Collage of text from the Old Bailey court transcripts.

The sciences and humanities are often characterized as disparate cultures. Scientists quantify the natural world, studying patterns produced by the forces of nature. Humanities scholars dissect texts, stories, and human-made artifacts, studying patterns produced by the forces of culture. 

As archives of digital texts expand and become widely available, though, digital tools are becoming not only useful but also necessary to advance fields that don’t fall under the STEM umbrella. Experts at SFI say the computational and quantitative tools used by scientists have a potentially transformative role to play in advancing the humanities. 

This September, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, SFI will launch a new “NEH institute,” Foundations and Applications of Humanities Analytics, to introduce early-career humanities scholars to new ways of studying culture with a wide range of computational tools. Leading researchers in the humanities and sciences will draw on models and ideas in information theory, statistics, and computer science for new insights into the dynamics of literature, history, and the arts.

In its first year, the institute will be offered online to a wide audience through SFI’s Complexity Explorer platform; in years two and three, a smaller group of students will be invited SFI for an in-person intensive school. 

“This institute puts SFI in a position to bridge cultural gaps that don’t need to be there,” says philosopher David Kinney, an Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow at SFI who is leading the new institute. 

“We want to introduce people who study the humanities to new ways of seeing everything from the experience of reading a poem to the arc of global history,” says SFI External Professor Simon DeDeo, a cognitive scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who is co-leading the institute with Kinney and Carrie Cowan, SFI’s Director for Education.

Recognizing the opportunity to introduce complexity science to a new audience, Cowan enlisted DeDeo and Kinney to design the course, and Susan Carter, SFI’s Research Development Director, to help secure the NEH grant. U.S. Congressman Ben Ray Luján, who represents New Mexico’s Third District, called to congratulate the team.

Cowan says that the program offers a new way to look at humanities research through the lens of complexity.

“The humanities offer a natural place to think about complex systems,” she says. “History, for example, is all about the complex intersection of culture, environments, wars, and everything else. Why not represent that at SFI?”

The organizers say the course has three primary goals: To introduce these tools to humanities scholars; to drive the innovation of new scholarship; and to build a community of scholars who can continue to collaborate in the future.

“We want to teach people the different ways that scientists think,” says DeDeo. “There are a lot of humanities scholars who don’t think of themselves as particularly technical types but who are interested in engaging with this material.”      

Foundations and Applications of Humanities Analytics runs September 1- November 30, 2021.

Register online at Complexity Explorer.

Visit the Foundations and Applications of Humanities Analytics Institute course page.

Listen to the Advanced Humanities Institute podcast with Kinney and DeDeo on KUNM (January 4, 2021)

Read the announcement in the Santa Fe Reporter (January 7, 2021)

The Santa Fe Institute's Foundations and Applications of Cultural Analytics in the Humanities has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, under Federal Award ID Number HT-272418-20. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this announcement do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

[This article was originally published November 6, 2020 and was updated July 19, 2021]