Beginning with the 2022 event, the ISRF Conference will provided a platform for conversations and discussions around a theme. Each Conference will be themed around a topic, methodology or debate of interest within (and across) the social sciences and humanities.
The earth’s climate is destabilising more quickly than models had predicted. Yet governments, corporations, and investors are not doing nearly enough about it. The finance and banking worlds have made a strong bid to control climate policy, sometimes called “green finance,” but research suggests the measures that they deem acceptable will be inadequate. Media discourse is divided, guarded, and ambiguous. Although majorities of the residents of many countries have moved to favour stronger climate action, the most powerful economic and political actors are not escalating their responses.
University researchers around the world have taken the leading role in climate science and in studying related analyses of political, economic, and cultural issues. At the same time, universities have been increasingly marginalized, underfunded, and problematised in recent years. Universities have not been willing or able to support all of the teaching and research that needs doing, so that most countries have small armies of independent scholars and precarious instructors working on their own or building small, autonomous institutions.
In short, the climate crisis is also a crisis of neoliberal capitalism, and both of these are deepened by a knowledge crisis. Not enough research is funded, or is not of the right kind, or is not properly integrated across cultural, economic, and scientific fields, or is ignored by the public, or refused by governments, or denied by industry, or distorted by the media. Many of us have become fatalistic about these problems in a time when research needs to address them. The papers at this conference aimed to confront this fatalism and address these issues directly.
The digital condition appears in many forms: second-wave artificial intelligence, virtual assistants, online course instruction, algorithmic trading, bibliometric citation analysis, and economic modeling based on very large data sets, to name a few. It is the dominant framework for momentous transformations in knowledge production and in modes of reading and interpretation, which include a metamorphosis of the printed word into other media.
There are many reasons for a familiar sense that everything has changed irreversibly. One has been remarkable advances in computer programming, which long ago raised the prospect of artificial intelligence that could match or exceed human intelligence. Another has been the influential “two cultures” paradigm that cast literature and literary intelligence as something like the backward-looking opposite of technology. We are organizing this conference both to assess the history of responses to the digital condition in the humanities and social sciences, and also to identify new directions that might extend and deepen the contributions of these fields to the full range of knowledges required by the current state of the world.
Marking the intersection of many distinct trends, the digital condition has radically restructured methodologies in a host of disciplines. It is often experienced as a radical break with higher education traditions where the humanities play a central role in knowledge creation. Within the digital condition, the social sciences and the humanities are faced with two baseline challenges: to understand more clearly their own processes of knowledge production and, at the same time, to understand the underlying dynamics of the digital framework.
While the social sciences and the humanities have long histories of methodological self-reflection, they must now propose new concepts, devise new methodologies, and test new approaches that acknowledge the digital condition while affirming and extending their distinct ways of knowing the world. In other words, we cannot respond to the digital condition by adapting the humanities and social sciences to it. These fields create essential forms of knowledge not found in scientific and technological fields.
Perhaps most importantly, major global issues are best addressed through partnerships among scientific, technical, humanistic, social, and professional modes of knowledge. Equitable relations among diverse disciplines are hard to find, in part for intellectual reasons and in part because of divergent material infrastructures and research practices. And yet, cross-disciplinary collaborations are increasingly common and often successful: the digital humanities is one such arena of collaboration, and there are others. Our conference aimed at strengthening both the independence of the humanities and the social sciences, and their material powers of collaboration across the disciplines.