The Humanities Effect, Social Science, Hard Science, and the Future of Academic History

3 01 2012

Perspectives on History, the magazine of the American Historical Association, recently published a very detailed piece on the state of the job market for history doctorates.  The author, Robert B. Townsend, presents some interesting data about what happens to people who get PhDs in history. The “bad news” is that only about 30% of the people who started PhDs in 1997 had landed tenure-track jobs by 2007. This is bad news, because most people who start PhDs in history are aiming to become professors.

The good news is that most of the PhD graduates go on to have fulfilling careers in which they make good use the credential they have earned. There are, of course, cases of history PhDs who end up working as real estate agents or in other occupations utterly unconnected to their field. Sometimes this is by choice or because of family reasons. In other cases, they simply can’t find an academic job. For the most part, however, the people who don’t get tenure-track academic jobs ultimately get positions in government and other organisations that allow them to use the skills they acquired in graduate school.  Consider this chart


Even though I’m a Canadian who did his PhD at a Canadian university (Western), I think that the pattern identified by Townsend’s data corresponds with what I observed about my colleagues from my PhD programme at Western. Most of the people who were in the programme with me have landed tenure-track jobs. In some cases, they got their jobs after several years on the post-doc/sessional lecturer circuit. Some of the others who didn’t get academic positions have found very comfortable niches for themselves working in government. Western began granting history PhDs in the late 1960s. The department has listed the current occupations of all of the PhD recipients since 1990 on its website.  The data here is incomplete, particularly for students who finished their PhDs in the last couple of years, but it gives a rough sense of where people have gone.

I was particularly interested in the part of Townsend’s article that deals with the so-called humanities effect.

One other change in the ecology of the academic job market is worth noting, as history salaries are now suffering from the “humanities effect.” As history has become more closely identified with the humanities over the past 25 to 30 years, history salaries have fallen below the average for all disciplines.

Back in the mid-1980s—when history was more closely aligned with the social sciences—history was above the average in academia. Since then, the discipline has fallen decisively below the average and now stands close to the other humanities fields such as English and Foreign Languages.6

The disciplinary shift from affiliation with social sciences—often made tangible through administrative shifts of history departments from their universities’ School of Social Science—had a direct effect on the resources available to departments. When combined with the large number of PhDs competing for a smaller number of jobs, wages in the discipline have been depressed for members of our discipline.

Townsend is making a very important point here.  The discipline of history is torn between the humanities and the social sciences. On the one hand, there are historians who approach history in a way that would not seem unfamiliar to a scholar of English literature or an art historian. On the other hand, there are the historians who incline more towards the social sciences, particularly political science and economics. Most political, diplomatic, and business historians fall into this category. Some history departments are more cultural, others are more social-scientific. Western, my PhD program, is one of the few history departments in Canada that is located in a Faculty of Social Science rather than in faculty of Arts or Humanities and that is reflected in the nature of the history taught and produced there. Some of the most stimulating parts of my graduate education were the joint seminars in which political scientists and economists. When I arrived at Western as a graduate student, I experienced a bit a culture shock, as my undergraduate eduction was at a university where the historians lean strongly in the opposite direction. At the time I completed my BA,  my main interests were in the history of political thought.  When I arrived at Western, I was thrust into a world in which historians spoke about regression analysis and IR theory.

As a business historian, I now count myself in the category of the social-scientific historians. However, I certainly see value in the humanities and feel it is sad that they are underfunded. I didn’t choose to specialize in the more social-scientific branches of history because I thought that there might be a bit more money in that field. I selected my research approach because that’s what interested me. However, now that I have ended up where I have, I recognise that there are some financial benefits in avoiding the so-called humanities effect.

Townsend’s comments about the humanities effect got me thinking about the future direction of the historical profession. The two fastest growing fields of history right now are digital history and environmental history.

Some of the people who work in the field of digital history are based in history departments. Others are computer scientists. At places like the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, you have people from various disciplinary backgrounds working alongside each other.  Environmental historians work with and draw on the knowledge created by biologists, geologists, environmental scientists, and other hard scientists. Moreover, physical scientists sometimes make use of the research findings of environmental historians. For instance, archival research by environmental historians has allowed us to reconstruct climate data for the past few centuries, which is immensely important for the debate about anthropogenic climate change.

Now, the humanities effect stems from the fact that society values some disciplines that study society (e.g., economics and political science) a bit more highly than others (e.g. literary studies). Economists and political scientists have somewhat more prestige than literary scholars. However, it is safe to say that  all of the disciplines that study society rank very low in the view of the general public and policy makers than people in the hard sciences, particularly the STEM subjects. The average taxpayer or legislator might display a slight preference for funding political science over poetry, but the funding allocated to the study of society is minuscule to that governments lavish on Big Science.   Since the Second World War and, more particularly, the launch of Sputnik in 1957, governments in Western countries have been very generous in their funding of scientists. Sputnik convinced many in the West that the Soviets had a dangerous lead in science and technology and they responded by shovelling money at the problem with the apparent support of the vast majority of citizens.

Many taxpayers begrudge spending relatively small amounts of money on the humanities and the social sciences, but there is pretty much a consensus in favour of generous support for the hard sciences. The hard sciences enjoy massive prestige in our society. Almost nobody critiques government funding of medical research, particularly on common diseases like cancer and heart disease. Computer science is also generously funded, again because it has massive prestige.

As I said, the two fastest growing sub-disciplines of history are digital history, which marries computer science and historical research, and environmental history. It just so happens that these sub-disciplines of history are closely connected with disciplines that enjoy considerable prestige and financial support in our society (the West) and in all of the other societies that give substantial funding for academic research (e.g., Japan, Korea, Singapore and, increasingly China and some of the Gulf States).

If historians were to adopt a completely mercenary approach towards securing the future of their profession, they would do well to encourage the growth of environmental history and digital public history. This is true for individual academic departments as well. Don’t get me wrong. There are perfectly valid non-financial reasons to foster these important fields. In a world with unlimited academic resources, it would still be the right thing to nurture these two branches of historical enquiry. However, in a world of constrained resources, there are additional reasons for wanting to promote them.