Humanities research gives context to the human experience

Humanities research explores ideas at the core of who we are—what makes a good life, what’s ethically permissible, and what is the nature of existence?

Humanities research helps give scientific work context, said Jesse Kirkpatrick, assistant director of George Mason University’s Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. It can help establish guidelines for structuring clinical trials, for instance.

“Are there some types of research we can do but we ought not to?” he said. “The humanities can help orient and direct research in other areas.”

George Mason researchers are looking at the human experience from a variety of viewpoints, including how veterans recover from war, how climate change affects vulnerable populations, and how early Americans voted, to give us a better idea of what happened during those formative days of the United States.


A Mason-led project looking at the effects of war on veterans could change how the topic is taught at universities, including military academies.

Kirkpatrick has teamed with Edward Barrett, director of strategy and research at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership based at the U.S. Naval Academy. Barrett is retired from the United States Air Force and is a veteran of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Coming Home: Dialogues on the Moral, Psychological, and Spiritual Impacts of War” uses humanities sources in philosophy, history, poetry, and literature to spark discussions about the effects of war on the warrior. Sources include Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway as well as modern selections.

“It creates some space for the veterans to explore these issues on the moral, psychological and spiritual impacts of war,” Kirkpatrick said.

About 60 veterans are expected to participate in the project, which is designed to help the veterans themselves while building a resource and curriculum for others to use, Kirkpatrick said.


Research from Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication examines public understanding of climate change and garners international and national attention.

Closer to home, the center’s researchers are working with the city of Baltimore to discover how to build resiliency and adaptability into communities that are facing the effects of climate change, said Mason communication professor Karen Akerlof, a center researcher.

More affordable homes typically are built in low-lying areas, so when the sea level rises, it puts people out of their homes, said Akerlof, who is a Congressional Science Fellow this fall. “People living in these low-lying areas have fewer resources and face the greatest risk in terms of climate change, health and pollution,” she said.

Rising sea levels mean more than lost homes.

“In Alaska, you’re seeing generations lose their culture and ways of life,” she said. “In Maryland, the [Chesapeake] Bay’s ecosystems and culture of watermen are at risk.”

Instead of building a wll to keep the sea out, researchers are looking at how people are going to adapt to keep what’s culturally important to them intact, Akerlof said.

“There’s not necessarily a technical solution all the time,” she said.

What researchers learn in Baltimore could be applied internationally, she added.


Researchers at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media are mapping early American elections as part of an NEH-funded project that began in May.

They’re seeking answers to many of the same questions asked today, said Mason history professor Lincoln Mullen.

“People are very concerned about how many people voted and who they were,” he said. “Voter turnout is one of the obvious connections between colonial America and today.”

But due to a gap in election information from 1787 to 1826, it hasn’t been an easy answer. For decades, a private citizen, Phil Lampi, collected the election data, which became digitized last year.

Mason researchers are creating data-rich interactive maps that will show local, state and national elections.

“It will make this data more usable for students, journalists and political junkies,” said University Professor Rosemarie Zagarri who has written extensively about early American history.

Elections were hotly contested in the early days of the United States. From multiple political parties to women voting, early Americans turned out to the polls.

“People think about how contentious it is now,” Zagarri said. “But it was just as bad in the early Republic. There were duels being fought.”