Towers and networks: on the differences between the sciences and the humanities

Having worked for several years in interdisciplinary environments, a thing often heard both from humanists and scholars in STEM disciplines is a kind of amiable incomprehension about the way the other works. It crops up in relation to publishing, in the so-called ‘reproducibility crisis’, and in many other contexts. Here, I propose a pair of metaphors which may go a little way, towards least, at bridging the gap.

One of the questions that was ever-present in the background of my recent little book about edited collections was this: why is it that the edited collection is so prevalent in the humanities and (to a lesser degree) in the social sciences, while it is very rare indeed in the hard sciences? I didn’t address the question directly, as I wanted to explore how the format worked in the places where it was to be found, rather than to account for its absence elsewhere. But it has come to mind once again, prompted by a 2014 post by Patrick Dunleavy of the LSE (which had eluded me until now) on the varying cultures of citation in STEM subjects, when compared the humanities and social sciences. (In short, the critique is that, in general, articles in the latter tend to cite many fewer publications by others; that this is a bad thing – even a failure of ethics – and should be changed.)

The two issues may seem unrelated, but I should like to suggest that the answer to both lies in understanding the structurally different way in which knowledge accumulates in the ‘hard’ sciences as opposed to the more humanistic disciplines. I suggest that the difference may usefully thought about by means of two metaphors for bodies of scholarly literature: the tower, and the network. The two metaphors doubtless oversimplify the matter, but contain nonetheless a real and durable distinction.

Consider for a moment a particular topic in medical research: the making of a vaccine for a virus. All the several teams currently racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 will – I strongly suspect – all be fully familiar with the same literature: that published on COVID-19 specifically since the crisis started; on vaccines already developed for other coronaviruses; on the development of vaccines in general. And although these literatures are doubtless very large, they may be visualised as a tower, in which each individual study forms a brick in the wall. The dependence of the scholar on each study is relatively direct – all the bricks are, as it were, load-bearing in the structure. The papers high up in the walls could not have been written without those below them.

Contrast this for a moment with an essay I have just this week completed on the conservative poet and critic C.H. Sisson, and specifically his understanding of the relationship of church and state in 1970s England. To be sure, there is a tower here, but only a small one – a group of half a dozen studies over the past forty years that have touched on the specific question of Sisson’s religious politics. My work builds on, refines, critiques and contradicts these as it proceeds.

But the tower metaphor only takes one so far, and so I propose a new, or at least additional, one, of the network. The essay is also a new node in a vast network of studies on the very broad fields of British religion, politics and the arts in the twentieth century. I’ve been reading in these fields for nearly twenty years, and am sure that my mind has been shaped in ways that I couldn’t possibly remember, by studies that I don’t even recall reading. Sisson was an example of many things: a certain kind of political conservative, a maker of trouble in his parish church, a resident of Kent and then Somerset – he has a local history – a fierce anti-Catholic, a working-class boy made good, a member of a profession (the civil service), a former soldier who had served in colonial India, a philosopher of religious language (of a sort), a poet with a certain set of ideas about how verse should work. Each of these aspects of his life and thought is touched upon in my account. Each of those aspects – English anticatholicism and the ecumenical movement, the local history of Kent, the Anglican parish system, the political history of English conservatism, the effects of the Empire on English thought, the evolution of religious language, the development of English poetry – has its own scholarly literature, some of them vast; much of it I have read, but I can hardly claim to know it all. All I can hope to do is to refer the reader to studies that most closely touch my work, or that exemplify current ways of understanding the period, and that provide ways into those literatures; to create new edges in the network that the reader can follow. To systematically cite them all is simply impractical, and arguably pointless. It is surely this structural difference between different kinds of knowledge that in part accounts for differing citation cultures. I have added a brick to a small tower, and a node to a vast network.

And the connection with the edited collection? Perhaps the reason that the edited collection is so rare in the hard sciences is that it is very difficult for it to contain bricks from the same tower. If bricks are to be laid on top of each other – to cite and develop each other – they can’t very easily be published simultaneously.

