2018/05/04 | University | Humanities & Society

The Humanities Start where the Hard Sciences Finish

It can be difficult for the humanities and cultural sciences to find their place in the fact-based political discourse. However, disciplines from this field offer the world of politics a considerable level of added value, as Markus Zürcher, Secretary General of the SAGW, explained on the "Humanities Research Day" at the University of Bern.

By Ivo Schmucki

In the political discourse of today, it is more important for the voice of the humanities and cultural sciences to be heard than ever before: such is the perspective of Markus Zürcher. Speaking in the Unitobler building at the end of April 2018, the Secretary General of the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW) gave the keynote lecture on the occasion of the "Humanities Research Day". Raising the profile of these disciplines won’t be easy, however, because "they haven’t found their place in the political discourse in a post-war period which has been dominated by the natural sciences, technology and business."

A difficult position

How has it come to be the case that professionals from the worlds of the arts and humanities aren’t usually accepted as being legitimate experts in the context of political debates? "It is assumed that historical, cultural, social, philosophical and aesthetic issues aren’t discussed on the basis of facts, but on the basis of personal perspectives and opinions," explained Markus Zürcher. The specialists in these fields aren’t perceived to be experts, "but rather, as aloof scholars in the struggle for interpretation."

In addition to this, the post-war era was dominated by a major, common goal: economic growth. And it was agreed that new technology and processes were responsible for powering that growth. "The rapid rate of economic expansion confirmed this belief. The natural sciences, technology and economics provided the requisite expertise," - and there wasn’t really any need for specific input from the world of the arts and humanities.

"Facts alone do not provide orientation"

In the subsequent political discourse, the focus was no longer on the technology itself, but rather on the assessment of its risks. However, this has only led to a slight change in the status of the humanities since the world of politics relies on precise statistical processes and comprehensive sets of data for its risk assessments. Nevertheless, the fact that this evidence-based policy also has weaknesses quickly became apparent. As Markus Zürcher explained, both the opponents and advocates of a policy measure have learned how to interpret the results of studies of this kind for their own purposes. "The fact that logically conclusive and verifiable facts are neither self-explanatory nor go without saying has been overlooked. Facts and information alone do not provide orientation," explained Markus Zürcher. Moreover, in an era of alternative facts and alternative realities, the world of politics wouldn’t be able to function without academia. "It is in all of this that the poverty of evidence-based policy manifests itself."

This crisis has opened the door to the political discourse for the humanities and cultural sciences. Where the hard sciences reach their limits is where the cultural sciences and the humanities can begin. Markus Zürcher described this starting point as follows: "An outlook which allows for classification and evaluation is necessary." Several studies from the fields of sociology, economics, political science, the communication sciences and linguistics have shown that the way in which factual information is represented and formulated has a significant influence on our behavior. "These studies have demonstrated the limits of the naïve idea of the objective use of information which forms the basis of evidence-based policy."

New challenges as an opportunity

In addition to the technological challenges, the social challenges must not be overlooked, however. Markus Zürcher provided an example: "A free society is forced to integrate the unfamiliar and the other." To achieve this, it requires an ongoing review of the basic values and norms surrounding coexistence. "At a time of increasing pluralization, the humanities and cultural studies are becoming increasingly important. It is necessary to give a voice to those who are unable to keep up with the rapid social changes." This has led Markus Zürcher to the following perspective: "Research beyond models and laboratories is gaining in importance. This is an area – which is characterized neither by its exactness nor its consistency – in which the humanities and cultural studies know how to operate with confidence."

One of the questions asked by a member of the audience was as follows: "Are humanities experts and cultural scientists themselves responsible for their public perception? Have they failed to communicate the importance of their discipline?" Markus Zürcher answered in the negative. "Surveys show that these academic fields have a high status. And the number of students studying these disciplines has remained stable over the past 15 years." Deciding to study a discipline from the humanities or cultural sciences is a good idea, and the employment opportunities for graduates are very good. Markus Zürcher sees the problem to lie with the world of politics: "Innovation and economic growth are given a higher weighting. The contribution to gross national product made by the world of humanities and cultural studies is acknowledged far too little by the world of politics.”


Dr Markus Zürcher studied Swiss history, economics and sociology at the University of Bern. In 1994, he was awarded his doctorate from the Institute of Sociology at the University of Bern. He has been working for the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW) since 1995, having been its Secretary General since 2002. Between the years 2000 and 2010, he was a lecturer in Sociology and the History of the Social Sciences at the Universities of Freiburg and Bern.


The second "Humanities Research Day" took place on 30th April 2018. It was organized by Walter Benjamin Kolleg and the Dean's Office of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Bern. The objective of the Research Day is to intensify the discussions and support the forging of contacts between researchers, employees and students, and to enable the research at the Faculty of Humanities to be presented in all of its diversity.


Ivo Schmucki works as an editor in Corporate Communication at the University of Bern.