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Research Writing in the Humanities and Arts

The material contained in this section is derived from Christine Hult's Researching and Writing in the Arts and Humanities (Longman Publishers). Click here to learn more about the book and to order a copy!

The Inquiry Process in the Humanities
The Importance of Texts in the Humanities
Research in the Humanities
  Literary and Art Criticism
  Philosophical Research
  Historical Research
Acceptable Evidence in the Humanities
Discipline-Specific Resources for Humanities and Arts

The Inquiry Process in the Humanities
The disciplines of the humanities, which include classical and modern languages and literature, history, and philosophy, have as an overall goal the exploration and explanation of the human experience. The fine arts, including music, art, dance, and drama, are often included under the humanities as fields of inquiry that also seek to explore and interpret the human experience.

In most disciplines in the humanities, written texts are extremely important, particularly in history, philosophy, and literature. Historians attempt a systematic documentation and analysis of past events related to a particular people, country, or period. Philosophers endeavor to examine coherent, logical systems of human ideas. Literary authors and artists attempt to capture for others their own lived, human experiences and their own understanding of the world. The humanities involve inquiry into consciousness, values, ideas, and ideals as they seek to describe how experience shapes our understanding of the world.

As an example of how the humanities contribute to an understanding of our world, let's take the Mississippi River, which has played an important role in American history. A scientist—perhaps a biologist—would study the river's wildlife, fish, surrounding vegetation, and ecology in an attempt to objectively describe the river itself. A social scientist—perhaps a sociologist—might study the river's contribution to a riverfront society and that society's dependence on the river for transportation of goods and services. A historian, who often bridges the gap between the social sciences and the humanities, might report on the importance of the Mississippi and other American waterways to our westward expansion and the development of America. A humanist—for example, a novelist--might write about the actual experiences people had on or near the Mississippi. Mark Twain, for instance, wrote his autobiographical novel Life on the Mississippi to share with his readers what he had felt as a youth learning the trade of riverboat pilot on a Mississippi steamboat. Without such a work of imaginative literature, we would have a hard time understanding what it was really like to be a youth on the river during Twain's time. Such a work of literature contributes to our understanding by putting us in a different time and place from our own, thus broadening our horizons in a manner that is somewhat different from either the natural or social sciences. The sciences attempt to give us the outside, external knowledge of a phenomenon, whereas the humanistic disciplines attempt to give us the inside, internal knowledge of a phenomenon. Both make important contributions to our understanding of the world.

The Importance of Texts in the Humanities
Written texts in the humanities generally fit into one of three types:

  1. creative writing (literature, poetry, and drama);
  2. interpretive writing (literary and art criticism);
  3. theoretical writing (historical and social theories of literature and art).

Creative writing provides numerous literary texts that provide us with an aesthetic experience and capture new insights into humanity. Creative writing is comparable to other creative, artistic endeavors in that it often has this twofold objective: the aesthetically pleasing (or emotionally moving) and the imaginative reenactment of human experience. We ask a work of art to move us and to mean something to us, to show us a way of looking at ourselves and the world that we may not otherwise have seen.

As we receive creative art and literature as an audience, interpretive questions arise, such as: What sort of work is it? How are we to respond to it? Much of the writing connected with the humanities is interpretive, because the audience tries to understand both the meaning and the significance of a particular creative work. Often, an interpretive critic attempts to disclose the particular intention of the artist: the novelist's attitude toward the heroine, for example, or the intended aesthetic impact of a dance. Interpretive critics research their claims by using the evidence found in the work itself to support the hypothesis, that is, the particular "reading" of the text or work of art.

The third kind of humanistic writing is theoretical. For the theorist, creative art and literature are important insofar as they exemplify more general social and historical principles. The theorist, for example, looks for connections between a particular work of art and its social and historical context or for relationships among different artistic media, such as fresco painting and architecture of medieval Europe. Theorists provide links between our understanding of art and literature and other subjects such as history, sociology, or psychology. Finally, theorists take a step back from a particular work of art or literature in an attempt to get a broader view. In looking at the entire social and historical context, they ask such questions as: How has photography affected portrait painting? What is the role of the devil in the American novel?