However, the edited collection format is ideal for the publication of a group of new nodes in a network, since they are not so dependent on each other. My study on Sisson is (I hope) to form part of a collection on his work, alongside essays on his verse, and on his translations of the Latin classics. I cite one of the other chapters as providing a complementary point of view; I could have written my own chapter without it, but they are now in relation with each other. With some modification, however, my essay might have equally well have found a home in a recent edited collection on the Church of England and politics, or in another on the developing relationship between the Church of England and the arts. The three volumes (two real, the last still just an idea in my mind) are each a snapshot of different sets of nodes in the greater network.

Like all metaphors, my tower and my network are a simplification; all fields will manifest elements of both patterns. And there are also structural and economic reasons why the literatures in different fields tend more toward either tower or network, which I don’t propose to go into here. But I would assert that literatures in the hard sciences in general are structured more like the tower, and those in the humanities as a network. If having such metaphors to hand does anything to lessen some of the mutual incomprehension between disciplines, then I shall have achieved my aim.

In praise of the edited collection

[A post first published at On History, the blog of the Institute of Historical Research.]

As a publishing format, the edited collection of essays has had a bad press. Collections are widely supposed to contain lesser work than scholarly journals; to be incoherent as volumes, no more than the sum of their parts; and to be less visible to potential readers once published. It’s often claimed that those who make decisions in relation to hiring, promotion, tenure and funding also share this opinion. To publish in or edit an essay collection is thought to risk being penalised for the format, before even a word is read.

But is this a fair assessment?

In my new book, The Edited Collection: pasts, present and futures (Cambridge University Press, £9.99), I attempt a defence of the format. I explore the modern history of the edited collection and the particular roles it has played. I then examine each component part of the critique, showing either that they’re largely unfounded or (if they are of real substance) that they may be resolved.

Though suspicion of the edited collection is found across the disciplines, it’s most trenchantly expressed from within the hard sciences in which both book chapters and indeed monographs figure little. (In 2014, 99.5% of submissions to REF Main Panel A — for medicine and biological sciences — were journal articles, leaving almost no space for alternative formats such as essays or monographs.)

In the arts and humanities, however, the picture is quite different. Here freestanding edited collections remain a far more significant publishing format, and one — moreover — that’s holding its own in relation to the alternatives.

Data from the Bibliography of British and Irish History shows that, as the scale of history publishing has grown, the relative proportions of monographs, journal articles and book chapters remained all but unchanged between 1996 and 2015. In the 2014 REF, for History, one book chapter was submitted for every 1.7 journal articles. As well as individual chapters, editors also submitted whole edited volumes for assessment as a unit; in the same REF one in five of the books submitted to Main Panel D was an edited volume.

But for historians, as for many across the humanities and social sciences, it’s not just a question of numbers.

In my book I adopt a case study approach to demonstrate the creative potential of the edited collection. The studies I explore show a rich interplay in such volumes, as scholars are brought together to add to—and to assess the state of—an issue, or indeed the current state and purpose of a discipline. On occasions this conversation has been confined within the academy; at other times it’s engaged other professionals outside with particular stakes in the matter under investigation. It has proved a natural vehicle for interdisciplinary enquiry. Such collections may either be the natural outgrowth of an existing group of scholars or the creation by an editor or publisher, sometimes bringing together those with opposing views. What emerges overall, however, is a profoundly communal and conversational endeavour.

One of my case studies is of a form of edited collection that is peculiar to history: the institutional history, and within this the histories of cathedrals in particular.

Several of the English cathedral churches date their foundation, or at least the building of their current structures, to the Anglo-Norman period. Consequently, as the end of the twentieth century approached, there was a series of cathedral histories, some of them tied to nine-hundredth or other anniversary commemorations. First off the mark was York Minster, with a volume of essays published in 1977 by the Clarendon Press. The initiative had come from the dean and chapter (the governing body of the minster), against a background of growing interest in its archaeology and its monuments.

An initial editorial committee included Owen Chadwick, regius professor of modern history at Cambridge (and also a priest and person of some influence within the Church of England), who also contributed a chapter. But the volume was also a local affair—edited by Gerald Aylmer, the first professor of history in the still young University of York, and Reginald Cant, canon chancellor of the minster. Most of the other contributors were university-based scholars connected either with Cambridge or York, but the early architecture was covered by Eric A. Gee of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, which was based in the city; the chapter on the minster library was by C. B. L. Barr, of the university library, in the custody of which the minster library was kept.

