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Review of  Scientific Methods for the Humanities

Reviewer: Leonardo Campillos Llanos
Book Title: Scientific Methods for the Humanities
Book Author: Willie van Peer Frank Hakemulder Sonia Zyngier
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 23.5071

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‘Scientific Methods for the Humanities’ is written by three experts with a wide range of publications and experience in the use of empirical research in Art, Media or Literature -- they are founding members of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature (IGEL) and organize REDES (Research for the Development of Empirical Studies) Seminars. Their book aims at introducing readers from a Humanities background to the empirical methods used in scientific research, and presenting a re-elaboration of a previous volume (Van Peer et al., 2007). In that work, the authors already began swimming against the tide in the Humanities, where, as they state, “departments do not have a tradition of empirical research” (p. xxi).

Chapter 1 presents the authors’ approach to carrying out research in the Humanities by applying a scientific methodology. In keeping with Charles Percy Snow’s concept of the Third Culture (1959/1993), the authors propose a contribution that “bridges the gap between the Humanities and the Natural Sciences” (p. 7). In defense of this paradigm, Wundt’s curve -- described by German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) -- is explained. The Wundt’s curve is a curvilinear shape which represents the increase of the pleasant feeling aroused by any stimulus as a function of the intensity of the stimulus; this feeling of ‘pleasantness’ gradually increases “but only up to certain point, after which the pleasant feeling gradually diminishes”, thus becoming “quite unpleasant” (p. 9). The Canadian psychologist Daniel E. Berlyne adapted this curve to scientifically study the aesthetic experience. Finally, to exemplify that the use of a scientific methodology may confirm or reject speculative or deeply rooted ideas among scholars in the Humanities, the authors quote two pieces of this type of research regarding Psychoanalytical readings of Literature and Narratology.

Chapter 2 explains basic insights from the philosophy of science. Aristotle’s theory of motion and Galileo’s famous experiment, which refuted it empirically, are examples of how theories are replaced by new ones which are more productive and free of internal contradictions. Science is continually exerting a constant, systematic and ubiquitous critique of scientific theories because scientific progress is based on learning from previous mistakes. Karl Popper’s principle of falsification (1934) is an elaboration of this critical method; empirical verification of a theory is not enough to accept it (as Positivism advocated) because “verification is not fail-safe” (p. 40). As any theory is just an approximation of reality, modesty is another requirement for science. The chapter ends by explaining research on the formal and stylistic similarities between Mark’s, Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels, and the hypotheses about their sources.

Chapter 3 addresses research methodologies. One of the main choices deals with the preference of quantitative or qualitative research. Qualitative methods are recommended when addressing a topic that has scarcely been researched due to the fact that it is more suitable for finding new insights. However, much qualitative research lacks of rigor. On the contrary, quantitative methods are more appropriate in cases where scientific studies about a topic abound, in order to test hypotheses which have already been stated. Besides both types of methods, three types of research are differentiated: explanatory, exploratory, and descriptive. Subsequently, a plan for research is explained: consideration of the problem to investigate; evaluation of the feasibility of the study; literature search; construction of the conceptual model; choice of the research method; and setting up variables and ways to measure them. Specific suggestions about searching for literature in databases (e.g. PsycInfo) are provided and the need for an evaluation and a critical discussion of these sources is addressed.

Chapter 4 exposes methods of data collection: observation research (i.e. participatory research or naturalistic observations), think-aloud protocols, diaries, interviews (which are one of the richest sources of data), focus groups, experiments, content analysis, and surveys (which allow addressing the same questions with a large population).

Chapter 5 explains how to construct a questionnaire, which can include open or closed questions. Levels of measurement are subsequently addressed: nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio. Every level of measurement is related to the main types of questions which are discussed: checklist, multiple choice, graphic rating scale, itemized rating scale, rank-order rating scale, constant-sum rating scale, fractionation rating scale, Likert scale, and semantic differential scales. The authors put forward some suggestions as to how to formulate a question and how to design a questionnaire, as well as other issues such as the procedure, the layout and the instructions of the questionnaire.

