“What relevance is your research to anything?”: When academic disciplines collide


The Times Higher Education Supplement included an article today on the six questions all academics face at conferences and they are pretty spot on. But there is one question that wasn’t included in their article that I think would have been worth mentioning, particularly when academics present at interdisciplinary conferences or present at a conference outside their own discipline. I am a historian, but my research combines methods and material from several other disciplines, including political science, criminology, legal studies, cultural studies and sociology. So I have presented at conferences in each of these disciplines (except for sociology), predominantly on some research that has a historical aspect (such as the history of border control processes or the history of counter-terrorism profiling or the history of public order policing). One question that has been asked of me several times at these non-historical conferences is ‘why is your research relevant?’, or more bluntly ‘what’s the point of this research?’.

I know that to academics in some social science disciplines, historical research can seem esoteric and navel-gazing, but in the research that I have presented at non-historical conferences, I have usually thought that looking at the history of things, such as the history of border control, counter-terrorism or policing, can help us understand how things operate in the present day. Especially when looking at why the apparatuses of the state behave in a  particular manner, I would argue that state institutions, such as the police, the border control system and the security services, have long institutional memories that mean that how these institutions/apparatuses behave in the present are often reflections of how they dealt with issues/problems in the past. A case in point is that the police often react to bouts of public disorder in the manner that they had previously, often in the belief that tactics can be transplanted from one point in time to another – the policing of the UK riots in 2011 was informed by the policing of the riots in 2001, and by those in 1985, and by those in 1981, et cetera.

I am not so bold as to rehash the phrase ‘those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it’, nor would I argue that history can be a roadmap for the present, but I think that many in the social sciences could be more receptive towards taking a historical approach to their discipline. It might not seem immediately relevant in every case, but trust me, history can help social sciences research!

Have any other historians had a similar experience when presenting at non-historical conferences or when interacting with people in other disciplines? How do other historians deal the question of relevance?*

*The task of proving the relevance of historical research is particularly important when historians apply for grants and other types of funding. Big grants and the like usually ask why historical research is relevant and worth funding, usually pitting history against other more ‘practical’ disciplines. When ‘market forces’ are applied to academia, it can be hard to quantify the neo-liberal ‘value’ of historical research. We have seen in the past (and this doesn’t bode well for after September 7) that the Coalition has raised questions in Parliament about why government funds should be allocated to some seemingly ‘obscure’ historical research project, like when Andrew Robb asked why the Australian Research Council had given funding to the History of Emotions project.

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