Research in the Humanities
The humanist deals in significance, insight, imagination, and the meaning of human experience. What does it mean, then, to research in the humanities? Interpreting and critiquing art and literature is one type of research conducted by humanists. Interpreters and theorists in the humanities attempt to "talk sense" about a work of art or literature to make the audience see what the artist or author meant and to link the work with other, larger human events and experiences. A second kind of humanistic research involves reconstructing humanity's past, reconstructing both the ideas (philosophical research) and the events that have occurred over time (historical research). All three types of humanistic research (literary and art criticism, philosophical research, and historical research) contribute to our understanding of the meaning of human experience.

Literary and Art Criticism
Critical researchers necessarily use their own interpretations of a work of art or literature in critiquing it. But those subjective interpretations are based on experience and reflective thought, and they are expressed in well-chosen language. Criticism in the humanities is not just a string of personal opinions. The critical researcher builds a solid argument to substantiate his or her interpretation or theory. Such an argument is based on research involving a close reading of the text itself (in literary criticism) or a close analysis of the work of art (in art criticism). The argument also takes into account social and historical factors that bear on the interpretation of the literary text or work of art. It incorporates research involving other related texts or works of art by the same author or artist or secondary criticism influencing the critic's own argument. A piece of good interpretive criticism is both insightful and true to life. A piece of good literary or art criticism is complete and comprehensive; it offers the audience a sound theory that fits with the experience of audience members and that ties together related threads in their understanding. A critical researcher investigates the complex context from which a work of art or literature has come to provide an understanding of how it fits into the larger realm of human experience. In this way, the critical researcher is much like a historical or social science researcher.
One example of a critical researcher who combined techniques of criticism with historical scholarship is John Livingston Lowes, who began with the question of what sources influenced the poetry of Samuel Coleridge, the nineteenth-century English poet and critic. In an attempt to elucidate Coleridge's poetry, Lowes traced the sources the poet used in such poems as "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." Lowes's book has been called "the greatest true-detective story ever written." (Richard Altick, The Art of Literary Research (New York: W.W.Norton, 1963), p. 100.) Lowes began his research with Coleridge's Gutch Memorandum Book, a notebook containing the suggestions for reading that Coleridge had jotted down as he looked for ideas to translate into poetry. Next, Lowes looked at the records from the Bristol Library that showed the books Coleridge had borrowed. Following these and many other leads, Lowes was able to virtually reconstruct how certain of Coleridge's greatest poems took shape in the author's mind and took form on the written page.

Philosophical Research
The philosophical researcher investigates the truths and principles of being, knowledge, and human conduct. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, in his book Process and Reality, describes the process of research in speculative philosophy:
The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts
from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight into the thin
air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.
(Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1929), p. 5.)

Here Whitehead is describing the general process of inquiry that we have been discussing. As he says, the success of any imaginative speculation is the verification of it through extended application. He sees the work of philosophical research as an attempt to frame a coherent, logical system of the general ideas of humanity. In Whitehead's work, he presents a scheme that can be used to interpret or frame the "cosmology." He shows how his philosophical scheme can be used for "the interpretation of the ideas and problems which form the complex texture of civilized thought." (Whitehead, p. xi.) Thus, the philosophical laws are verified in their application to actual philosophical problems encountered in human experience.

Historical Research
Historical researchers proceed in much the same fashion as philosophical researchers, except that historical researchers investigate events as well as ideas. They research the events that have occurred in a person's life or at a particular time. Then they weave those events and ideas into a narrative that recounts and interprets the past. As in all the humanities, historians attempt to understand and interpret life itself. Historians also use the data gathered by social scientists—the surveys and statistical counts conducted by sociologists, economists, or political scientists. However, historians often present their understanding of the past in a story form intended to give the reader a picture of the past events, describing and recreating what those events were like for the participants. In this way the study of history bridges the gap between the social sciences and the humanities such as literature and the arts.

The research process used by historians is much like that of the theorists. The historian investigates the facts and data available about an individual or a period of time. Through these facts, carefully verified for their accuracy, the historian recreates the past to capture the truths that reside there. The historian is not reluctant to make individual judgments about the meaning and importance of past events. As in the humanities, the historian verifies those judgments by gauging their ring of truth, their resemblance to what is known intuitively about life, and their explanatory power.

One example of a historical researcher at work is Frank Maloy Anderson. Anderson was confronted with the problem of who wrote the important "Diary of a Public Man," a document of questioned authorship that first appeared in 1879 in the North American Review. Many historical, little-known facts about Abraham Lincoln were revealed in the diary. Anderson spent nearly thirty-five years trying to identify the document's author, using every historical clue he could find. He searched congressional records, hotel registries, business documents, and newspaper subscriptions. From this extensive search, he posited two hypotheses: (1) the diary was a fiction or (2) it was a combination of fiction and truth. Anderson decided on the second hypothesis, because he could find nothing that was provably false in the document. He arrived at a probable author in Sam Ward but could never prove this beyond all doubt. Nevertheless, Anderson's historical case is a good one, based as it is on intuitive speculation combined with factual evidence. (Frank Maloy Anderson, The Mystery of "A Public Man": A Historical Detective Story (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1948).)