Chapter 6 introduces key concepts about experiments, the aim of which is to observe the effect of the independent on the dependent variable. In contrast to subject variables (which cannot be completely controlled), independent variables can be manipulated, and therefore, they make it possible to generalize results. Following this, two types of experimental designs are described: between-subject designs (comparisons of groups) and within-subject designs (or repeated measures, comparisons of two or more measurements within each individual case). Besides the classical pre-test/post-test control group design, other experiments use a factorial design (e.g. two-way design). The chapter explains the use of delayed (or post-post) tests (to confirm long term effects of a treatment) and control groups (as a baseline measure), as well as threats to the internal and to external validity of experiments when estimating to what degree the conclusions are valid.

Chapter 7 introduces the SPSS program for statistical analyses, while the basics of descriptive statistics, along with fundamental concepts such as normal distributions of data and effect size, are explained in Chapter 8. Measures of central tendency (e.g. mean, mode, and median) show group tendencies, whereas measures of dispersion (e.g. the range, standard deviation, and variance) describe the bandwidth of the observations in relation to the average. The chapter illustrates how to generate all these measures with SPSS and how to represent them in bar charts, line graphs and boxplots.

Chapters 9 through 11 review some principles of inferential statistics: the notion of significance level; the concepts of the ‘null’ hypothesis (Ho) and the alternative hypothesis (Ha); the risk of observational errors; and the notion of correlation (a similarity between two variables, which is not, nonetheless, a synonym of causality). The chapter explains how to create scatterplots with SPSS (in order to observe the data before a correlation is calculated) as well as how to calculate them in parametric and non-parametric tests. It concludes by addressing regression analysis, a sophisticated technique used to figure out the relationship between several variables and how much each individual variable predicts the value of another.

Some of the tests used in inferential statistics are introduced in Chapter 10. A decision flowchart and a summary table help the reader to choose the correct test depending on whether the data follow a normal distribution (parametric tests) or not (non-parametric tests). To know whether the scores are normally distributed, the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test can be used. This, and the following tests (and the way to perform them in SPSS) are explained: first, a parametric test such as the t-test; and second, non-parametric tests such as the Wilcoxon test, the Mann Whitney (‘U-test’), the Kruskal-Wallis test, the Friedman test, and the Chi square test (which can be used with data at all levels of measurement).

Chapter 11 discusses Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) tests, which compare the variance between groups with the variance within each group. The chapter specifies the requirements of the data to perform an ANOVA and introduces the Bonferroni correction (post hoc) test. If more than one independent variable needs to be considered, the procedure to follow is the General Lineal Model (GLM), of which there are three forms: Univariate ANOVA, Multivariate ANOVA (MANOVA), and Repeated Measures. The conditions under which tests are performed and the instructions to calculate them in SPSS are explained step by step with sample tables and screenshots.

Chapter 12 addresses ways to communicate results. As to oral presentations, the authors put forward recommendations regarding points such as the submission of an abstract, how to introduce oneself, the timing, how to speak to the audience, the way to deal with comments during discussion time, or the use of media (e.g. PowerPoint presentations). As far as written presentations are concerned, the chapter tackles issues such as the choice of a journal and the structure of a paper (i.e. title, keywords, abstract, introduction, explanation of the methods and presentation of results, and discussion). Stylistic suggestions concerning scientific writing and citation guidelines are also provided. Finally, the chapter includes some useful tips for preparing a poster for a poster session.


‘Scientific Methods for the Humanities’ is an honest title that deserves the attention of scholars in the liberal arts. After turning the last page of the Epilogue, the reader has undoubtedly gained such a wealth of knowledge on research methods and techniques that he/she may no longer approach the study of the Humanities with the same attitude. Covering the main contents from research methodologies to experimental tests, the volume strikes a good balance between theory and applied methods in research. The visual display of the data (in graphs and tables) and the screenshots of the program used in the tests are clean and easy to understand. Furthermore, the structure of the book is very pedagogical, as topics and methods of the research methodologies are explained gradually, from the easier to the more difficult. Indeed, two chapters (the Interlude before Chapter 2 and the Epilogue) are written in dialogue form, as was done in the Renaissance Humanism tradition. With this didactical resource, the authors pose and answer questions which students or scholars in the Humanities tend to form when they are guided toward an empirical methodology. Also, some misconceptions about the empirical research of culture are rejected: among others, the supposed need of a sophisticated theoretical framework and ‘real’ experiments to be measured, or the impossibility of dealing with a-theoretical issues that are subjective in nature.

