Elisa Järnefelt

A course about the use of experimental methodology in the humanities

In 2013, I designed and taught an online course, “Introduction to experimental methodology for humanists”, at the University of Helsinki, Finland. 

This course can easily be arranged to be taught as an online course around the world. 

The course introduced the basics of the experimental psychological methodology for the students in the study of religion, who are not usually taught or trained in this methodological perspective. It is not unusual that a scholar in religion explores human belief without being in any way informed by the research in human information processing. It is similarly common that a psychologists conduct research about religion without consulting any expert in religion. 

In addition to the mutual unfamiliarity - and possibly partly due to that - many scholars hold negative presumptions and unnecessary fear toward each other’s research perspectives. For example, psychological perspective, or conducting an experiment that focuses on religious thought, can be found as oversimplifying and even hostile thing to do as it often deviates from the participants’ own subjective understanding.

On my course, students learned the basic principles in experimental research design as well as larger variety of options using quantitative methods (e.g., coding and quantifying qualitative data). In addition to offering weekly readings and theme-specific dictionaries, I found it important to share the “silent knowledge” concerning the research process. This refers to all the small details involved in the experimental research process that do not come up in the finished journal articles and that might be unexpected for humanists who are adjusted to a different academic research culture.

My course was based on my experiences and expertise in combining the two research perspectives. I conducted my PhD research and its follow up studies within the methodological framework of experimental psychology although my background was in the humanities and research of religion. To learn the relevant skills, I left my home department in Helsinki and took part in an interdisciplinary method workshop at Oxford University, UK. From there, I continued studying at the Department of Brain and Behavioral Sciences in Boston University, USA, as a visiting scholar for several years.  


My journey taught me this (among a few other things): 

a. Experimental method is a methodological option among many other methods. Its use is not tied to a somewhat arbitrary divisions between various academic subjects, or the humanities and science. 

b. Using experimental methodology is not an answer to everything but is motivated by the type of research hypotheses that ask for a controlled assessment. For example, traditional surveys and interviews do not allow testing the hypothesis in a controlled manner, although both approaches can be tools in the experimental design.  

c. Even if a scholar or a student in the humanities is not interested in using experimental methodology in their own studies, understanding its anatomy and the particular working principles allows one to read and learn about the broader area of research and offer relevant interdisciplinary critique. This is vital for the formation of novel scientific knowledge. 

d. No method nor theoretical perspective is superior over another but serves as a key that opens a tiny area of information of one level of a particular phenomenon. 

e. The challenge for the future research is to understand these various levels, not as something that cancel each other out but, in connection to each other, and find ways that enable a real discussion between the different areas of research.