About the Humanities


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What are the humanities?

Humanities. The word brings to mind history, art, language, literature, philosophy, and religion – the traditional humanities fields. But in the 21st century, the humanities are playing an increasingly vital role in society by tackling the social, cultural, technological, and scientific changes facing the world.

Humanists study novels, political rhetoric, historical events, languages – even how people perform their humanity. In doing so, they identify sometimes hidden social and cultural issues. They ask what kind of information is needed before solutions can be developed. They pose “what if” questions as they work alongside scientific researchers to develop hypotheses. They interpret meaning.

Humanities link language and reality, interpret cultures, and explore ways of thinking about the world. They consider the cultural and social implications of scientific and technological advances. Scholars who focus on the ethics of medical and biological sciences research are humanists. Geographers, architects, and urban planners collaborating to understand how cultural and social values shape urban systems and spaces are humanists. Many researchers who study gender and racial inequity are humanists.

Humanities research is not just about whether human beings can do something, but also about whether we should do it; not just about where we are, but also about how we got here; not just about what people do, but also about what human activity means; not just about what to call something, but also about the importance of labels, language, art, and music as symbolic systems. Humanities research does not just identify what is real, but it also explores where ideas of reality come from.

What does transdisciplinarity mean?

The term transdisciplinarity as used in the IHR mission statement connotes integrative, reciprocal interdisciplinary scholarship that does not simply juxtapose knowledge from traditional disciplines (multi-disciplinarity) but rather transforms the knowledge-seeking process in order to achieve new results. Transdisciplinarity can be achieved by individual researchers or collaborative teams who address innovative questions, solve intractable problems, create new knowledge frameworks or domains, model more complex phenomena than the current state of knowledge allows, and/or restructure conventional idea systems and practices. Transdisciplinary mechanisms include the collaborative development of new paradigms, discourses, generative grammars, and collective mentalities. Ideally, IHR sponsored scholarship uses those mechanisms to examine and address socially significant issues from a humanistic perspective.

Traditional disciplinary and multidisciplinary “handshake” scholarship, in which participants borrow tools, data, results, and methods from one another, develop hybrid interests, or solve technical problems, can play a vital role in the transdisciplinary process. But multidisciplinarity alone cannot typically provide the new mechanisms necessary for rearranging and renaming observations and data that transdisciplinarity offers.

What makes the humanities socially relevant?

As humanists engage with human environment, past and present and with contemporary life they:

  • explore diverse ways of being in the world and thinking about the world
  • analyze the relationship between language and reality
  • contextualize social issues
  • interpret and translate cultures across divides
  • test the limits of interpretation
  • investigate the “historicity” of every moment
  • probe what it means to know something
  • ask “riskful” questions
  • and perhaps most importantly, produce complexity