Ap­proach to hu­man­i­ties re­search

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IN Malaysia, the ap­proach to hu­man­i­ties re­search is fre­quently ei­ther mis­un­der­stood or to­tally dis­missed. When one at­tends talks, cour­ses or re­search work­shops, re­search method­olo­gies and aca­demic writ­ing are grouped to­gether un­der one over­ar­ch­ing rubric, for ex­am­ple, “so­cial sciences and hu­man­i­ties”. Em­pha­sis is in­vari­ably upon the so­cial sciences.

Sim­i­larly, ap­pli­ca­tions for re­search fund­ing re­quire the pro­posal to fol­low the con­ven­tional out­line and struc­ture typ­i­cal of the sciences. In fact, hu­man­i­ties re­search con­tin­ues to strug­gle in an en­vi­ron­ment wherein hard sci­ence is the par­a­digm and thus more likely to at­tract fund­ing.

Apro­pos of Malaysian con­fer­ences, any paper pre­sented that adopts a hu­man­i­ties ap­proach, that is it fo­cuses on “tex­tual anal­y­sis”, faces the like­li­hood of be­ing crit­i­cised by some at­ten­dees for not ac­cen­tu­at­ing and elab­o­rat­ing on the method­ol­ogy/ies em­ployed. Crit­ics of­ten at­tack the hu­man­i­ties ap­proach on the ba­sis that the rules of ev­i­dence em­ployed are not mea­sur­able, are sub­jec­tive, and lack any form of im­port. For these rea­sons, the hu­man­i­ties ap­proach fre­quently in­vites deroga­tory crit­i­cism, for ex­am­ple, the la­bel “arm­chair re­search”.

Re­gret­tably, in Malaysia to­day, many re­searchers, schol­ars and post­grad­u­ate stu­dents in the arts and hu­man­i­ties tend to ap­proach their re­search from a sci­en­tific per­spec­tive. They seem obliv­i­ous of the fact that al­though both the hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sciences seek to un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate the hu­man con­di­tion, they rely on con­trast­ing ways of know­ing and method­olo­gies to achieve their goals.

The over­all ob­jec­tive of the hu­man­i­ties is to ex­plore, ex­am­ine and high­light the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, of­ten draw­ing upon writ­ten texts, par­tic­u­larly those ex­plor­ing his­tory, phi­los­o­phy, re­li­gion and lit­er­a­ture. How­ever, in the ar­eas of per­for­mance, mov­ing im­age, vis­ual and fine arts, a piece of cre­ative and artis­tic work – for ex­am­ple, a film, per­for­mance or paint­ing – can also be con­sid­ered a “text” that can be sub­jected to close scru­tiny or anal­y­sis.

The hu­man­i­ties re­search ap­proach re­lies on in­ter­pre­ta­tion as its pri­mary method, an ap­proach also re­ferred to as her- meneu­tics – the art, prac­tice and the­ory of tex­tual in­ter­pre­ta­tion. In other words, hermeneu­tics in­volves the ways in which we take in in­for­ma­tion and – through in­ter­pre­ta­tion – turn it into knowl­edge. It takes its place among other meth­ods em­ployed by the hu­man­i­ties, such as his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and phe­nomenol­ogy.

Stan­dards of mean­ing gen­er­ated by hu­man­i­ties re­search evolve and change in con­cert with move­ment through time and space and from one cul­tural con­text to an­other. When it comes to ev­i­dence in the hu­man­i­ties, what is re­quired is nei­ther ab­so­lute proof nor ir­refutable ev­i­dence but sen­si­tiv­ity, per­cep­tive­ness and in­sight­ful­ness.

Hu­man­i­ties schol­ars usu­ally start by mak­ing a claim and then ar­gue to sup­port it. There­fore, the per­sua­sive­ness of this ap­proach lies in the rhetor­i­cal force with which the case is made. By means of in­ter­pre­ta­tion, they ex­pose the work to a new light that fa­cil­i­tates its ex­plo­ration from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive.

Hu­man­i­ties re­search adopts an in­duc­tive ap­proach: The the­ory is formed and pred­i­cated on the data ob­tained. This ap­proach is more flex­i­ble than the sci­en­tific ap­proach given that it al­lows a change of em­pha­sis to take place through­out the process. In the hu­man­i­ties, the re­searcher is con­sid­ered part of the re­search process. She or he is free to in­cor­po­rate per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence and anec­dotes into her/his writ­ings.

Re­search into cul­tural texts, phe­nom­ena and art­works can be ap­proached from var­i­ous per­spec­tives (in­clud­ing the sciences), de­pend­ing on the topic, fo­cus, na­ture and aim.

How­ever, they are best ex­plored through a hu­man­i­ties lens if one seeks to “make sense” by ex­plor­ing the sig­nif­i­cance, value, con­scious­ness, imag­i­na­tion and mean­ing of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. This will help to en­lighten the reader or au­di­ence vis-à-vis what the artist, cre­ator or au­thor meant while dove­tail­ing the work with the broader pic­ture.

My main con­cerns are that re­search in Malaysia has be­come sci­ence-cen­tric and is re­stricted by edicts re­gard­ing how arts and hu­man­i­ties re­search should be un­der­taken.

It is my sin­cere hope that the ap­proach to hu­man­i­ties re­search will be­come more recog­nised and bet­ter un­der­stood by those in aca- demia and, by ex­ten­sion, be given room to de­velop fur­ther in Malaysia.

For some years, the arts and hu­man­i­ties dis­ci­plines have been rel­e­gated to the pe­riph­ery of Malaysian academia. As a con­se­quence, they con­tinue to face se­ri­ous chal­lenges re­gard­ing le­git­i­macy and place in the coun­try’s uni­ver­si­ties.

Through hard work, rig­or­ous ques­tion­ing, sound ar­gu­ment and pro­found re­flec­tion, hu­man­i­ties schol­ars con­trib­ute to the dis­sem­i­na­tion of knowl­edge that ex­tends be­yond facts and fig­ures. As an al­ter­na­tive to the em­pir­i­cal ap­proach, hu­man­i­ties re­search is unique and dy­namic inas­much as it seeks to pose ques­tions rather than pro­vide de­fin­i­tive an­swers. Ul­ti­mately, its ma­jor aims are to yield wis­dom and in­sight. For these rea­sons, it must be ac­knowl­edged as a form of in­quiry dif­fer­ent from those of the sciences.

NOR­MAN YUSOFF Fac­ulty of Film, Theatre and An­i­ma­tion Univer­siti Te­knologi MARA Cawan­gan Se­lan­gor Shah Alam

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