A seminar in Stockholm tomorrow will treat the question, “What are the most important unanswered questions in the humanities and social sciences?”. In my opinion, the most important ones are “How can peace, prosperity and democracy be established in countries where they are lacking?”. And historian Arne Jarrick (whom I met last week at Alan Sokal’s talk) agrees. In yesterday’s Dagens Nyheter he’s quoted as saying (and I translate),
To build a bridge you need technological knowledge. To bomb the bridge you need technological knowledge. But to understand why the bridge was bombed and how to save societies where such things have happened, you need other kinds of science.
Now, what kinds of science is he referring to? Perhaps he means history. But very few historians work with such issues. In fact, almost all research that aims to help build peace, prosperity and democracy is conducted within the Faculty of Social Science. Not the Faculty of Humanities. Let’s be honest: we’re looking at political science, national economics, foreign aid studies and conflict studies. Not cinema studies or Russian lang & lit or bloody archaeology.
So in my opinion, the seminar’s question doesn’t apply to the humanities. We have no important issues. We have only fun ones. The choice of what questions archaeology should pursue, for instance, is not dictated by societal importance. We pursue lines of inquiry that we find fun or trendy or likely to get funded because someone with money deludes themself into seeing them as important. Whether I study the Iron Age in one part of the country or the Bronze Age in another is not important in any reasonable sense of the word. But I try to keep my output fun for those who take an interest in such things. I certainly wouldn’t bother if I wasn’t having fun.