Social Sciences and Humanities: A Crisis from Within
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
There is a growing conception that the social sciences and humanities are witnessing a steady decline in their presence in academia. This observation applies not only on a university level but is also evident in earlier stages of education, with a clear shift in schools away from courses in the social sciences and humanities and towards more scientific-based subjects.
This observation has opened the door for multiple dimensions of dialogue, in which some argue that the social sciences and humanities are not giving back to academia and the public, or that they reflect no practical benefits to society.
Others argue that the decline in these fields is due to the lack of support in terms of financial funding from academic institutions, which in return causes a lack in academic advancements and developments. Practitioners in the fields might also see the decline in interest in these disciplines as being associated with lower academic governmental funds for research and development.
This essay, however, will propose another dimension to the issue at hand, and argue that the drop in interest and the declining growth in the humanities and social sciences is associated with the practitioners themselves, rather than external factors that are claimed to be affecting the field.
The Need to Contemporise Research
In recent years, many universities around Europe and Asia have claimed that schools of the humanities and social sciences no longer meet academic or societal needs, and in many cases, those schools have not made an effort to contemporise their approach to their findings and research or their approach to their teachings.
“Academics in the humanities and social sciences might be associated with the current marginalisation of the field by not presenting their topics in a way that is more appealing, practical and beneficial to society.”
These claims put the focus on the schools themselves, emphasising their non-growing and non-developing curricula. However, they miss one vital factor, and that is the duty of the academics in these fields to take charge of their own programmes’ vitality.
Academics in the humanities and social sciences might be associated with the current marginalisation of the field by not presenting their topics in a way that is more appealing, practical and beneficial to society. Many recent studies in the humanities and social sciences lack two important aspects, namely the generation of curiosity and the practicalisation of the field at hand.
Making research in the humanities and social sciences practical does not have to come in the traditional meaning, such as that of scientific topics like engineering and business. However, practicality can be presented through contemporising these topics. For instance, by embedding recent phenomena into topics of history, anthropology and sociology through studies of changes in global demographics, the flows of people, the impact of the Internet on people’s social lives, such as online marriages, online schooling, and so on.
Issues like these in today’s world are part of our changing history, and will have an impact on all aspects of the social sciences. However, if one was to study the curricula presented in schools that offer these subjects, one does not find any contemporary approaches to these subjects.
The Need for Innovation
A second vital issue is the common notion of having reached the end of the production of studies of humanities and social sciences, even though these studies are the studies of human beings and human development. Many academics associate these topics with what has been researched and developed in the past, and continue to teach findings that are out of date with today’s developments.
“The trap that the humanities and social sciences fall into is the lack of innovation in research and instead placing most of the effort on the historical aspect of the disciplines without weaving the studies into today’s society.”
Today, we live in a globalised world, with globalisation going beyond discovering lands and creating trade routes. The traditional approach to history, culture and society is vital in understanding what the past looked like and how societies developed, but it is in no way enough to understand what makes today’s generations, and what future generations will be like.
The exchange of people, food, culture, languages and the embeddedness of the digital world and the Internet have changed the human reality, so that we can no longer solely apply today to yesterday and the current to the past. However, if scholars of the humanities and social sciences are able to combine and embed the fast changes occurring in the global era, and are able to weave them into their research and teachings, the field would be in a constant mode of production, knowledge and expansion.
The trap that the humanities and social sciences fall into is the lack of innovation in research and instead placing most of the effort on the historical aspect of the disciplines without weaving the studies into today’s society. By doing that, academics put an end to the need to examine further, and narrow the discipline to studying the past rather than the current and future.
The Need for Interdisciplinarity
Another method of improving the generation of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is by creating interdisciplinary courses. The definition of Interdisciplinarity is typically the merging of two or more topics to produce a holistic understanding of the subject at hand, thereby generating more research and teaching by combining more than one subject and utilising existing knowledge and combining it with contemporary research. By combining the interdisciplinary approach and increasing the relevancy of traditional studies and contemporary findings of the humanities and social sciences, these disciplines will never lack interest, practicality or knowledge.
In conclusion, any field of study requires observation of change. Observing change allows fields like the humanities and social sciences not to be limited to the findings and social trends of the past, and to refute the notion that studies related to this discipline have come to an end. On the contrary, today’s world is witnessing unimaginable changes in a short period of time. Globalisation has touched every aspect of today’s realm, and has changed lives in every corner of the world.
The past is today’s history, and today’s trends will be tomorrow’s past. Therefore, it is the duty of academics in the field to step back and observe changes and embed them in their research and teaching in order to avoid further marginalisation of the field. This will allow us humans to stay in touch with our history, and allow us to better predict our future.
Mahjoob Zweiri is a professor of contemporary history and politics in the Gulf and director of Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University.
Farah Al Qawasmi is a research assistant at the Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University.
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