Meet the keynotes: Dr. Frank Hakemulder

In this series of interviews, we will present the keynote speakers at the IGEL Conference 2018.Portrait: Frank Hakemulder

Dr. Frank Hakemulder is an assistant professor at the Department for Media and Culture Studies, Utrecht University. Hakemulder was President of IGEL from 2012-2016.

What brought you to empirical research in the first place, and to studying the phenomenon of absorption in literary reading?

We know of no society, in history nor anywhere in the world, that does not have something that we can call ‘literature.’ That makes one wonder what it is for.

Scholarship has accumulated quite a number of theories and hypotheses about this – since ancient times philosophers, writers, and educators have speculated about all sorts of explanations. Often the assumed effects of literature on readers (or listeners) seem rather crucial; for instance: learning about the lives of others, gaining insights into the human condition and who we are.

As a student of Literary Theory, I thought: Wouldn’t it be nice to know whether these theories are true, for, well … a better world? Since then, in my research, I did indeed find that we do know something about these salutatory effects of reading literature, and in my own work I am trying to add to this evidence, and attempt to discover ways to use this knowledge to improve our lives.

A workable metaphor to understand the effects of literature, is, I think, that of reading as a moral laboratory: the readers experiments with certain roles – those of characters – and thus experiences how it might be to be in the shoes of someone else, learning about the causes and consequences of certain behaviors, discovering whether some roles would suit them, or not.

It seems that this metaphor also helps us to understand what the importance of absorption could be: the more you are involved in the ‘experiments’ the deeper the impact might be. That is what I’d like to know, whether this is the way it works.

Which topics will you address at the IGEL Conference 2018?

I will present the results of the research projects that I am running in the Netherlands, focusing on the role of literature in enhancing self-knowledge and social perception.

What, in your perspective, is the importance of IGEL?

IGEL combines two groups of researchers, bringing two types of expertise together, sometimes even united in one researcher: First, a high sensitivity for ‘texts’, for how stories are written, for ways to analyze movies, to understand how style works. That is the Humanities side of IGEL.

Second, there is the Social Sciences side, that you recognize in a certain rigor or systematicity in research methods, transparency in operationalizations, testing hypotheses in an attempt to falsify them, rather than arguing they are ‘self-evident’.

I find that combination ideal: it leads to beautiful research that can enrich the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Moreover, it can lead to insights that may have an ‘impact factor’ beyond the confined world of scientific journals, in the sense that they might actually be usable for people outside academia.

What are your expectations for the IGEL Conference 2018?

Well, exactly that. I think that the combination of topics that we are preparing for this conference might reveal what IGEL can do in these respects.