The humanities have had a tough time lately. As colleges and universities tightened budgets and reallocated funding, humanities programs were often on the chopping block. Part of the problem has been a public narrative that humanities degrees are somehow less useful than those that offered a clearer professional path. Think of the tired old saw about the English grad serving coffee to business degree holders.

Speaking as someone who holds an advanced degree in a humanities field (specifically, English), I categorically reject this narrative. One the one hand, there are plenty of folks who have humanities degrees who do quite well career-wise, and there is data to back that up.

Consider that a recent international study of 1,700 people found that the majority of those in leadership positions had either a social science or humanities degree, and that this was especially prevalent among those who were under 45 years of age.

Plus, how many 18-23 year olds actually know what they want to do when they grow up? I'm almost 40 and I'm still not sure. We're better off accepting that we'll change careers at least a few times before we stop working and pursuing educational opportunities that promote versatility and range.

We're constantly told that the world is changing more rapidly than ever and that we need to be flexible, or agile, or nimble, or whatever other adjective you want. It's a good thing, then, to equip people to be able to critically evaluate information and arrive at and and articulate a perspective on it.

(That having been said, I also reject the notion that the purpose of postsecondary education is to prepare someone for their eventual career. Education has value well beyond whatever job you end up with. But that's probably a discussion for another time.)

Part of the problem may be is that there's not necessarily a good, succinct way to describe the range of skills that someone trained in the humanities brings to the table. Christian Madsbjerg's book Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm takes some steps toward correcting that.

Madsbjerg, co-founder of business strategy consultancy ReD Associates, argues that our culture—especially in the business world—has become too taken with what he calls algorithmic thinking. This obsession with data has limited our ability to understand aspects of our world that are not easily quantified, including people and culture. Madsbjerg offers sensemaking, a humanities-based approach that is heavily informed by phenomenology, as an alternative that produces "thick data." Thick data is what we need to understand not just what people do but how people they relate to contexts around them.

Scientism and algorithmic thinking

We often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information we consume each day. The world feels as though it is increasingly complex, making it harder and harder for us to get our bearings. In Sensemaking, Christian Madsbjerg posits that our sense of overwhelm is not because the world itself has become more complex—after all, it has always been impossibly complex—but because of our own obsessive efforts to organize systematize it all.

Our society is today fixated with math, science, and engineering as its primary tools for interpreting the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than Silicon Valley. Madsbjerg argues that Silicon Valley is obsessed with “scientism,” a rejection of the idea that knowledge accumulates. Instead, scientism holds that every new paradigm holds until it is disproven by another. For this reason, Silicon Valley embraces the hard sciences and rejects the humanities, which emphasizes instead recovered knowledge and the relationships between knowledge and power.

But the perspective of scientism is by nature incomplete. Scientism, which borrows its ways of knowing from engineering, math, and science, offers models that are good at describing the physical world around us but that are less useful for explaining human behaviour. Relying too heavily on the tools of these disciplines leaves us less able to intuit things about people and culture, and limits our ability to come up with new insights about the world around us. These approaches, described by Madsbjerg as “algorithmic thinking,” sacrifice deep, rich, concrete knowledge of people for abstractions. It gives us, in Madsbjerg’s words, a “view from nowhere.”

What is Sensemaking?

Madsbjerg offers sensemaking as an alternative to algorithmic thinking that better orients us to where we actually are.

“Sensemaking” draws from the humanities rather than the hard sciences, especially phenomenology. It describes the process of learning what matters to people, and focuses on cultures rather than individuals. Sensemaking aims to unpack how people exist within the context of their culture, as well as considering how that culture informs its members’ understanding of their relationship to the world around them. “When we practice sensemaking,” Madsbjerg writes, “we stop seeing a room as a space filled with individual items and we start seeing the structures that form a cultural reality.”

Sensemaking creates what Madsbjerg calls “thick data”: information that goes below the surface of facts to their rich contexts. Thick data is fundamentally concerned with the question of why. It asks what an experience feels like, rather than just noting what had occurred. Thick data is evidence that speaks to the relationships that people have with the contexts they inhabit.

Attenuating ourselves to thick data makes us more sensitive to subtle fluctuations in the environments we inhabit and observe, and is necessary for us to develop a more complex model of humanity. Thick data provides the rich contexts that algorithmic facts lack.

Sensemaking is “analytical empathy.” As a practice, sensemaking assembles sources and evidence to understand not just what happened, but how people relate to what happened. It’s the effortful work of building a deeper understanding of a population’ relationship with the world around it.

Sitting with uncertainty

But sensemaking requires spending more time in states of uncertainty and unknown—an uncomfortable but necessary state. Sensemaking is a form of abductive reasoning. It doesn’t begin with preconceptions around what is known or unknown, but is open to data and information from a wide variety of sources. As patterns are identified, theories emerges; from these theories come insight.

Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce suggested that only abductive reasoning is capable fo producing new knowledge. But, for this reason, it’s also very challenging. Practitioners must put in the time to build their capability to identify what is a worthwhile insight and what’s not.

Unfortunately, though, many people and organizations don’t treat it that way. They turn creativity into an assembly line and call it design thinking. Design thinking, Madsbjerg argues, privileges an innocent mind state and assumes that expertise is a burden. It professes empathy and user-centeredness, but only in superficial ways. It assumes that new knowledge can emerge from nowhere and, in fact, that prior knowledge is a burden. But, from Madsbjerg’s perspective, in design thinking knowledge is acquired only superficially rather than the deep immersion that sensemaking requires.

Design thinking adopts the language of the humanities, but avoids deep understanding of context in favour of rigid rules, processes, and the collection of sticky notes. It values a quantity of ideas without engaging with what those ideas are, producing the superficially pleasant feeling that abundance can produce. But this is an example of the collector’s fallacy; the good feeling is hardly an adequate substitute for actually doing the work. Creativity, insight, and knowledge creation is hard and uncomfortable.

Design thinking is skeptical of expertise and embraces the notion that every idea is valuable; for Madsbjerg, this is a superficial and ultimately dangerous approach to problem solving. He points out that, in many fields, there is foundational knowledge that must be understood in order for meaningful insight to break through.

Concluding thoughts

I share Madsbjerg's skepticism of what he characterizes as almost a cult of scientism, though perhaps not to same degree. But, this book's important intervention is that it clears a space and provides a vocabulary for alternative methods of knowing, offering plenty of examples of cases where the hard data concealed information where a broader perspective proved to be more incisive.

This is a topic I'd like to explore further. I don't believe that research or even epistemology is a zero-sum game; but, I do think that the kind of thinking done by humanities scholars is an undervalued resource.