Acceptable Evidence in the Humanities
In the humanities, there is no absolute proof that leads unerringly to a particular interpretation or theory. Rather, the humanist will make a claim and argue for that claim. What is demanded in the humanities is not proof but sensitivity and perceptiveness. The way of knowing required in the humanities can be cultivated by hard work and study.

The evidence that is acceptable in literary and art criticism or interpretation comes from the interpreter's sensibility, from the work of art or literature itself, and from the context. Some interpretations and theories may seem more insightful than others. They cast the work into a new light or integrate it into a wholeness we had not originally perceived. The claim or hypothesis made by a theorist is accepted as valid if it fits the work and helps the audience understand it. Critical and theoretical research can expand our consciousness, deepening and broadening our sensitivity to experiences. We could say, as did William James, that the performance of a piece of violin music is "the scraping of the hair of a horse over the intestines of a cat." (Quoted in Jack Meiland, College Thinking: How to Get the Best Out of College (New York: Mentor, 1981), p. 186). Although the description is true enough, as Meiland points out, it is not all there is to violin music; in fact, the remark leaves out just about everything that is really important in the performance of a violin piece. A valid interpretation illuminates a work in a way that makes it more meaningful to us.

The evidence that is acceptable in historical and philosophical research is that which is based either on verifiable facts or adequate interpretations that fit known human experience. As Barzun and Graff put it, "The researcher who does historian's work can at least preserve his sense of truth by concentrating on the tangle of his own stubborn facts." (Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, rev. ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1970), p. 250.) But in addition to those facts, the historian is also "aware of his duty to make individual judgments" regarding the meaning or significance of those facts. (Barzun and Graff, p. 251.) As Whitehead states, the application of his philosophical scheme to life "at once gives meaning to the verbal phrases of the scheme by their use in the discussion, and shows the power of the scheme to put the various elements of our experience into the consistent relation to each other." (Whitehead, p. xi.) In both cases, these humanistic researchers insist on the role of the researcher's insight and imagination in elucidating experience and in describing and predicting what human beings are and how they think and act. Acceptable evidence in all the humanities is evidence that supports those imaginative and insightful descriptions and interpretations.

Discipline-Specific Resources for Humanities and Arts
The following are some excellent print resources for research into the humanities and arts. To find sources that can be accessed on the Internet, go to the Discipline Links tab on the home page of this site.

General Sources and Guides to Literature.

Art Research Methods and Resources: A Guide to Finding Art Information. L. Jones. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 1985. A guide to sources in art.

Field Guide to the Study of American Literature. H. Kolb. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1976. (Paperback rpt. Ann Arbor: Books on
Demand, 1999). A guide to selected sources in American literature.

Harvard Guide to American History. Rev. ed. F. Freidel and R. Showman, eds.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979. A guide to sources in American
history; contains an introduction to the discipline.

Information Sources in Architecture and Construction. V. Nurcombe, ed. Bowker-Sauer,
1995. A general guide to sources.

Literary History of America.. B. Wendell, ed. New York: Macmillan, 1992. A history of U.S. literature from colonial times to 1960s.

New Cambridge Medieval History. T. Reuter, ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge
University Press, 1999. An introduction to medieval history.

Oxford History of English Literature. F.P. Wilson and B. Dobree, eds. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1969-77. An introduction to English literature from early to modern times. Includes extensive bibliographies.

Oxford History of English Music. J. Caldwell, ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University
Press, 1999. A comprehensive historical overview.

Philosopher's Guide to Sources, Research Tools, Professional Life and Related Fields. R. DeGeorge, ed. Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1980. A guide to sources in philosophy, religion, social science, fine arts, literature, and other related fields.

Reader's Guide to the Great Religions. C.J. Adams, ed. New York: Free Press, 1977. Introduces major religions and discusses sources.

Reference Sources in English and American Literature: An Annotated Bibliography. R. G. Schweik and D. Riesman, eds. New York: Norton, 1977. A good
starting source.


Dictionary of American Philosophy. S. Elmo, Jr. New York: Philosophical Library, 1974. General information and definitions.

