For the past 16 months, I have been working as the Research Project Officer on a Global Humanities Institute (GHI) which examines crises of democracy. The GHI is funded by the Consortium for Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Driven by the global rise of populism and authoritarianism, the climate emergency, and the often controversial role media and technology has played in politics and society recently, the Crises of Democracy GHI explores inequality, exclusion, oppression and resistance. While democracy research is typically a subject addressed by social sciences, especially economics and political science, our GHI examines these issues with a collaborative arts and humanities approach.
The Crises of Democracy GHI: Interdisciplinarity in Action
In July 2019, the Crises of Democracy Global Humanities Institute commenced its second and most significant phase: a 9-day summer institute in Dubrovnik attended by a consortium of seasoned humanities scholars and international early career researchers. This group of 40 researchers represent over 30 disciplines and travelled from 5 continents. The group met in Croatia to examine threats to democracy through the prism of cultural trauma. The programme consisted of lectures, panels, practical skills workshops, film screenings, and early career researcher presentations. Lectures and panels took place in the morning and practical skills and methods workshops ran in the afternoon. In this way, the participants could both engage in academic dialogue and refine their skills as researchers in this intensive and multidimensional area of study.
How does an interdisciplinary project like this work in practice and what are the benefits?
At our first planning meeting in May 2018, the GHI partners agreed on the need to incorporate five important aspects into the Dubrovnik programme to support collaborative process and interdisciplinary dialogue:
- From the outset, we defined each of the key terms we refer to in the Crises of Democracy GHI mission—“crisis”, “democracy” and “cultural trauma”—to promote cross-disciplinary understanding.
- We began the programme with a keynote lecture which applied a long-term historical frame to understand the evolution of democracy in the modern world. The basis of our GHI is an awareness that the root of contemporary crises of democracy lie in past events, experiences, responses, and influences.
- We developed a specialised curriculum to introduce the group to a wide range of literature across subjects. The readings introduced the group to cutting edge research on democracy outside of their primary discipline, further promoting an interdisciplinary perspective.
- In addition to senior scholars leading lectures and workshops, the early career researchers also presented their current democracy studies. This meant that all 40 GHI participants joined the conversation and introduced their particular approach while at the same time engaging in cross disciplinary exchange.
- We made relevant site visits and field trips, where possible. As we were based in the Balkans, we travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovina for 2 days. The field trip acted as a common case study for the international group of researchers. In order to apply an arts and humanities perspective, it was necessary to visit relevant sites in person and see the impact of political uncertainty and trauma on the local community.
These core features of the programme established a solid foundation from which to progress our discussions and interdisciplinary exchange. The GHI programme left room to learn about global differences while also introducing the opportunity to identify common concerns.
Benefits of Interdisciplinarity and New Insights
The major challenges that face society today such as inequality, threats to democracy, and environmental emergencies, are complex and multifaceted. They call for a variety of approaches and perspectives in order to identify the most effective and comprehensive solutions. While it can be at times difficult to consider standpoints outside of one’s primary discipline, it is hugely rewarding when interdisciplinarity and scholarly collaboration offer insights beyond the limitations of one discipline.
Each piece of feedback we received from the senior academics and early career researchers at the GHI noted that the interdisciplinary nature of the programme changed their research and thinking going forward. The following are some of the core questions that arose throughout the 9 days in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina:
- What is it in today’s world that is making populist and authoritarian approaches to government more popular than democracy?
- What does it mean to speak of “democracy in crisis”?
- Is there a difference between electoral outcomes that upset and those that subvert democratic life?
- What is the tipping point into “crisis” and what are the different approaches we take when thinking about the health of democracy?
- Can the creation of an illusion of crisis and repeated references to the collective trauma of a society help to build a cult following?
- What are the complexities of representing real events of trauma and what is the purpose of commemoration?
- Who has the right to produce, participate, and visit sites of remembrance?
- Can aesthetic encounters provide a new space for the creation of political community?
These questions can only be fully explored from a broad interdisciplinary approach. If, as researchers, we want to understand the major issues of our time and make the world a place we want to live, interdisciplinary dialogue and collaborative approaches to problem-solving must be at the core of our practice.
For further information on the Crises of Democracy GHI, please see the Consortium for Humanities Centers and Institutes website. The GHI is currently building a website which will house the lectures and readings generated and covered by the Institute researchers. The website will be launched in November and will be announced on the Trinity Long Room Hub page. A selection of podcasts from the GHI summer school are available here.
Dr Angela Butler is the Research Project Officer for the CHCI-Mellon Crises of Democracy Global Humanities Institute (GHI). The GHI is a partnership between five universities: Trinity College Dublin, University of São Paulo, Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Zagreb, and Columbia University. Angela is developing an interdisciplinary GHI programme, creating a lasting online open syllabus, and building a network of researchers related to the subject of crises of democracy and cultural trauma. She also worked on the Annual Meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institutes hosted by the Trinity Long Room Hub in June 2019 on the theme of ‘cultural interventions’.