Deep Humanities: what’s that?

This page offers an elevator pitch to my approach to research, writing, and engaging with the world. Deep humanities is a dynamic, ever-changing method, so the pitch will change over time. After all, the process of doing research should lead to adapting and refining your methods and questions!

The deep humanities is the name I coined for what I do. It’s a process – a way of exploring the world, rather than a topic or a single discipline or a destination. Scholars in the deep humanities are two things at once. First, they are empiricists examining evidence, seeking to understand both patterns and outliers. Second, these scholars are artisans engaged deeply with the craft of writing as an analytically generative mode, by which I mean using the act of writing to actually make discoveries. Deep humanists chew over their sources from many vantage-points, and think up stuff in their heads and on the page.

Deep humanities is unabashedly qualitative: it’s about making knowledge by using words – lots of words. It’s about observing and analyzing phenomena, and solving problems, by means of long-form writing – solutions that unfold over pages and chapters, not simply a few hundred characters. This method puts the close analysis of words at the centre of the work – textual sources from the periods and contexts examined – and/or the analysis of images, diagrams, and material artefacts, from drawings to maps to paintings to manuscripts to ceramics to… you get the picture.

Deep humanities is an approach you typically see in the practice of history, history of science, art history, ethnohistory, classics, and literary studies – fields and disciplines in which generating knowledge is deeply tied up with figuring stuff out in the form of verbal analysis and communicating it in carefully argued prose. The approach is by no means confined exclusively to these disciplines, of course. Scholars in, for example, anthropology and sociology will also find themselves working in this mode.

Deep humanities is not an approach based on rigid models, on seeing whether the real world conforms or doesn’t conform to the latest fashionable theory. Rather, deep humanities is at heart a method of listening to one’s historical sources, to letting them sketch out the terms of engagement. For example, I regularly ask myself two things: if this is my question, then what sources should I be looking at? And if these are my sources, then what questions can I answer? The goal is to examine the sources and to keep refining my questions until the answers to these two questions mirror each other.

What are the consequences of practising the deep humanities? You have to face the fact that answering historical or cultural questions involves going beyond traditional disciplines. For example, if the history of science is supposedly about ‘science’, but not ‘art’, and the history of art is supposedly about ‘art,’, but not ‘science’, then where should the study of scientific illustration go? Clearly, you need tools from both disciplines in order to ask better questions about science and the visual, and to provide more powerful answers to them. Today, much exciting work in these disciplines happens very much at that intersection, and both disciplines are enriched by this cross-fertilization. So, the next time you run into a historian of science who works on images, there is no need to be puzzled. And the next time you meet a historian of art who is writing a book on, say, botanical illustrations rather than yet another book on Michelangelo, you’ll know that you’ve met someone at the cutting-edge of the discipline! And of course, even canonical Renaissance artists paid attention to representing the natural world, as you can see in this exquisite, iconic watercolour of a piece of turf (c. 1503), made in the Nuremberg workshop of the artist Albrecht Dürer.

Albrecht Dürer, The Large Piece of Turf, 1503.
Albrecht Dürer, The Large Piece of Turf, 1503. Albertina Museum, Vienna. Image from Wikimedia Commons in the public domain.

For a high-resolution image of this watercolour, now housed at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, click here.