacting a particular object (think radar, satellites, cameras). In my field of weather forecasting, the emphasis on GIS and social media has been gaining favor, especially if you can combine the two and map different trends in Twitter, for example, showing patterns of communication. Even in my more qualitative disciplines, the ability to conduct surveys, focus groups, and interviews, which are then coded and transformed into analytical interpretations–these are privileged above other methods like discourse analysis or participant observations. 

The reason these methods are valued is because they are the basis for employment–and the foundation of a lot of research funded by the NSF. If you can explain your dissertation in terms of quantitative or code-able work, then you can find money to pay for that research. 

But what about the arts and humanities? Or those methods that are more interpretive and analytic sans math or technology. I’m continually frustrated by the fact that I have to tailor my interests to methods that are legitimated by continuing the neoliberal context of the university. We want to make productive citizens, those who contribute to particular kinds of knowledge creation. If you get a degree in history, communication, English or art, for example, the question is always this: What can you do?

Read: Where are your methods? How do you add value? 

Image taken from http://brynnevans.com/blog/2010/01/31/putting-the-craft-in-design-thinking/

Image taken from http://brynnevans.com/blog/2010/01/31/putting-the-craft-in-design-thinking/

In a lovely collective discussion on science and scientism, my colleague in STS, Monique Durfour, in an article on the website Social Epistemology puts her finger right on the nose of my concern. She asks this of the debate about the trend toward making all disciplines look like science:

Who do these debates invite humanists to be? And, more broadly, what roles seem available to us in the current culture of scientism? 

I’m not an idealist–well, not only an idealist. But I’m worried that the land-grant mission at Virginia Tech encourages not only a particular sub-set of methods and approaches to what counts as research. It also pushes departments and students to scientize their humanities, their arts, their history. We have digital humanities, digital literature, digital arts. I’m not saying these are bad, but they are under tremendous pressure to conform to the methods of the sciences.

And I’m struggling to fit in, not because I can’t do those methods that will get me a job. I can. But I miss alternate ways of approaching problems, ones I fear will largely disappear from universities of the future.

  1 comment for “Mission Madness, Part II: Methods and the Scientizing of Knoweldge

  1. kenblack2013
    February 10, 2014 at 12:51 pm


    I can relate to this as well. As you have mentioned the humanities have a particularly difficult time coming to terms with the issue of over-quantifying and labeling research. Architecture also sits in an odd place when it comes to research. For example, I have done “scientific” research with green roof runoff, but in the same day turned around and used watercolor studies of buildings as art in critical research.

    I also have had to tailor my work to more reproducible results. Unfortunately there is going to be a wait time until “STEM” becomes “STEAM” and includes the arts and humanities as critical areas of study.

    Long story short, I agree, and hopefully we can change that attitude in the future and not allow alternative methods to disappear entirely.

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