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Introducing SHAPE: Q&A with Sophie Goldsworthy and Julia Black (part one)

OUP is excited to support the newly created SHAPE initiative—Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy. SHAPE has been coined to enable us to clearly communicate the value that these disciplines bring to not only enriching the world in which we live, but also enhancing our understanding of it. The contributions that SHAPE subjects make are more important now than ever as they can help us to navigate how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the global economy, dramatically altered our quotidian routines, and changed the way we communicate with one another, against the backdrop of climate change and urgent calls to address structural injustice.

In the first instalment this two-part Q&A, we spoke to Sophie Goldsworthy, Director of Content Strategy & Acquisitions here at OUP, and Professor Julia Black CBE FCA, Strategic Director of Innovation and Professor of Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and President-elect of the British Academy, to find out more about SHAPE and what it means to them.

Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about your background and current position, and what SHAPE means to you?

Sophie Goldsworthy: I’ve worked in publishing for approaching 30 years, 25 of them at OUP. My first role at the Press was on the Literature list and I currently run our humanities, social sciences, and trade programmes in the UK, as well as directing Oxford’s content strategy more broadly across the research publishing business.

At a time when the content needs of the university sector are evolving, leading to shifts in research publishing, my role is about developing our focus and building data and evidence into our approach to content acquisition, more closely aligning commissioning with what librarians, researchers, and readers want, and working to maximise the reach, impact, and amplification of the scholarship we publish.

Oxford is the world’s largest university press, and SHAPE subjects sit at the very heart of our offering, giving us breadth which in turn underlines a complementary view of the subjects. SHAPE gives us a better way to articulate that mutual, porous relationship, helps us move past an arts/sciences dichotomy to a place where each enhances and supports the other.

Julia Black: My academic interests span social sciences and humanities. I focus on how governments and other organisations regulate behaviours, systems, and processes to address complex problems, such as environmental management, or financial stability, or AI, and what values guide, or should guide, those processes. Given that problems are multi-dimensional, trying to address them requires engaging with technical, scientific aspects of the issues as well as the social and ethical elements. As my principal research questions are always centred around people and organisations, social sciences and humanities dominate, but for me, it seems quite natural to engage with several disciplines, across SHAPE and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), in order to understand and address the multiple dimensions of a problem.

I’ve also always worked quite fluidly across the worlds of academia and public policy, and I’m constantly struck by the huge reliance which government places on social science and humanities in seeking guidance and evidence for its policies, and yet the contribution those disciplines can make, and are making, is often under-recognised and under-valued. And when I look beyond policy to the vibrancy of the arts, the richness of literature, the diversity of our society, and even to the structure and dynamics of our economy, SHAPE subjects are everywhere. So for me SHAPE is a way to celebrate the value of social sciences, humanities, and the arts, and to demonstrate their relevance and value to ourselves and to society. It’s also to encourage people to study them, and to build meaningful lives and contribute to society using the knowledge and skills they gain in doing so. For we need them now, more than ever.

“How we describe a thing has the potential to accord or diminish its power. At its heart, SHAPE offers us the opportunity to begin to tell the story of a set of subjects which might seem at first glance to be disparate.”

What are the benefits in bringing together the arts, humanities, and social sciences disciplines under the SHAPE umbrella?

SG: How we describe a thing has the potential to accord or diminish its power. At its heart, SHAPE offers us the opportunity to begin to tell the story of a set of subjects which might seem at first glance to be disparate. It allows us to draw together the ways in which they contribute value to society, helping us make sense of the human experience, develop our understanding of global issues, and work to find solutions.

JB: SHAPE is offering social sciences, humanities, and the arts their own descriptor, providing a coherence to a heterogenous set of subjects in a way which celebrates their diversity but emphasises what connects them: a focus on the human world—on people and societies across time and space.

It’s important to emphasise that we are not “setting up” social sciences, humanities, and the arts in opposition to STEM. SHAPE subjects have their own value which is on a par with STEM, they are just differently focused: on the human world, rather than the natural or physical worlds. There are areas within each where they operate largely separately, but if we want to understand how humans interact with the natural and physical world, then we need the insights gained from connecting both sets of disciplines. There are also opportunities to use the knowledge and insights from each to inform the other.

How can SHAPE and STEM disciplines complement each other in our pursuit of knowledge?

SG: The pandemic has reinforced how essential STEM subjects are, as we look to medical and technical solutions: witness only the breath-taking speed at which vaccines have been developed. But SHAPE disciplines complement STEM in myriad ways—and conversely leaving them out of the mix can have troubling implications.

We might need to draw on behavioural economics and “nudge” theory to help influence how people act, changing the message around mask wearing from “protect yourself” to “protect others,” for example. Or to take a holistic approach to data interpretation to circumnavigate structural inequalities, where the price we otherwise pay is a high one. The past year has been full of stories about “one size fits all” PPE that leaves female health workers poorly protected, or remote education initiatives that overlook those children for whom a school lunch provides the only meal of the day.

At its most straightforward, learning the stories of past pandemics can enlighten us in the present. How and why do conspiracy theories and misinformation proliferate in an outbreak, for example, and what should we learn as we navigate precisely that set of circumstances all over again in the rollout of a new vaccination programme.

“SHAPE subjects can complement STEM, and STEM subjects can complement SHAPE. In some cases, one discipline may be more in the lead than the other, but the synergies still exist.”

JB: SHAPE subjects can complement STEM, and STEM subjects can complement SHAPE. In some cases, one discipline may be more in the lead than the other, but the synergies still exist. Some SHAPE subjects are through their approaches closer to STEM, for example in their use of quantitative and statistical methodologies and data analytics, and some directly cross the boundaries, such as mental health and wellbeing. However, we could do more to illustrate how STEM and SHAPE subjects can together enhance our knowledge, and what we create from that knowledge.

Some have asked why we aren’t satisfied with the term STEAM to describe this interaction. The answer is that STEAM focuses only on the interaction of art and design with STEM subjects, in other words it only looks at the “A” in SHAPE, not the “S” and the ”H.” Whilst art and design are hugely valuable to the design of products developed by technology, or as ways to visualise the natural and physical worlds, for example, there are many more benefits to be gained from the interaction of STEM disciplines across the social sciences, humanities and the arts. Changes in an ecosystem are frequently rooted in human behaviour; managing pandemics requires knowledge of history, cultures and behaviours, as well as economics and logistics; the search engines we have become so reliant on use natural language programming based on linguistics; and for science and technology to be legitimate it is imperative that it is developed and used in ways which are aligned with our ethics and values.

But these examples are the tip of the iceberg; there are multiple instances where the insights of each enhances the other, and it is often when they are combined that truly transformative developments in our knowledge, understanding, innovation, and creativity can occur.

Read part two of our Q&A, in which Sophie Goldsworthy and Professor Julia Black discuss the importance of SHAPE today in light of the pandemic, and how consider how it may evolve in the future.

Featured image by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

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