“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.



  1. I don’t think it’s crass to quote that – especially when politicians are currently discussing bombing Damascus. I remember hearing Edward Said, on Late Night Live in (I think) 1990 say that ‘bombing Baghdad was like bombing Venice’. A bit more awareness of history might have saved us from Afghanistan, for a start.
    Actually, I’m surprised you’ve had that reaction. I’ve found the interaction between Law and History at their joint conferences was excellent – but then I guess the attendees are self-selected to be receptive to the other discipline.

  2. I want to know what people think my research should be relevant to, or relevant for … and I like to get their feedback on how to know when is a good time to decide if its no longer going to be ‘worth’ pursuing.

    I’m examining the assumptions underlying ‘information privacy’ in our laws and technologies, from the perspectives of both lawyer and technologist. How well do existing laws and technologies actually implement ‘privacy’; or indeed, whether they do at all. But then, as I work on writing the actual thesis document, I find it hard not to wonder about relevance myself…

  3. Good afternoon from Spain,

    I am historian too, and I have dealt with this question about the importance of historical research too many times, sometimes even with myself. Nowadays, fortunately I can explain and defend why is important my work, and I agree with you. Its really hard to argue the relevance and need of historical knowledge in a neoliberal world dominated by obvious and immediate profitability, something maybe harder in Spain, where we don’t know what is useful from the point of view of the people in charge.

    In fact, I work in a research group specialized in classical fascism (Grup d’Estudis Democràcia i República, in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona), in fact my PhD project is focused in the fascist experience of European volunteers fighting in the Eastern Front with the Germans, and I try to produce instruments to understand what is Fascims and how it show itself up. Anyway, the bone of contention of our team is the ideological nature of Francoism. We are struggling to show Francoism as a fascist regime, and I think we have made a good work until now. We justify the importance of our work showing the transformations, continuities, and survival of too many traces of this fascism in the today’s Spanish political cultures and social behaviours, but this is not an interesting thing for people in charge. So, we have another problem, the political one: if we have an interesting project but it is politically troublesome what can we do?

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