Capabilities, epistemic justice and the societal impact of the humanities

Sigurðarson, Eiríkur Smári (2018). 'Capabilities, epistemic justice and the societal impact of the humanities' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


This presentation argues that societal impact of research in the humanities can be understood and evaluated in terms of capabilities and epistemic justice. Applying the capabilities approach of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen and Miranda Fricker’s theory of epistemic justice on cases of research impact in the humanities an attempt is made to map and explain different kinds of societal impacts. The aim is to strengthen arguments for the societal impact of the humanities and develop means of evaluation that respect the inherent value of the humanities.

Impact and evaluation of research in the humanities has been the subject of several recent publications. A common theme is the need for a re-evaluation of how the humanities are evaluated, as well as for research on the effects of evaluation practices on the humanities. Another focus of discussion is that this re-evaluation should consider the nature of the public value of the humanities from the perspective of the humanities themselves. The dominant model for research evaluations has as its focus the socio-economic benefits of research, a focus humanities scholars have mostly been uncomfortable with. One of the main tools of research evaluation, bibliometric analysis, is problematic – to say the least – for the humanities. As the policy and practice of research evaluations influences the way research is conducted with a risk of goal displacement there is a potential danger that the inherent value of the humanities will be eroded and their value to society diminished through evaluation. This problem will be addressed from two sides in this presentation.

The first approach is to look closer at a recent definition of the public value of research in the arts and humanities (Benneworth, et al. (2016)):

the circulation of research in networks to users with identifiable interactions creating things that make a good society as public benefits from private assets

A fundamental idea behind this definition is that of “social capacities” developed through humanities research. There is an important local aspect to social capacities, recognized e.g. by UNESCO in its program on Social Transformations. According to UNESCO the value of humanities (through research and teaching) for positive social transformations is found in the capacities developed in individuals and societies to deal with external and internal changes (e.g. climate change and extreme poverty). The public benefit in this case is not economic but a better functioning society overall. This insight is echoed in Benneworth et al. One effect of current evaluation practices, often recognized, is that an increasing number of publications is in English. This is potentially harmful for societies – especially in developing nations – and goes against one of the most important values of the humanities: its local importance for developing social capacities.

The second approach is to look at this issue through the lens of epistemic justice, in particular through the work of Miranda Fricker (Fricker (2007), (2015)) and her promotion of “epistemic contribution” as a basic human capability. Páll Skúlason has argued that the main responsibility of a university is to develop epistemic virtues in academics and students and thereby also in societies (Skúlason (2015)). He stresses the central role of the humanities in developing epistemic virtue – including epistemic justice – in student and staff and ultimately in society. Linking epistemic justice with the capabilities approach the aim in this paper is to explore how humanities research can lead to positive social change. I will argue that we can understand societal impact of the humanities in terms of capabilities and epistemic justice and, based on this, develop means to evaluate the public benefit of humanities research. This brings value to the core of evaluation.

scroll to top