Research Champion for Culture and Communication: Dr Mark Jenner

Our research champions outlined the challenges and opportunities facing researchers within each of their themes at a research showcase in October 2015 to mark the inauguration of the University’s new Chancellor, Professor Sir Malcolm Grant.

In his presentation, Dr Mark Jenner showed how the theme of Culture and Communication is a catalyst for some of the richest and most challenging of research across the disciplines...

Some might think that culture and communication is the research theme for the arts and humanities – not least because, as a historian, Dr Jenner is the only research champion based in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities – but Dr Jenner said that would be a mistake.

As he pointed out: yes, York’s arts and humanities departments do strikingly wide-ranging work; yes our arts and humanities were recently ranked 25th in the world – but the range of culture and communication research going on in York is much more extensive than that.

Lines of communication

Drawing on the work of the cultural critic Raymond Williams, Dr Jenner showed that communication doesn’t just refer to the transfer and exchange of supposedly weightless, immaterial signs and ideas. Lines of communication include massive infrastructures, such as those displayed in the National Railway Museum in York. Communication systems encompass many of the delicate but powerful forms of technology that both Dr Damian Murphy and Professor Thomas Krauss explored in their presentations.

Mark Jenner is a Reader in the Department of History. He works on the social and cultural history of early modern England and on the social history of medicine c1500 - c1800. His primary research interests focus on ideas of dirt and pollution.

Culture is even broader. Indeed, according to Raymond Williams, it is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. Many people still see the primary meaning of culture as that associated – not entirely fairly – with Kenneth Clark, the art historian, presenter of the BBC 2 series Civilisation, and the second Chancellor of our University.

In this way of thinking, culture is perceived as high culture.

But, Dr Jenner argued that while our University has been developing world-leading humanities research and education, we have never encouraged or endorsed lazy, uncritical Eurocentric hierarchies. After all, York hosted F.R. Leavis, the author of The Great Tradition, around the same time that Jimi Hendrix was playing in Langwith College. Our honorary doctorates have been similarly diverse, ranging from the composer Michael Tippett to York’s premier pantomime dame, the actor, Berwick Kaler.

Subject boundaries

Our research has frequently worked across, as well as within, single subject boundaries.

Dr Jenner said this is exemplified in the remarkable, period-based, interdisciplinary centres in King’s Manor and the Humanities Research Centre – the Centres for Medieval Studies, Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Modern Studies. These are period defined, Dr Jenner said, but in no way period confined in their research activities and interests.

The whole debate about whether culture is high culture is rather hackneyed, he said. More interesting is the way sociologists and anthropologists have used the term culture much more inclusively in order to make sense of sets of shared meanings, of communication practices and ways of life. For him, culture is as much about puns or pollution as about poetry; just as much about teeth cleaning as Tintoretto.

This kind of thinking has long animated social historical and social scientific research at York. Three or four decades ago, he said, colleagues in his own department did groundbreaking research into the history of transatlantic slavery and into the honour cultures of pre-modern England. He echoed fellow research champion Professor Kate Pickett by talking about how Seebohm Rowntree developed fine-grained and sympathetic analyses of how structural factors shaped the texture of life and the life-courses of so many of the city’s inhabitants.

Human rights

Such York traditions, Dr Jenner said, continue to this day in the analysis of the cultures of deprivation carried out by the Centre for Housing Policy and the Department of Social Policy and Social Work. Forms of culture provide a research strand in so many of our social science departments including work on legal culture, management culture, on cultures of toleration and the culture of human rights work.

Ideas of conversation and interaction link much of this work to the communication research going on in the Faculty of Social Sciences. Linguists and sociologists are collaborating in the investigation of how language and communication work in a variety of social settings and social exchanges. Related work on cognition and communication, on speech perception and semantic processing, is being done by psychologists.

One of Dr Jenner’s ambitions as research champion, he said, is to help increase the dialogue and collaboration between the humanities and the social sciences. The University has, he noted, a very unusual and strong track record in research that brings together the social sciences and the natural sciences. He cited the links between the Departments of Economics and Health Sciences as one example. The combination of lab-based science and the humanities, and bioarcheology and the Centre for Human Palaeoecology and Evolutionary Origins (PALAEO) in the Hull York Medical School are two others. However, he said much more could be done to develop productive collaborations between the humanities and the social sciences.

The meaning of heritage

One recent externally funded example of this kind of work is a major research project based in the Department of Sociology with a strand involving historians. Called Curating Profusion, it is part of a wider research programme also including archaeologists and geographers investigating the meaning of heritage. Their work explores forms of curating and discarding, retaining things and throwing things away, examining these practices in museums and in people’s homes.

In developing his research theme, Dr Jenner argued that it is important to recognise how, unlike the headings of many of the other themes, culture is a category of analysis as well as an object of analysis. And, most interestingly, it’s one that is being pushed and pulled, adapted and refined, by pioneering work right across the University.

So often culture is defined in opposition to nature or the physical world. There’s a tendency to see cultural factors or the socio-cultural dimensions of something as being related to, but separate from, the material, technological or physiological.

Shaping cultural developments

Many researchers, he notes, are increasingly seeing this kind of dichotomy as misleading or unhelpful and are trying to develop different intellectual tools. In the humanities, colleagues in literature, philosophy and history of art, among others, are theorising and describing how material objects and substances, ranging from paper to porcelain are helping to shape cultural developments.

In the social sciences, units such as the Science and Technology Studies Unit, (SATSU), are conducting pioneering work on the cultural resonance and ramifications of biotechnology. There, researchers are articulating the concepts like the biosocial, or the hybrid notions of conjoined nature/cultures.

In the natural sciences too we can see this older, easy distinction between the natural and the cultural breaking down, Dr Jenner argued. Analyses of pollution or climate change are examining culturally produced, human-made, anthropogenic, phenomena. Much work in public health science is examining and wrestling with the physical consequences and the physical traces, at a cellular level, of human cultural practices.

Human flesh, in other words, is a profoundly cultural matter, he said. “But we are still working towards the analytical tools and words which will allow us to capture how culture gets inside you as well as being all around you,” he added.

Dr Jenner concluded by saying that culture and communication could therefore walk the pathway described by fellow research champion Professor Karen Bloor but that research in this theme might well walk in a different direction – moving from specific examples to the reformulation of our most fundamental intellectual tools.