SHAPE – A Focus on the Human World

We are seeing our worlds turn upside down as we confront COVID-19, climate change, the loss of biodiversity, a global recession, shifting geo-politics, wars, injustices, the rise of autocracies, conflicts of identity and of religions, to name but a few.  As we battle our way through, we seek not only solutions, but meaning, purpose, creativity and inspiration.  Social sciences, humanities and the arts can help us in our endeavors, which is why we, along with the British Academy and others, have recently launched SHAPE: Social sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy: www.thisisshape.org.uk.  

The aims of SHAPE are threefold: to explain just what social sciences, humanities and arts are and what they do, to illustrate their value and relevance, and to encourage people to study them and follow careers using the knowledge and skills they gain in doing so. For we need them now, more than ever.

SHAPE subjects are hugely heterogenous in their methods, mindsets and modes of expression. In their methods they range from the collection and analysis of data through quantitative, statistical and econometric methods – and increasingly through using methods of computational analysis used in AI and machine learning – to qualitative methods of observation, interpretation and analysis; from philosophical methods of reasoning and logic to creative practices in the design, art, music and the performing arts, and more. In their mindsets they embrace rigor, objectivity, critique, subjectivity, empathy, spontaneity, imagination and creativity. In their modes of expression they span analysis to art, statistics to sound, data to drama, narrative to numbers. And, inevitably, there are disputes between practitioners in any of the SHAPE disciplines as to what constitute valid methods for producing knowledge, what are appropriate mindsets, and what are legitimate modes of expression.

(Photo Collage: Kenalyn Ang)

But what SHAPE subjects share is a focus on the human world – on people and societies across time and space. On how we behave, organise ourselves, express ourselves, exert power, create markets, states, families, religions, cultures and communities. They explore what makes us who we are, and who others are – and what we and they have been and will be. If we want to understand those who have come before us, those who live contemporaneously with us, and those who may succeed us, then we need the knowledge, skills and mindsets that SHAPE subjects give us. Learning about geography, history, literature, politics, anthropology, sociology, law, economics, philosophy, art, performance or design are thus not only of value in their own right, they can help us address many of the critical issues which concern people around the world, such as inequalities, identity, war, injustice, authority, rights and power. And – as the last few months have shown – they also provide us with purpose, meaning, solace and joy. 

Whilst those of us who practice in SHAPE disciplines are aware of their worth, their sheer range and variety can obscure what it is they share – a focus on what it is to be human. STEM subjects are equally heterogenous, and with their own internal factions. But these are masked by their shared branding, as STEM. By offering the social sciences, humanities and the arts their own common descriptor, SHAPE, we are aiming to celebrate their diversity, and also to ‘level up’ their profile to be on a par with STEM, not in opposition but as equals, and as collaborators.  

For SHAPE subjects are not only essential for understanding people and societies, they are critical to understanding the interaction of people and the natural and physical world. It follows that if we want to tackle many of the challenges of our time, whether that be climate change, biodiversity, sustainability or pandemics, then those working in STEM and SHAPE subjects need to engage closely with one another. Managing biodiversity, for example, requires deep knowledge of natural life on land or in water, but also deep knowledge of people’s interaction with that natural life and their sense of its worth and purpose – whether they are interacting closely with it or whether they are distanced from it, economically, politically, culturally or geographically. Saving our oceans from plastics by creating a circular economy requires close engagement with the chemical composition of plastics, but also with the dynamics of markets, pricing, and the behaviours of producers and consumers. Switching the heating in our homes from fossil fuels to renewables requires highly specialist knowledge of energy production, storage and distribution, but also of architecture, design, regulation, markets and, again, values and behaviours. And, as we are finding, managing pandemics is as much about managing people’s behaviours, their mental health, the economy, our health and social care systems, supply chain logistics, biodiversity and geo-politics as it is about understanding the properties of the virus.

And as we cope with the challenging times we face, data suggest that employers also value the knowledge and skills furnished through the study of SHAPE subjects, as well as STEM. (See this report from NESTA and this one from the Campaign for Social Science for confirmation.) For it is only when people from a wide range of backgrounds, experience and knowledge work together that we can create something truly transformative.

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Julia Black

Julia Black is the London School of Economics and Political Science's strategic director of innovation. She has written extensively on regulatory issues in a number of areas, and has advised policy makers, consumer bodies and regulators on issues of institutional design and regulatory policy. Black was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2015, appointed to the board of UK Research and Innovation in 2017, and is a research associate of LSE's Centre for the Analysis of Risk and Regulation.

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