Dictionary of Architecture. R. Meikleham, ed. New York:: Gordon Press, 1980.
3 vols. General information.

Dictionary of Comparative Religions. S. G. Brandon, ed. New York: Scribner's, 1978. Provides information on the world religions.

Dictionary of Composers and Their Music. E. Gilder. New York: Random House,
1993. Useful background information.

Dictionary of Contemporary American Artists. 5th ed. P. Cummings. New York: St.
Martin's, 1988. Provides concise information on living American artists.

Dictionary of Literature in the English Language. R. Meyers. New York: Pergamon, 1978. 2 vols. Useful background information on classical
English literary works.

Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy. G. MacGregor, ed. St. Paul: Paragon, 1995.
Provides complete background information on the world's great religions.

Funk & Wagnalls' Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. M. Leach, ed. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1984. Provides concise information on myths and legends.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. S. Sadie, ed. London: New Grove Dictionary, 1998, 2000. Contains valuable information on all
aspects of music, including musical terminology, from ancient to modern times.

Dictionary of Art. S. Collin, ed. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999. Provides information on all aspects of art: artists' lives and careers, styles, periods, buildings, museums, terms.


Encyclopedia of American Art. M. Rugoff, ed. Wappingers Falls: Apollo,
1988. Provides concise information on all facets of American art.
Contains many illustrations.

Encyclopedia of American History. 7th ed. R.B. Morris. New York: Harper & Row, 1996. Valuable overview of American history; contains brief biographies of famous Americans.

Encyclopedia of Bioethics. 2nd ed. W.T. Reich, ed. New York: Macmillan, 1995. Provides information on philosophy and religion.

Encyclopedia of Philosophy. P. Edwards, ed. New York: Free Press, 1973. Complete reference work on philosophical thought, both Eastern and Western.

Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1993. 14 vols. Concise articles on world religions.

Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. D. Tuck. Berkeley, CA: Adventure Press, 1983. Concise articles on works of science fiction.

Encyclopedia of World Art. D. Eggenberger, ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.
16 vols. Provides information on the world's art and artists.

An Encyclopedia of World History: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. W.L. Langer, ed. Boston: Market House, 1999. Lists major world events from earliest times to 1990s. (The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of World History is essentially the same work with illustrations.)

Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. 3rd ed. A. Preminger and T. V. Brogan,
eds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993. Provides concise
information on poetry and poetics through time, covering history, theory,
technique, and criticism of poetry.


American Novelists Since WWII. J. Helterman and R. Layman, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography Series, vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1980. Provides illustrated biographical entries on recent American novelists.

American Poets Since WWII. D. Greiner, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography Series, vol. 5. Detroit: Gale, 1980. Provides illustrated biographical entries on recent American poets.

Contemporary Musicians. Detroit: Gale, 1995. Provides information on current

Contemporary Authors: A Biographical Guide to Current Authors and Their Works. Detroit: Gale, 1962-present. Provides information on current American authors.

Directory of American Scholars. 9th ed. New York: Bowker, 1999. A biographical directory that includes information on notable scholars still active in their fields.

Indexes, Bibliographies, and Abstracts.

*=computer searching available

Architectural Index
*Art Abstracts
*Art Index

Abstracts of English Studies
American Literature Abstracts
Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature
Articles on American Literature
Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature
*Contemporary Authors
Essay and General Literature Index
Granger's Index to Poetry
International Guide to Classical Studies
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*Literary Index
*Literature Online (full text)
*MLA (Modern Language Association) International Bibliography
*Oxford English Dictionary
Short Story Index
*Wilson's Biographies (full text)
Year's Work in English Studies

Abstracts of Folklore Studies
Index to Fairytales, Myths and Legends

*America: History and Life
Combined Retrospective Index to Journals in History
*Historical Abstracts
Writings on American History

*Arts and Humanities Citation Index
*Current Contents: Arts and Humanities
*Humanities Abstracts
Index to Book Reviews in the Humanities
Social Science and Humanities Index

Journalism Abstracts

Film Literature Index
International Index of Film Periodicals
Landers Film Reviews
New York Times Film Reviews
*New York Times Index

*International Index to Music Periodicals
Music Article Guide
Music Index
*RILM Abstracts of Music Literature

*International Index to the Performing Arts

Philosopher's Index

Religion One Index
Religious and Theological Abstracts

New York Times Theater Reviews
Play Index

Women's Studies Index

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