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Covid-19 Poses New Challenges for Social Scientists, Survey Finds

/ 13 Jul 2021

Covid-19 Poses New Challenges for Social Scientists, Survey Finds

The Covid-19 pandemic has had particularly negative consequences for social scientists and specialists in the humanities in the Arab region, with cuts in funding for research and travel, a recently published survey by the Arab Council for the Social Sciences showed.

Not only has the scholars’ productivity declined, restrictions imposed because of the pandemic may have had a lasting effect on researchers’ work methods.

“The nature of the social sciences and humanities makes them more vulnerable to the pandemic, as they often include research that has become more difficult and complex to conduct,” Seteney Shami, director general of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences, said in a telephone interview. (See a related article, “A Survey Reveals How the Pandemic Has Hurt MENA Research.”)

Shami believes that the face-to-face interviews and extensive human contact that are essential for such research are no longer feasible because of the pandemic.

While researchers in the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—also face challenges related to Covid-19, they have been able to continue working in laboratories or using online technology, says Shami. (See a related interview, “A Conversation with Sari Hanafi: The State of Arab Research.”)

“The pandemic has prevented researchers from field research and in-person interviews, which are very basic elements in such kind of research.”

Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayyid   A professor of political science at the American University in Cairo

Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayyid, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, agrees that “the pandemic has prevented researchers from field research and in-person interviews, which are very basic elements in such kinds of research.”

In a telephone interview with Al-Fanar Media he pointed out that even “teaching social sciences is affected as it is based on analysis, linking ideas and analyzing concepts, which takes place through interaction with students and conducting discussions with them—unlike issues of mathematics, for example.”

Forced to Cut Travel for Research

The survey was conducted online with 616 scholars in social sciences and humanities, of whom 59 percent were males and 40 percent were females, while half a dozen respondents preferred not to give their gender. It targeted holders of a master’s degree or higher and covered nine main topics, including working hours, teaching, research and field work, professional development, and work and life before and after the epidemic.

About 46 percent of the respondents were forced to postpone travel for research purposes. Research websites and materials were no longer available for a third of the scientists participating in the survey, while 14 percent had problems related to funding, and 6 percent faced problems with their contracts. (See a related article, “Health and Economic Crises Threaten Arab Funding for Research.”)

Anthropologists seem to be among those most affected, with around 72 percent reporting a decline in their ability to progress in their research due to the unique nature of their research, compared to other sciences. Moreover, about 77 percent of the respondents were unable to attend workshops or conferences that were supposed to be held in March 2020.

Only 15 percent of respondents said they were able to switch from in-person data collection to the phone or the Internet, and 23 percent of those said the switch slowed down the research process. About 18 percent faced problems related to the quality of interviews conducted this way.

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The pandemic also limited researchers’ ability to publish their work. About 48 percent reported they did not publish at their usual rate, while 27 percent were able to publish at the same rate. However, 25 percent of them managed to increase their ability to publish. (See a related article, “Research Results Are Increasingly Available for Free.”)

Some Positive Signs

Nevertheless, the report shows some positive signs.

The shift towards greater reliance on the Internet has provided new opportunities for professional development, and the adoption of the digital format has increased the access of some scientists to events. For example, 43 percent of respondents attended online workshops and 71 percent of them attended webinars.

“More attention should be given to infrastructure development that helps us to use the Internet more effectively and allows researchers to design and distribute online surveys and manage their research more efficiently.”

Seteney Shami   Director general of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences

“Despite the decline in production, the pandemic demonstrated the importance of the social sciences and humanities,” said Shami. “For example, the pandemic revealed the importance and necessity of psychology in understanding how to encourage individuals to wear a mask. History has also given us lessons from previous epidemics in how to deal with the current one.”

Al-Sayyid noted a remarkable development in most Arab universities due to the need to design research related to the pandemic. “The use of social scientific knowledge in analyzing political and health phenomena has become one of the basics of knowledge in the Arab world,” he said.

While researchers in private universities did not see any changes in the distribution of their time between teaching, research and administrative tasks, their peers in public universities noticed an increase in the time allocated to research in exchange for a decrease in teaching hours.

The survey authors say that many of the problems facing researchers today are not entirely new. (See the related articles “Arab Social Sciences: Scarce, but Sorely Needed” and “A Conversation with Sari Hanafi: The State of Arab Research.”)

However, the current situation calls for modern and different solutions.

“More attention should be given to infrastructure development that helps us to use the Internet more effectively and allows researchers to design and distribute online surveys and manage their research more efficiently,” said Shami.

She stressed that studying the effects and challenges of the pandemic, and planning how to continue research and teaching related to the social sciences and humanities in times of crisis, would facilitate facing future challenges. “We have a tremendous opportunity to learn today,” she said. “We should not lose it.”




One CommentJoin the Conversation
  1. Sujay Rao Mandavilli says:

    There is a strong Eurocentric bias and left bias in the Social sciences, something people like me are hoping to change.


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