Saturday, September 14, 2013

Interdisciplinary work must be, well, interdisciplinary

This is an excerpt from a comment I made at the current Language Log discussion of computational linguistics and literary scholarship:

Some time ago, in connection with curriculum design, I took a look at the human sciences and concluded that there were roughly three broad conceptual styles: 1) qualitative: interpretive/hermeneutic and narrative, 2) behavioral or social scientific, with an emphasis on statistically controlled observations, and 3) structural/constructive: linguistics, cognitive science, where the idea is to construct a grammar or machine that generates the observed behavior. The humanities concentrate on the first and almost all interdisciplinary work in the humanities is confined to qualitative disciplines. Thus literature and psychology is mostly qualitative psychology. Classically, if I may, that's Freud or Jung. More recently there's been interest in cognitive science, but almost entirely on the qualitative side of work with cognitive metaphor, conceptual blending, other minds, and such. All of the interdisciplinary work associated with Theory, so-called, is qualitative.

But NLP (natural language processing, a branch of CL (computational linguistics)) is in the other two camps. The data gathering, preparation, and analysis is statistical; but there is, I believe, an underlying motivation in the structural/constructive camp. Working across the boundary between the qualitative methods of traditional humanities and the more mechanistic methods in the other two camps is much harder. That will require cooperation between researchers, some of whom have internalized qualitative methods, while others have internalized mechanistic methods. Getting that discourse up and running, that's where the real excitement and deep intellectual potential lies.

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