Since then, there has been a crop of similar volumes as the other ancient cathedrals have followed suit. Most of these volumes had some sort of connection with a local university, and involvement from writers associated with the cathedral itself. They have tended to encompass several disciplinary perspectives: national and local history, musicology, archaeology, bibliography and the history of art and architecture.

Chichester cathedral from the west. Image: Peter Webster.

The combination of these perspectives has varied, however, as has the relative weight of contributions from the city in question and from the wider university sector. Oxford University Press published the volume for Canterbury Cathedral, the principal church in England, in 1995. More than a decade in the planning, the impetus had come both from the Press and from Donald Coggan, archbishop of Canterbury until 1980. All three editors were connected with Canterbury, including Patrick Collinson, regius professor in Cambridge but formerly professor at the University of Kent. However, the team of contributors was overwhelmingly academic and drawn from the universities.

By contrast, the 1994 volume for Chichester was composed of work from a more diverse and locally focused group. It was edited by the cathedral archivist, Mary Hobbs, with the assistance of a historian at the West Sussex Institute of Higher Education (now the University of Chichester), Andrew Foster. The deputy county archivist (in whose care much of the historic archive rests) dealt with the cathedral’s archives and its antiquaries, and Hobbs herself with the library. The chapters on the medieval and early modern cathedral were from specialists, as were those on the architecture and on the cathedral’s art. The twentieth-century chapters, in contrast, were by clergy with a connection with the cathedral.

The cathedral history, then, has been a meeting point of institutional and local history with religious history more broadly, and the concerns of historians of architecture, music, art and of the book. The edited volume has been found to be a useful — indeed, probably the only — means of brokering that interchange.

On joining the crowdfunding revolution

A question often asked in the ongoing argument about Open Access and academic publishing is ‘what value do publishers add, exactly?’ I want to add one more element to the mix: academic publishers do a valuable service in protecting authors from the embarrassment of thinking and talking about money.

What do I mean by this? The business of researching and writing is an individual one, about as individual as they come. ‘I’ve got important things to say, that no-one else knows, and I’m really good at saying them’ we in effect say: ‘read my work’. And were academics not employed by universities, but were instead personal trainers, or management consultants, then day in, day out, they would be saying that very directly, to known individuals or organisations. ‘Hire me, and not the other guy; I’m really good. And these are my prices.’

But for scholars employed by universities, this relationship is diffused, and this direct transaction largely avoided. Although the ‘product’ is a unique one, it is produced for distribution to a larger group. Though one may know very well the small knot of readers who will most obviously want to read it (the people we’ve met at conferences), we assume that there is a larger reading public out there for our work, and it is for the publisher to manage that relationship for us.

Even those who have overcome the reticence about “blowing one’s own trumpet” on social media are shielded from the full knowledge of how their work is valued. Yes, tweets and posts are liked and shared, and replies and comments (good or bad) can come, but the medium does not force a translation of that attention into economic terms. If one publishes in a learned journal, as an author one receives no price feedback whatever, and in the case of books (and the royalty statements that come with them), it is often difficult to distinguish between library sales and sales to individuals. One would never know which individuals had bought a book unless they chose to tell us so.

And so I’m trying something new, something that feels both creative but also potentially very embarrassing. Over on the Patreon platform, it is now possible to sign up as a supporter of my work, at a princely sum of £2 per month. For this, supporters get advance access to some of the long-form writing that ends up on this blog (the length of time involved will vary from post to post). In time, I may well add more expensive tiers of membership that give access to work in progress, online events, competitions and the like.

But I hope to convince potential patrons that the main reason to sign up is to help support the provision of new writing to anyone and everyone, free of charge. The costs of the work are not vast, but they are not negligible either, and have to be covered somehow.

One of the strongest arguments for Open Access is that research that is funded from the public purse should be freely available to the public. I have never been in that position; not a word of my published work has been directly supported by the state. And so this experiment is one in an older way of funding creative work (and, yes, I would place humanities scholarship in that category). Rather than depending on a single aristocratic (or public) patron, artists and writers can now build dispersed communities of many patrons each making a small contribution. How such a community might shape the work itself remains to be seen. But first I’d like to see whether that community exists.

