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Institute uses humanities to examine complex issues

May 07, 2008

What does a culture’s view of the human embryo say about its views of women, God and social power? Why do humans and societies continue to follow a certain path long after that path has proven to be a liability? Will money damn – or save – your soul?

These topics and others are the focus of the Institute for Humanities Research (IHR). The institute is a gateway for collaboration, bringing together scholars from across disciplines who are interested in exploring today’s most important issues from humanistic perspectives. Through the institute, faculty members and students conduct advanced research to address the world’s social, cultural, technological and scientific challenges through a humanities lens.

“Our goal is to make the humanities central to the research mission at ASU, to have them as equal importance as the sciences,” says Sally Kitch, the institute’s founding director and professor of women and gender studies. “The institute promotes, generates and supports innovative transdisciplinary research that helps people frame and understand the historical and cultural contexts surrounding an issue, to ask the ‘why’ and ‘what if’ questions.”

The institute supports scholars in traditional humanities disciplines as well as faculty in non-traditional fields who approach their research from a humanities perspective. One of more than 20 research centers and institutes in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the institute provides several funding opportunities.

The institute's Research Clusters bring ASU and visiting scholars together to explore a theme for further research. These clusters examine a vast array of topics including how African migrants have created cultures, as well as the interactions between urban values, systems, and those who inhabit cities. In addition, the inaugural Jenny Norton Research Cluster on Women, supported by the Rev. Jenny Norton, is centered on sustainability.

In annual fall and spring competitions, as many as 10 individuals are awarded up to $12,000 each through the institute’s Seed Grant Program. Research Cluster members often extend their collaborations through such grants, spending an academic year conducting research, developing proposals for submission to external funding agencies and planning conferences and publications.

The institute awarded the Embryo Project a grant that supported its first workshop. This helped the team formulate its ideas, drawing on an international interdisciplinary team of researchers, and it has been successful with National Science Foundation grant funding in part because of that investment by the institute, says Jane Maienschein, Regents’ Professor in the School of Life Sciences, who co-directs the project with Manfred Laubichler, a professor in the school.

“The project is historical and philosophical at heart and deeply humanistic in its approaches to understanding the science of embryo research,” she says. “What we are doing is richly multi-disciplined in a way that happens at ASU and not many other places. We have undergraduate researchers, graduate students and faculty members from ASU and beyond all engaged in the project.”

The Embryo Project brings together scientists, historians, philosophers, social scientists, lawyers, science policy advocates and others, Laubichler says.

“While it is clear that many of the disciplines that study science, such as history of science or sociology of science can benefit from close interactions with scientists, this project also has demonstrated that science itself can take advantage from this collaboration,” he says. ”The project is a showcase of how history can matter to actual cutting edge scientific research.”

Additional Seed Grant Programs are focused on examining transnational adoption in Arizona, building an online encyclopedia of Arizona, and examining the interaction of nature, culture, history and community on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

The third major program supported by the institute is the Fellows Program. Organized around an annual theme, the Fellows Program brings together ASU faculty, visiting fellows who spend a semester in residence at ASU, and graduate student fellows doing related research.

This year’s Fellows Program is focused on “The Humanities and Sustainability.” In addition to several ongoing projects in this area, the IHR is working closely with the Global Institute of Sustainability to develop a Web page on humanities and sustainability, and promote collaborations between humanists and scientists.

Paul Hirt, associate professor of history, says that while sustainability is often seen as a technical enterprise in which scientists and engineers engage in ‘green’ practices and innovate solutions to environmental problems, just as powerful a force in shaping behavior and how humans collectively live on this planet are non-technical factors.

“The understanding of sustainability emphasizes the relationship between human and natural systems,” says Hirt, a historian who also teaches in the School of Sustainability. “Thus, ecological sciences and the humanities are deeply and necessarily coupled in the sustainability enterprise. While scientists look at physical processes and social scientists examine sociological processes, humanists focus on ideas, values, culture and history. We must integrate knowledge and policy across the disciplines to understand, inform and direct human development toward a responsible, sustainable future.”

Kitch says the Humanities and Sustainability project perfectly illustrates the mission of the institute – it both challenges humanists to do research in new ways and makes the humanities central to other fields.

“We want to make the humanities active, vital parts of the way people live their lives,” Kitch says.

For more information on the Institute for Humanities Research, visit the Web site: