The Human Experience Can’t be Found in a Lab
Humanities research tells the story of humans
This week, James Tabery, professor of philosophy at the University of Utah, made international news with his article, “Victims of Eugenic Sterilisation in Utah,” published in The Lancet Regional Health – Americas, in which he sought to uncover the moral consequences of Eugenics laws in Utah. His research revealed at least 830 men, women and children were coercively sterilized in Utah, approximately 54 of whom may still be alive. They were victims of a sterilization program that lasted for fifty years in the state and targeted people confined to state institutions.
“For the first time, we have a sense of the human scale of the eugenic assault here in Utah, as well as the lasting legacy of that assault in the form of survivors still living in 2023,” said Tabery.
Tabery’s research wasn’t conducted in lab. As a scholar in the humanities, he doesn’t have any use for a sterile space with microscopes, beakers, safety glasses and white coats. For research to uncover and understand human experiences, Tabery and humanities scholars like him need to dive deep into historical documents, databases, novels, diaries, interviews, surveys and news articles. Humanities research looks more like digging through files in the basement of a library or government building, unearthing artifacts, and listening – and interpreting – as people communicate their unique and individual narratives.
Research in the humanities produces an understanding and knowledge of the human experience – the way they feel, think and behave. Through areas such as philosophy, writing, languages, linguistics, history, communication and English, this human-centered research can help ensure that society’s progress is aligned with human values and priorities helping to create a more informed future.
“Research performed by our humanities faculty continues to change the way we understand our past, our communities and our institutions,” said Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of Humanities at the U. “Whether faculty are uncovering and detailing histories and practices of cruelty or recovering the lives of exceptional talent and everyday heroism, humanities contributions to our store of knowledge matter to giving life and breath to numerical data.”
By understanding human thought and culture, scholars in the humanities begin to better understand the complexities of the human condition and contribute to the broader understanding of society and the world in which they inhabit.
“Some estimates are that 100 billion people have already lived and died on this earth. If the vast majority of humans who have ever lived are no longer alive today, it is up to us to learn from those lives and it is specifically up to scholars to organize that learning into disciplinary frameworks that provide us with knowledge to build upon,” said Robbins.
Humanities research, such as Tabery’s can shed light on pressing social issues and injustices and forces recognition and reflection. It challenges people to think critically about their own beliefs and values, provides a better understanding of the world and contributes to personal growth and society’s growth.
“Work in the humanities can frame the interface of social impacts of basic science, research and technology,” said Matt Haber, associate dean for research for the College of Humanities.
“It does this by bringing the human experience front and center. This could be by drawing attention to not just what we share as humans, but in the different ways the human experience is expressed across cultures and history. We want our stories told, and the stories told about the people we care about. This can help us progress because it gives voice to shared human experiences.”
Research into the human experience also creates an understanding of issues such as inequality, discrimination and oppression and can provide a platform for marginalized voices to be heard. Robbins’s own research focuses on American writers of African descent who lived much of their lives enslaved by others.
“The sheer numbers of enslaved people in the United States tell us about the scale and scope of the horrific practice of slavery. Research into individual lives and communities tell us how some individuals survived, bore witness, bore families, created art, and risked everything to speak to future generations about their experiences.”
Humanists seek to gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of society using a range of disciplines. Their research reveals the complexities of the human condition and provides perspectives and implications of issues. By studying humans – their actions, relationships, religious beliefs, cultures and values – humanities research helps create a better and more informed future.
Jana Cunningham, University of Utah College of Humanities
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James Tabery, Professor of Philosophy, University of Utah
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Published February 17, 2023