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The fame of C.S. Lewis: a review

Stephanie L. Derrick
The fame of C.S. Lewis. A controversialist’s reception in Britain and America
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018
978-0-19-881944-8

[A review to be published in Reading Religion.]

Readers might be forgiven for asking how much more there is to be known about C.S. Lewis. The biographical materials for Lewis’ life are relatively small in bulk, and well known, and the published writings are also easily accessible. And scholars have come at the canon itself – the apologetics and the fiction in particular – from every conceivable angle. (There were more than 160 books published on Lewis in the decade after 2000). Alister McGrath, in the final chapter of his 2013 biography (reviewed here), briefly indicated a new direction of travel for Lewis studies, that paid attention not so much to the man and to the works, but to their reception. Stephanie L. Derrick has now given us the first extended essay in the subject, which will shape work on Lewis for perhaps a generation. Her scope is the UK and the United States as two analytic units treated as whole, and the works of Lewis in question are the Narnia stories and the most well-known apologetic works (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and others).

The first chapter outlines Lewis’ conscious fashioning of his literary self as a kind of ‘Ulster contrarian’, a ‘Christian dinosaur’ with a vocation to reach popular audiences with his rejection of modernism in both literature and (in a wider sense) theology and society. Chapter 2 sets out Lewis’ reputation with his peers in the UK, and in particularly in Oxford. These two chapters will not surprise specialist readers in matters of detail to any great extent, but they frame the main burden of the book: that there were radically different trajectories in Lewis’ reception in the USA and in the UK, which are to be explained both by specific religious and cultural conditions, but also by the degree to which Lewis was known as an individual alongside his writings. In the UK, academic readers and others in the literary and journalistic fields knew, or thought they knew, a Lewis who was tricksy, unreliable, an invented literary persona; it was unclear where the posture ended and the man began. (Significantly, reference was often made to his Irishness, which meant different things to an English audience than it did in the USA).

Readers in the USA, by contrast, reacted rather more to what Derrick calls a ‘Platonic Lewis’, found in the writings alone, detached from the very specific literary and cultural context into which he intended to speak. Free to shape an idea of Lewis to their own purposes, American readers’ engagement with Lewis had a ubiquity and intensity that far outstripped that in the UK, where there remained a persistent unease with Lewis both as an apologist and as a writer of fiction. Derrick’s exposition of these contrasting national reactions is acute and convincing, although there of course remains room for further refinement within each story, both chronologically and sociologically.

In all this, Derrick’s reading of Lewis’ fame against the religious context in which he was read is fresh and invigorating. The most innovative aspect of the study, however, is in chapter 4, where Derrick examines Lewis and the ‘mechanisms of mass culture’. Religious historians of the twentieth century have not always paid sufficient attention to the means by which religious ideas are communicated. Derrick’s achievement is to direct attention not just away from the man to the reader, but also to the sheer contingency of his fame. Lewis’ reputation was shaped not so much by the intrinsic appeal of the work as the fact that it coincided with particular moments in technological history. Radio broadcasting in the UK during the 1940s; the peculiar liveliness of learned periodical culture after the war; the development of a market for paperback children’s fiction (and marketing devices such as the Puffin Club); patterns in library acquisition; the decisions of the Lewis estate; the control of his works as it passed from publisher to publisher; the internal dynamics of media conglomerates with interests in film as well as print: Lewis’ fame is inexplicable without considering the interactions of all these parts of the broad ecosystem of ideas.

Given this sensitivity to technological and economic context, one curious – and explicit – omission is the impact of Lewis online, especially as Derrick draws attention in her conclusion to the dependence of British evangelicals on American resources, which is surely in part a function of the Internet. This leaves open a significant gap to be filled by other scholars, as there is also for a history of Lewis’ books as designed objects, and of their illustrations in particular.

These cavils aside, Dr Derrick has given us a striking and important study. It should find a wide readership among historians of Christianity and of twentieth century literature, as well as those interested in the history of the media. Well written, generously produced and reasonably priced, it deserves an audience outside the academy.

Conversations in print: Anglican theology and the edited collection

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