At its most fundamental level, research is driven by curiosity; it is a form of intellectual exploration that can be employed by any individual on any topic. All it takes to conduct research is a motivation and desire to expand the breadth of human knowledge.
However, when we talk about research in the public sphere, patterns and stereotypes tend to emerge: images of scientists in lab coats, or news articles about STEM fields and commercial enterprises, such as breakthroughs in cancer research or advances in automotive efficiency. These headline-grabbing research stories revolve around applied research – in other words, research designed to answer specific questions or aimed at solving practical problems.
Research in the humanities is no less vital but is often omitted from these larger conversations. This type of research is intended to answer large-scale questions – for instance, how does social inequality manifest in different cultures? – or increase our understanding of the qualities that make us human and the principles around which we define our societies. These big-picture questions require “fundamental” research methods, and humanists are trained specifically for such projects.
This type of research is happening at universities across Idaho. For instance, faculty at Lewis and Clark College are currently involved in research on an early 20th century female activist who left her mark on Idaho, developing new indigenous content courses for students, and mapping the genealogy of ecology in 17th century literature and natural philosophy.
At Boise State, we broadly define research in terms of “scholarly and artistic output.” People are often surprised to learn that creative writing is one of our five main research strengths – along with public policy, sensors, geosciences and materials science. We have poets and creative writers on campus honing their craft. We have English faculty members creating interactive websites devoted to the marginalia of the 19th century author Herman Melville and history professors who read Renaissance Islamic maps – much like first-person texts – as carto-ideographic models of the medieval world.
In addition, our campus Latino organization, Casita Nepantla, recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to document art and cultural expression of Latinos in rural and urban communities throughout Idaho, making it one of only 245 humanities research projects of its kind funded across the nation.
Faculty are not the only ones engaging in humanities research across the state. History students at The College of Idaho recently traveled to China’s Sichuan province, where they researched typical facets of Chinese temples and produced a detailed virtual reality tour of the Zhaojue Monastery, an ancient Buddhist temple. Undergraduate history, art and psychology students also researched Israel’s use of architecture to preserve religious orthodoxy.
It is easy to connect the social benefits of projects aimed at introducing indigenous cultures to a new generation of students, understanding how religion influences architecture or documenting the contributions of Latinos to Idaho culture. However, not all research must be justified by its results. The beauty of research is that its results are unpredictable, as are its applications and impact.
It is important to remember that although fundamental and applied research may be drastically different in their methods and applications, both are equally vital to society. By recognizing their differences, it becomes clear that these types of research needn’t compare or compete, but rather be appreciated alongside each other as differing yet complementary quests to better understand our world and our place within it.
They are equally necessary components to the enterprise of research, not only because questions about how things work often lead to new processes and technologies (and vice-versa), but also because exploring a question in depth is, in and of itself, a celebration of the human condition.
At its core, good research is in the business of understanding and improving the human condition, which is why humanists, historians, political scientists, engineers, nurses and geoscientists (and many more) all belong under the banner of research. Whether researchers are working in STEM fields or in the humanities, they are united in their curiosity and willingness to hypothesize, explore, fail or ultimately succeed in their quest to better understand how things, and people, work.
Humanities research deserves to be recognized and celebrated for the important contributions it makes to how we view and understand our society. We wouldn’t be who we are, and where we are, without it.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. He writes monthly.