Are the human sciences of any use?

The Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies was established ten years ago to boost the standard of research in the human sciences and social sciences in Finland. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Collegium is taking a critical look at itself.

Director of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies Sami Pihlström

A public event held on Thursday, 20 October, discussed the question of how useful the human sciences are. Here is what Sami Pihlström, Director of the Collegium, says:

– The essential question is, what do we mean by ‘useful’. The usefulness of knowledge does not necessarily mean immediate applicability in practical problem solving. In the human sciences and social sciences, the value of research often becomes apparent only in the long run. A good example of this is classical philosophy.

One seldom has to justify free research within the university, but the situation is very different once outside the campus. The perspective of financial productivity takes priority in many issues, and science is no exception.

As the economic situation is becoming more difficult, the prospects for university funding are becoming more sinister, but in Pihlström’s view, it is precisely during times of crisis that the value of the human sciences is highlighted. If a culture loses its way, research may add to self-understanding.

– Social inequality and intolerance seem to be on the rise. If research funding is cut at a time like this, we will lose the opportunity to work out what this crisis is about and what it says about us as a culture.

Pihlström says that the Collegium has been quite successful in its task. In the ten years of its existence, the Collegium has expanded, become more international and promoted cross-disciplinary interaction. The quality of the research plans is evaluated with a fine-tooth comb, and the choices contribute to a versatile researcher community.

– Currently the Collegium accepts approximately four per cent of the applicants, with more than half of the applications arriving from abroad," Pihlström says.

The Collegium has about fifty fellows working at a time, the length of their visits ranging from a few months to three years. The spectrum of research topics is wide; the talks at the anniversary seminar showcased such topics as democratic citizenship, the objectification of animals, beliefs about ghosts and the globalisation of care professions.

The public is also welcome to visit the Collegium and learn about its activities after the birthday celebrations. The next opportunity for this is on 31 October, with the launch of the public lecture series on human mortality which is part of the Studia Collegialia series. The lectures will be held in Finnish.

Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies »»

HCAS 10th anniversary seminar 20 October 2011 »»

The Finnish-language Studia Collegialia lecture series from 31 October 2011 »»

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Text: Virve Kuusi
Photo: Wilma Hurskainen
Translation: AAC Global
University of Helsinki, digital communications

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