Approach to humanities research
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