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Cultures of Inquiry in the Humanities   Tags: cultural studies, culture, humanities  

An attempt to provide a broader context for library-based instruction in humanities resources. Based in part on previous work done by humanities bibliographers Stephen Wiberley, William Wortman, and Marcia Pankake.
Last Updated: Sep 18, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts
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Introduction: Disciplinary Cultures of Academia

   Recently a student approached me with a  puzzle—why, she wondered, given that every student worked with the same readings and the same study questions, did they come up with so many different answers in class discussions?  Knowing that she was  majoring  in the biological sciences, I asked if the situation was similar in her own field; and she quickly answered, generally not.  For the most part, she continued, questions in the natural sciences have one answer that’s clearly better than any of the others. And so it occurred to me that C.P. Snow’s old two cultures thesis on the distinction between the sciences and what he called “humane learning,” or what we would call the humanities, was just as relevant today as it was in the 1950s. We began to talk about how different the humanities are from the more exact sciences.

   What we came up with eventually was not so far from what Snow himself had suggested so long ago. On the one hand, we have academic and intellectual cultures that  formulate hypotheses, gather and subsequently analyse data by various means (e.g. experiment, survey, or fieldwork), or construct mathematical models; and on the other there are those that focus on texts of various kinds, and artifacts such as works of art, developing different means of interpreting them. These humanities disciplines do not generally seek to confirm or deny a hypothesis, but rather to pursue different interpretations of what we can call, loosely-speaking, the cultural record.  Methodologically, the  records have two dimensions: they contain and preserve the data of  interest to the humanist, and they themselves--as material objects--often serve as data. You can get data out of books, and you can study the book itself as object; and the same holds for musical scores, painting, pieces of scultpture, buildings, and a number of others. 


Common features of all cultures

What is a culture? General dimensions

  • Worldview:  a cognitive dimension

  • Ethos:  a normative dimension.  Ethical imperatives, aesthetic preferences

  • Transmission from older/established generation to younger/rising generation

  • Culture(s) not directly perceived, but revealed through language/communication: the outside or exterior surface of culture


Common elements of humanistic cultures of inquiry

 General elements of humanistic inquiry

  • Goal is understand human activity by examining the documents and artifacts that humans create and record (Wiberley 2000: 301).
  •  Underlying focus: how humans symbolically construct their worlds 

                       Contrast with empiricism: whether or not this experience is real or factual is distinctly secondary and often enough of little interest

  •  Humanities inquiry seeks to establish & preserve cultural records for  critical interrogation
  •  These records are the “primary sources” of humanities research.
  •   Requires spaces for collection: the library, the archive, the museum—the humanist’s laboratories  

Presuppositions or Preconditions of Humanities Cultures

  Presuppositions of humanities cultures

  •  “Document” here means written or printed text
  • “Artifact” here means cultural records other than texts--e.g. paintings, sculptures, buildings, films and otherkinds of audio- and audio-visual programming
  • Some cultural records are hybrids
  • Examples of cultural records
    • Inscribed/written
    • Printed
    • Visual/aural
    • Published and unpublished
  • ·      Documents and artifacts both supply content that serve as the data of humanistic  research, and serve as objects of inquiry

     Contrast with scientific, empiricist cultures of inquiry—empirically-based inquiry collects & analyzes data via experiment, survey, field observation, and documentary records.

  • Scholars and librarians overlap here:  what sources/starting points are needed for an inquiry?  The kind of source needed differentiates the user groups.

                Librarian-----SOURCES------humanities cultures     

·                                                    Source=document OR artifact



Further Differentiations

Further differentiaton  of humanities cultures: proximity to vs. distance from the record (Wiberley 2000: 306 ff)

(Coming) Closer to the record

  • Bibliography—all types, but particularly descriptive and analytical
  • Clarifies relation between “work” and “text” (Wortman 2000: 23)
  • Supports attribution of authorship/authenticity
  • “Primary” source can be any edition or version
  • Editing
    • Comparison/contrast of  variant editions as primary sources (Wiberley 2000: 305)
    • Formation of “standard editions” that become “primary” for criticism
    • Annotation & commentary: providing editorial apparatus
  • Philology, language, and lexicography
  • Identifies body of  literary source materials ( often called a “corpus”)         

     Analysis of  corpus provides master list of words or phrases (also called a “lexicon”)

Farther (or  moving away from) the record: From  commentator to author

  • ·      Historical, biographical, and cultural studies

o   Common in literature, religious studies, philosophy, and the arts fields

o   Uses broad range “primary” sources: original vs later editions, period-based magazine and newspaper writings, pamphlet/gray literature, and a variety of unpublished document types.

o   Recent example: historical studies of texts, publishing, distribution, shifting meanings of composition, production, dissemination, reception (Wortman 2000: 37). 

  • ·      Criticism

o   “Primary” sources are the works of an author                

           Reliance on standard, i.e. highly-edited editions of mainstream authors (subsequent rather than original editions issued by author in author’s lifetime)

·      Some non-historical varietiesx view authors & works in isolation from  their historical context

  • Theory/Conceptual analysis

o   Heavily cite other theoretical/philosophical works

o   Frequent use of sources from variety of disciplines

o   “Primary source” is more likely the work than the text





Modes of Engagement: Reading vs Information-seeking

Reading vs. information-seeking/information retrieval: distinguishing cultural literacy from information-seeking

  • There is much useful information about the humanities, but the humanities themselves are not about information (see Wortman’s similar characterization of  literature 2000: 35).

  • Rather, humanitites research is  focused on reading, or more broadly, interpretation.

  • Reading and interpretation are not focused on extracting information or data, rather on  but  the discovery or derivation of significance

  • Reading and interpretation are accomplished by decoding signs. 

  • In humanitites research, there are two major sign types:
    • Letters or characters in written & printed  texts--literature, broadly defined
    • Imagery found in both texts and artifacts ("Inscribed Text," in "Images of the Cultural Record" Box)




 Wiberley, Stephen.  “A typology of literary scholarship for academic librarians.” In Betty H. Day and William Wortman, eds., Literature in English: A guide for Librarians in the Digital Age.  Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2000. Pp.  300-318.

Wortman, William.“The Nature of Library Collections. ” In Betty H. Day and William Wortman, eds., Literature in English: A guide for Librarians in the Digital Age.  Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2000. Pp. 20-59.

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