On the utility of peering into dusty books

A commenter on my last post asked why I’m willing to say a good word for such silliness as social-sciences and humanities research. Here are some of the winners of top awards from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s top prizes in recent years. (Full disclosure: I acted as host for this year’s SSHRC awards and was paid at the rate my speakers’ bureau usually charges. I am sure my enthusiasm for social-science research led to the gig, rather than the other way around.)

Ian Hacking:

His wide influence, however, seems natural given the tremendous range of his research. In 1975, he published the Emergence of Probability—a book he today refers to as his first love. It was the first time someone examined the rise of probability and statistical thinking from a historical-philosophical point of view, and it launched a new sub-discipline within the philosophy of science. The Taming of Chance (1990)—named one of the 100 best non-fiction books of the 20th century—expanded on this work, demonstrating how probability moved from the margins of society to mainstream thinking on everything from crime to medicine to debates about free will.

In Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (1995) Hacking used the emergence of multiple personality disorder to examine how scientific exploration of social and psychological conditions can produce the very phenomena it studies. In a completely different vein of research, Hacking’s 1983 book, Representing and Intervening, changed the way philosophers approach science by placing how experimental scientists carry out their work on equal footing with theorists.

Margaret Lock:

Much of Lock’s research focuses on the relationship among culture, technological innovation, and the body in health and illness. She has been a key participant in a wide variety of contemporary health policy debates in North America, Europe and Japan, and her publications have changed the way medicine is taught and practiced in Canada and around the world. Her broad range of work includes studies into cultural aspects of female aging, the invention of the concept of brain death, and the social repercussions of biomedical technologies, such as genetic testing. Currently, she is investigating how emerging knowledge in molecular biology is transforming professional and popular understanding of Alzheimer’s disease.

Andrée Lajoie:

For more than 40 years, Lajoie has devoted herself to the theory of law and the study of constitutional law… Lajoie has published more than a dozen books and countless articles, and she has sat on a number of commissions that have influenced the history of Québec and Canada. Always, her contribution is to put the debate on a solid theoretical footing. Her work for the Castonguay-Nepveu commission (1968-70), for example, provided the legal basis for the organization of Quebec’s health care system. Her research on Canadian post-secondary education law enlightened the Arthurs commission on law and learning (1981-83); twenty-five years later, the Arthurs Report still influences the way law students are trained.

Richard Lipsey:

In the early 1980s, Lipsey became senior economic advisor at the C.D. Howe Institute and began what he calls a “long, hard battle” over free trade with the United States. He wrote three books on the subject as well as pamphlets and speeches that helped make free trade Canada’s largest and most controversial policy debate of the past 50 years.

“The free trade debate occupied me for almost eight years,” says Lipsey. “I was doing scholarly work, researching and writing papers on the topic, but I was also doing the dirty stuff-appearing on TV talk shows and debates… It was exhausting.”

Anthony Glinoer:

An expert on the French Romantic Period, Glinoer is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. As part of his prize-winning research program, he is dispelling the myth of the isolated creative genius—a constant, omnipresent theme in nineteenth-century France.

“[My research] will show how a work of literature is, in fact, the collective product of a chain of mediators or social actors, including the publisher, the editor, the critic and the illustrator [or blogger for the 21st century],” he explains. “All these actors play a role as intermediaries between the writer and the reader.”

Vinh-Kim Nguyen:

As the winner of the 2007 SSHRC Aurora Prize, Vinh-Kim Nguyen is changing the way we think about humanitarian relief. In particular, his research on AIDS programs in Africa is exploring the political and social impact these programs have within their recipient countries.

A physician and medical anthropologist at Université de Montréal, Nguyen has worked as a clinician in community-based HIV treatment centres in Burkina Faso, Mali and the Ivory Coast since 1994. He has been a first-hand witness to the effects foreign relief programs can have on local health-care systems—an experience that has shaped his academic lines of inquiry and his life.

Diane Conrad:

Her field of research is drama education… Since she began her research career, she has worked with “at-risk” kids: those whose behaviour could—or does—get them in trouble. Many people see them as victims. Conrad has learned not to—quite the reverse: she sees these kids as equal participants in the research project. And it’s that crucial difference that makes her research worthy of the Aurora, a prize given to a young researcher who is building a reputation for exciting and original work.

Sarah Desmarais:

Drawing on her doctoral training in forensic psychology, Desmarais has designed and is launching an intervention program for pregnant women at risk of domestic violence. Her innovative research brings together health professionals at a local hospital and the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health. The ultimate goal is to provide mental health, legal and community organizations trying to protect women from abuse with solid data upon which to build their programs.

Abninder Litt:

From how brain chemistry influences brand loyalty to how emotional events affect financial decision-making, Litt’s research will have a direct impact on the way products and services are marketed to the public. As well, his investigations into why some people consistently make impulsive and irresponible choices may influence theories and treatments related to addictions, criminal behaviour and other dangerous activities.

Paul Thagard:

Paul Thagard is one of Canada’s most distinguished philosophers, whose virtually unparalleled work on the conceptual aspects of cognitive science and scientific reasoning has helped make University of Waterloo a magnet for top graduate students in these fields. His multi-disciplinary work and cross-disciplinary collaborations link several academic fields, including philosophy, psychology and artificial intelligence in the new discipline of cognitive science, a field which he co-founded. He has made major contributions and published widely in a number of fields and in the top publications and presses in the world. He is a true leader at the international level, a ground-breaking scholar and one of the most important thinkers of his generation.

Ramsay Cook:

He is especially highly regarded for his ground-breaking work in the areas of French-English relations, nationalism, federalism and social and intellectual history. For almost half a century, his influence has crossed frontiers and broken down barriers. He has been a pre-eminent writer, panelist, speaker, teacher, doctoral adviser and, as general editor, the driving force behind the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. One of Canada’s first public intellectuals, Ramsay Cook helped bring history out of the classroom and introduced important historical perspectives into public discourse.

And what the heck, here are this year’s winners of SSHRC’s Major Collaborative Research Initiatives program, which funds multi-year projects by large interdisciplinary teams of researchers in several institutions:

* From the University of Victoria, Dr. Ray Siemens will focus his team’s research on implementing new knowledge environments. While today’s world increasingly relies on digital media such as electronic books, Siemens’ research will bridge the gap by theorizing the transmission of information in pre- and post-electronic media. His team’s work will help to enhance the way Canadians read, write and exchange information.
* At the University of British Columbia, Dr. Pitman Potter will look at Asia-Pacific’s dispute-resolution program. His team’s research will aim to facilitate interdisciplinary scholars and policymakers, in Canada and internationally, to enhance understanding of the requirements for coordinated compliance with international trade and human-rights standards.
* In Quebec, Dr. André Blais from the Université de Montréal will study electoral democracy. Dr. Blais, with an exceptional international team, will undertake the most ambitious study ever done on the impact of electoral rules on the functioning of democracy. They will look at twenty elections in five different countries to analyze party strategies, and will also conduct panel surveys of voters. This research will help us understand the relationship between the rules governing elections and the quality of democracy.
* Dr. Annabel Cohen, from the University of Prince Edward Island, will lead an international, multidisciplinary team in the exploration of the continuum between speech and song. Her team will identify individual, cultural, and universal influences on the development of singing. The team’s novel use of a digital library will revolutionize research in singing by enabling the depositing and sharing of audiovisual information via the Internet. The research will provide resources and best practices for teaching singing across cultures and generations, and will provide a means for enhancing quality of life through improved intercultural and intergenerational understanding.

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