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Social Sciences Researchers Enjoy New Freedoms in Saudi Arabia

The broad cultural changes Saudi Arabia has witnessed in recent years have been reflected in the development of social sciences teaching methods in universities and the expansion of research topics that were previously not possible, academics who study social science issues say.

“Today, Saudi universities encourage their students to study different social topics, in addition to researching issues of women’s empowerment, human rights and other modern pivotal topics, while using qualitative research methods,” said Muna Al-Ghuraibi, a scholar in political sociology and assistant professor at King Saud University’s Department of Social Studies, in a phone call.

In response to pressure from conservative religious and political forces, the oil-rich kingdom had stopped teaching some philosophical and anthropological subjects for about 40 years, pushing the majority of social science researchers there to conduct research through surveys and to focus on family and crime issues. Political sociology issues were completely absent, according to a report issued by the Arab Council for the Social Sciences in 2018.

An earlier report revealed  that about 19 percent of 1,037 research papers produced by Saudi social scientists between 1970 and 2013 focused on “crime, delinquency, and social discipline.” Only two research papers dealt with social conflict, and only one paper examined the issue of foreigners’ employment. (See a related article, “Arab Social Sciences: Scarce, But Sorely Needed.”)

“The past social closure period affected the course of education in general, and social sciences in particular,” said Al-Ghuraibi. “It had a negative role in limiting the study of some social issues and restricted some studies in general, under the pretext that they might lead to atheism.”

However, since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched the sweeping “Vision 2030” plan in 2016, the kingdom has witnessed major reforms, including allowing women to drive cars and to enter sports stadiums, and establishing a General Entertainment Authority to support the development of the entertainment sector. The authorities also allowed men and women to attend public places together, ending gender segregation. (See the related articles “Film Studies Thrive in Saudi Arabia, Promising Jobs and Cultural Change,” and “Crown Prince Pushes Change in Saudi Higher Education.”)

“Today, Saudi universities encourage their students to study different social topics, in addition to researching issues of women’s empowerment, human rights and other modern pivotal topics, while using qualitative research methods.”

Muna Al-Ghuraibi
A political sociology scholar at King Saud University

Hania Sholkamy, an Egyptian anthropologist and associate professor at the Social Research Center of the American University in Cairo, believes there is a direct relationship between social openness within societies and the social sciences, as change in the lifestyles of a society reinforce the desire of researchers to understand society. “It engages in a process of research and inquiry to explore the past, present and introspection of the future.”

Modernizing Curricula 

The changes under way in Saudi Arabia have also been reflected in educational policies. The curricula and subjects for sociology students have been updated to include political and legal sciences, and literary and arts studies, after several years of curricula dominated by marriage and family issues.

Earlier this year, and for the first time in the kingdom’s history, critical thinking and philosophy started being taught to middle and high school students, with the help of a British teacher-training company.

Moreover, male and female students of anthropology, philosophy and other social sciences have also had opportunities to study abroad with state-supported scholarships.

Al-Ghuraibi was one of those students. “I chose to study political sociology and got a Ph.D. degree in 2018 from the University of Sydney, in Australia, where I discussed the role of social capital in shaping and activating civil society institutions in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

Al-Ghuraibi noted that universities today, in order to approve doctoral and master’s theses proposals in social sciences, require their being related to reality, as well as the use of different methods of analysis, employing philosophy and critical thinking. Previously, such studies mostly used quantitative methods based on surveys.

“Even at the level of professors and researchers, the use of qualitative methods and direct interviews with sources is being expanded. These methodologies serve content and discourse analysis studies.”

Lama Al-Badna
A Saudi sociologist

Qualitative Research Approaches

Students feel the change and seem happy with it.

“I wasn’t allowed to communicate with the sources,” said a third-year Saudi student at Qassim University’s College of Social Studies. “So, I had to conduct my research through surveys. But that has changed now, and it’s definitely better.”

Lama Al-Badna, a Saudi sociologist, confirmed the student’s observation. “Even at the level of professors and researchers, the use of qualitative methods and direct interviews with sources is being expanded,” she said. “These methodologies serve content and discourse analysis studies.”

Moreover, some Saudi universities have introduced new specializations in social sciences in the past two years, and researchers have gone further in studying the situation of women. For example, Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University launched a master’s degree program in women’s studies last year, for the first time in the history of the kingdom. (See a related article, “Teaching Gender and Women’s Studies in the Middle East.”) King Saud University has also introduced three master’s degree programs in sociology and social work.

Al-Badna believes that these transformations have encouraged a new approach that views Saudi women in a different way, apart from the common stereotypes about Saudi women.  She has studied the presence of Saudi women in the art movement in the 1960s, and found that their art reflected the changes in society and in the status of women.

“Such changes helped us hold scientific events to discuss some issues that were deemed taboo in the past,” she said. “Some institutions concerned with this role were also started, including the Saudi Social Studies Society.”

That organization’s activities have been supported by the Department of Social Studies at King Saud University, said Al-Ghuraibi, who is a board member of the society. “We also receive material and moral support from various government agencies to intensify our programs.”

“Thanks to the recent changes, the study has turned into a real passion.”

Abdullah Al-Qahtani
ِA sociologist and associate professor of psychology at Shaqra University.

A Long Way Ahead 

Behind the positive view Saudi researchers have of the recent developments in social science studies in the kingdom, some believe there is still a long way to go for some of these developments to result in radical reforms to advance social research.

“Correcting the course of sociology in universities requires separating it from the ‘social service’ department, because there is no logical justification to combine them together,” said Abdullah Al-Qahtani, a sociologist and associate professor of psychology at Shaqra University.

Two decades ago, Al-Qahtani studied social sciences at King Abdullah University amid great restrictions on scholars’ choices of issues and topics. Later, while he was working for a master’s degree, the topics he could work on opened up as the restrictions on forbidden issues were relaxed, which encouraged him to study for a Ph.D. at the age of 40.

“Thanks to the recent changes, study has turned into a real passion related to exploring the depths of social phenomena, revealing their implications, and embarking on new studies to explore further issues,” he said.

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Sholkamy, who previously served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences, said that real change depends on how knowledge production affects the local consumer, its ability to change traditions and produce critical thinking and new knowledge that calls for self-review and social identity.

“We need to ask about the areas of dissemination and circulation of this new knowledge, and the degree of acceptance in society and the ruling systems that these research results in a new thought rooted within society.”

In turn, Al-Badna calls for expanding the fields of work for social sciences graduates and holders of master’s and doctoral degrees in all areas, and not limiting them to academia.

“In any field of work, sociology is necessary and important, and particularly in decision-making,” she said.


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