“Opportunistic Humanist”

The title of this post is something I’ve been accused of in the past, and yet, I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing.

My field of Linguistics is, to borrow words from Cornell’s linguistics department, “at the crossroads of the humanities and the social sciences”. I often see that Linguistics has a bit of a complex about this, whether to be a social science or a humanities discipline and what that entails. As more and more humanities programs are cut from universities, disciplines like Linguistics find themselves desperately clinging to their social science aspects to avoid those budget cuts that devastate our sister programs in the humanities.

In this, and sometimes in conversations when I find myself aligning in principle with my humanities colleagues, I often find the mildly derogatory term “opportunistic humanist” applied to people like me. That is, we only identify ourselves as humanists when it’s somehow convenient. (Perhaps, to reveal the extent of my nerdy background, linguists are the true neutrals of academia?)

To be called an opportunist is not exactly a compliment. However, Linguistics is in a unique place to be a bridge between the two — maybe even to translate.

The truth is that Linguistics is a bit of both, and that is to be celebrated. When speech sounds are measured and quantified, or cross-linguistic and dialect phenomena are compared and contrasted with dizzying precision, then Linguistics draws heavily from its social science leanings. When we go to our Anthropological roots and look at culture, society, and history, then we pull in our humanities background to enrich our discussions.

I often say that I am a social scientist, because that is my own personal identification based on the sum of my background and experiences. But I am a humanist too, and I refuse to separate the two. Sometimes I easily explain it by saying that “I wear two hats” (I use this also when I say I’m a scholar and I work in a library). That isn’t accurate though — in this particular case, it might be better said that I wear a hat made from two different but complementary materials. I would not have the theoretical and social outlook that I have without a thorough grounding in both social science and humanities. I would not be able to write autoethnography without my humanities training, but conversely I might not be able to contextualize that writing in the broader social landscape without that social science background.

It’s a fascinating place to be, and I deeply encourage others to think about their disciplines and where they fall. What kind of hat do you wear?