Humanities infuse research with history, culture and meaning

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How do humans assign value and meaning? What is the role of religion in our lives? Do we owe anything to the natural environment? Many of life’s deepest questions can't be studied in a test tube or solved with an algorithm. They can only be explored through the humanities.

Oct. 14, 2015

Video transcript


Arizona State University, Institute for Humanities Research

10 years of advancing humanities research

Ben Hurlbut, assistant professor, School of Life Sciences: What are the humanities? What a question. The humanities is a space of inquiry that deals with things that matter to human beings.

Nalini Chhetri, senior sustainability scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability: A lot of this is embedded in songs, in music, in culture, in art, in food.

Michael Simeone, director of Nexus Lab, Institute for Humanities Research (IHR): From climate change to social justice that have quantitative and engineering dimensions to them but also have incredibly complex humanistic and human dimensions to them.

Joan McGregor, professor of philosophy, School of Philosophical, Historical and Religious Studies: And the, sort of, moral dimensions of human existence.

[Medical humanities]

Sally Kitsch, director, IHR: The humanities are absolutely central to the way we conceptualize health and well-being, the way we conceptualize health care systems and how doctors and other clinicians practice medicine and how it is to be a patient within the system that we have.

[ASU-Mayo partnership]

Cora Fox, associate director, IHR: The Mayo partnership has been really exciting for us at the IHR because it’s given us a chance to do something that most people within medical institutions and also within academic institutions would like to do, which is to bring them together.

Tamara Underiner, associate dean for research, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts: More and more we’re seeing to the possibility of working with artists and humanists on the research teams to bring forth the questions that we ask; questions of ethics, questions of history in some cases, certainly questions of meaning.

[Environmental humanities]

Joni Adamson, professor, Department of English: We’ve been thinking about to bring the sciences and humanities together to rethink the way we live on the planet. We wanted to imagine what is our relationship to food here in the Valley and what will our relationship to food here in the Valley be in 25 years.

[Dinner 2040: The Future of Food]

Chhetri: We thought that food would capture the essence of how we want to envision the future, how we want to encompass our value system and also have fun.

McGregor: Thinking that this is one of the ways in which humanists can engage in collaborative work with a community but actually will be something that is useful.

If you want to protect the history, cultural traditions of a place, you wanted to make sure the food system preserved ecological integrity, that isn’t going to destroy the environment, that it protected social justice, people had access to it, and people within the food system worked and also provided healthy food.

[Computational and digital humanities]

Simeone: We envision the Nexus Lab as common ground where people from all over ASU can work on project-centered, problem-motivated research that is going to produce tangible results that will affect not just the academic community but the broader public as well.

Jacqueline Hettel, deputy director, Nexus Lab, IHR: We took a look across campus seeing what projects were out there that already had digitized or had some kind of digital content ready that we could do some training and web app development around. We came across an IHR seed grant recipient that had received monies from the Institute for Humanities Research to digitize the newsletters that were written by Carlos Montezuma, who is a very prominent figure of the Yavapai community.

And in the end we have a fully functioning web application that has imported automatically all of the items that were digitized and put into the ASU Libraries repository and made it into a searchable and interactive web application. It was really great to see how something that we had done initially just for professional development could actually lead to something for community impact and access.

Chhetri: What are the big questions that humanities wants to answer?

Fox: They’re the fundamental reason that we pursue all kinds of research and knowledge.

Simeone: How do deep questions about history and language affect the way that we design software and think about where technology ought to be or where we want technology to be?

Fox: What role do religion and religious values play in people’s lives? What is our moral relationship to the natural world? Do we owe the natural world anything?

Hurlbut: Why do resources go here and not there? Why do we think certain things are important and tend to neglect other things? In what ways does that configure the worlds we bring into existence?

Chhetri: What is our purpose in life? Why were we born and what is our contribution in society?

Underiner: What makes life meaningful for human beings, both in the past and in the present, with a hope of understanding how we might move forward together into the future.

Hurlbut: The things that differentiate us from the wider world of living beings; we produce ideas.


61 Research Clusters, 83 Seed Grants, 50 ASU Fellows, 18 Visiting Fellows


Kitch: One of my personal hopes is to create a lab environment as a collaborative space where humanists and artists and musicians and the library and all kinds of units will interact on a daily basis to conceptualize both the way we talk and teach about the humanities and the significance of humanities research to everyday life. It’s another way of making the humanities more significant to more people in the university and beyond.


The humanities are everywhere, in everyone and in you.

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