Surprisingly, the book does not include many examples of research performed in a field related to the Humanities such as language learning/teaching or language acquisition. This is mainly due to the authors’ background in Arts, Media and Literature. However, it is also true that it may not be necessary to go beyond the scope of these disciplines to achieve the aim of this work (i.e. the understanding of scientific approaches and methodologies and their application to a non-scientific area). Specifically for language disciplines, there are volumes already devoted to research methods in Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition -- such as Larsen-Freeman & Long (1991), Mackey & Gass (2005), Dörnyei (2007) or Johnson (2008) -- as well as other books on statistics for the study of language such as Oakes (1998), Baayen (2008), Gries (2010) or Herrera-Soler et al. (2011). The authors stick to providing further references on certain topics in their corresponding chapters, considering that the aim of the book is not “a complete course in statistics” (p. xxii) nor a manual for using SPSS, for which purposes there are comprehensive volumes for the Social Sciences, such as Miller et al. (2002) or Howell (2011).

Although I agree with the authors’ statement that “finding a good question or formulating a problem (…) is even a difficult task for experienced researchers” (p. 313), the tests provided are illustrated with experiments or data related to research that could be performed in Arts or Humanities disciplines. Indeed, in order to practice the contents explained, the book is accompanied by a set of self-study materials (multiple choice questions and simulation of exercises) that can be found on the publisher’s web site. These complementary materials are undoubtedly an advantage for the reader. However, there is a disadvantage in the way they are made available, since they are only published on the Internet, and thus, it may not be always possible for the reader to use them (e.g. if there is a lack of connection service or if the web site is temporarily unavailable). A good improvement for a following edition would be to include them in the volume or even on a CD attached to the book. Thus, what is already a worthy reference book could be used as a textbook for a course in a Humanities program. In any case, this practical approach is very positive, given that “learning by doing is a better way of learning”, as the authors state (p. 47). In fact, all the materials from the book have been previously tested with students.

Overall, despite the weaknesses pointed out above, the authors’ purpose for the book is mainly achieved. Written in a very accessible style, the reading of the volume is fluid and stimulating, even in the sections devoted to statistical tests. In my opinion, some of the chapters -- especially, Chapter 12 (Communicating Results) -- should be a must-read for students who are being trained in a post-graduate degree program in the Humanities. Authors share very useful tips and some of their personal know-how regarding methods for performing an investigation and disseminating results. Moreover, they trying to erase threats and misconceptions about what the practice of research is. This inspiring, non-elitist approach for introducing scientific methods to students in the Humanities is the main merit of the volume.


Baayen, R. Harald. (2008). Analyzing Linguistic Data: A Practical Introduction to Statistics using R. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dörnyei, Zoltan. (2007). Research methods in Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gries, Stefan Th. (2010). Statistics for Linguistics with R: A Practical Introduction. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Herrera-Soler, Honesto, Rosario Martínez Arias & Marian Amengual Pizarro. (2011). Estadística aplicada a la investigación lingüística. Madrid: EOS.

Howell, David C. (2011). Fundamental Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences. 7th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Johnson, Keith. (2008). Quantitative Methods In Linguistics. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

Larsen-Freeman, Diane, & Michael H. Long. (1991). An introduction to second language acquisition research. London: Longman.

Mackey, Alison & Susan Gass. (2005). Second Language Research: Methodology and Design. London/N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Miller, Robert L., Ciaran Acton, Deirdre A. Fullerton & John Maltby. (2002). SPSS for Social Scientists. Hampshire/New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Oakes, Michael. (1998). Statistics for corpus linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Peer, Willie van, Frank Hakemulder & Zyngier, Sonia. (2007). Muses and measures. Empirical research methods for the humanities. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press.

Popper, Karl. (1934). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Routledge.

Snow, Charles Percy. (1959/1993). The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Leonardo Campillos Llanos is a PhD student at the Linguistics and Modern Languages Department at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain). His interests are corpus linguistics, Spanish as a second language acquisition and the application of computers in the Humanities. He has attended international conferences (LREC, Learner Corpus Research, and Corpus Linguistics), and he is co-author of ‘Textos de español oral’, a corpus-based book for practicing the listening comprehension skills in Spanish.