The SHAPE (Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts for People and the Economy) initiative advocates for the value of the social sciences, humanities, and arts subject areas in helping us to understand the world in which we live and find solutions to global issues. As societies around the world respond to the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, research from SHAPE disciplines has the potential to illuminate how societies process and recover from various social crises.
In recognition of the essential role these disciplines play for societal recovery, we have curated a hub of SHAPE research which looks back on how we have rebuilt from social crises in the past, how societies process living through extraordinary times, and considers the next steps societies can take on the road to recovery.
Lessons from the past
Throughout history, individuals and societies have encountered periods of crisis caused by factors including war, natural disasters, and health pandemics. Responses to these crises can provide a vital insight into how we respond to future global threats.
In a review of how societies respond to peril, Robert Wuthnow suggests that, “nothing, it appears, evokes discussion of moral responsibility quite as clearly as the prospect of impending doom.” Wuthnow examines how societies have responded to four major threats: nuclear holocaust, weapons of mass destruction, concern about a global pandemic, and the threat of global climate change, and finds that, “the picture of humanity that emerges in this literature is one of can-do problem solvers. Doing something, almost anything, affirms our humanity.”
Looking further back, the US Civil War also had a profound impact on many people and touched women’s lives in contradictory ways. Hannah Rosen’s chapter “Women, the Civil War, and Reconstruction” examines the wartime and postwar experiences primarily of black and white but also Native American women and provides insights into how we can reconstruct a fairer society following conflicts. Meanwhile, in Total War: An Emotional History, Claire Langhamer examines the role emotions played in the immediate aftermath of WWII, approaching our relationship to feeling through the lens of social, as well as cultural, history.
How we choose to commemorate the past is also a key question, explored by Joshua Gamson in an article published in Social Problems about the US National AIDS Memorial Grove.
Looking back on the economic implications of social crises, Mark Bailey discusses how the plague acted as a catalyst for the vast transformation of trading routes in North Sea economies. This economic shift has been reflected in the COVID-19 pandemic and, in response, authors from the Journal of Consumer Research have created a conceptual framework for understanding how consumers and markets have collectively responded over the short term and long term to threats that disrupt our routines, lives, and even the fabric of society.
Literature, classics, and the arts also provide an avenue to explore the effects of social crises. Laura E. Tanner’s blog post explores the works of author Marilynne Robinson. According to Tanner, these works provide us with tools for coping during lockdown by exploring the familiar, whilst her characters also navigate the threat of mortality and how trauma disrupts the comforts of the everyday.
In her chapter “Post-Ceasefire Antigones and Northern Ireland”, Isabelle Torrance traces the evocation of Antigone in the context of the Northern Irish conflict. In this way, literature provides a mirror to explore and process contemporary social crises.
Music history also provides a window into past responses to social traumas. In her chapter “Embodying Sonic Resonance as/after Trauma – Vibration, Music, and Medicine”, Jillian C. Rogers shows that interwar French musicians understood music making as a therapeutic, vibrational, bodily practice which offered antidotes to the unpredictable and harmful vibrations of warfare.
Living through extraordinary times
As the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects have spread across the globe, nations and individuals have adapted rapidly to dramatic shifts in how we experience the world.
Recent history can provide a fascinating insight into how communities have lived through extraordinary times in the past. In Pandemics, Publics, and Narrative, the authors explore how the general public experienced the 2009 swine flu pandemic by examining the stories of individuals, their reflections on news and expert advice given to them, and how they considered vaccination, social isolation, and other infection control measures.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, historians have considered how we will write the histories of 2020. In “Documenting COVID-19”, Kathleen Franz and Catherine Gudis explore people’s keen awareness of the “historic” moment in which we are living, and the questions it poses for historians: how do we ethically document our current social, public health, and economic crises, and in doing so help to dismantle structural inequalities?
In her article “Slow History”, published in The American Historical Review, Mary Lindemann asks whether the pandemic provides an opportunity to evaluate the “doing” of history and to isolate what really matters in research, writing, and instruction. Arguing that we should learn to value a slow, painstaking approach to our work, Lindemann argues that “historians are, after all, long-distance runners not sprinters.”
Among the many frontline workers enduring the COVID-19 pandemic are social workers, who continued to support people through a period of unprecedented change. A 2020 article from Social Work—“Voices from the Frontlines: Social Workers Confront the COVID-19 Pandemic”—explores how these key workers operated in the US, how they were coping with their own risks, and how social work as a profession anticipated the needs of vulnerable communities during the early stages of the US health crises. The pandemic has also presented specific challenges for social workers interacting with children; a paper from Children & Schools delves into nine ethical concerns facing school social workers when they must rely on electronic communication platforms.
A philosophical approach allows us to explore human emotions and ethics during major world threats. In their chapter on “Emotional resilience”, Ann Cooper Albright explores resilience in the face of threats—from natural disasters to school bullies—finding that emotional resilience provides the opportunity for lasting transformation: “often in returning and remembering, we find that we no longer want what we had before.“
The road to recovery
Living through these extraordinary times, the COVID-19 pandemic poses some important questions for the future. How do we rebuild from the economic, social, and emotional traumas of the past?
Charlotte Lyn Bright’s Social Work Research article considers the vital role social workers play in supporting society and individuals by looking at the unique skills they employ in their work during difficult times. Meanwhile, in her paper on “Community development in higher education”, Lesley Wood explores how academics can ensure their community-based research makes a difference by discussing the socio-structural inequalities that influence community participation.
In piece for the OUPblog, Nicole Hassoun calls for universal, legally enforced human rights access to essential medicines and healthcare, arguing that, “protecting human rights can help us increase our Global Health Impact.”
The study of the past provides a vital tool to help societies rebuild in the future. In “Making Progress: Disaster Narratives and the Art of Optimism in Modern America”, Kevin Rozario examines the role of disaster writings and “narrative imagination” in helping Americans to conceive of disasters as instruments of progress, arguing that this perspective has contributed greatly to the nation’s resilience in the face of natural disasters.
In this blog piece “Listen now before we choose to forget”, oral historian Mark Cave describes how memory is pliable; our recollections are continually reshaped by our own changing experiences and the influence of collective interpretations. In 2020, Cave writes, the Black Lives Matter protests, divisive partisan politics, and anger over extended lockdowns were all influencing our memories of the pandemic. Cave further explores an oral history project conducted among New Orleans residents following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which “filled a deep need within our community to reflect and make sense of the experience of the storm and its aftermath.” Cave’s research will be vital for future historians considering how to study and understand the COVID-19 pandemic “at a time when history is clearly ‘in the making’.”
Literature continues to provide our society with a tool to understand and process trauma. In her blog post “Why literature must be part of the language of recovery from crisis”, Carmen Bugan explores trauma and social recovery in poetry, and its pertinence during the COVID-19 crises.
Pandemic life has underscored how digital technology can foster intimate connections. Research from Nathan Rambukkana discusses how this influx of digital connection has fostered a mode of interaction know as “distant sociality,” and asks whether this is here to stay following life under lockdown.
Looking much further to the future, Pasi Heikkurinen discusses the end of the human-dominated geological epoch and the potential technological advances needed to make a non-human dominated planet sustainable. Heikkurinen’s chapter provides sustainability scholars and policymakers with an opportunity “to deliberate not only on the proper kind of technology or the amount of technology needed, but also to consider technology as a way to relate to the world, others, and oneself.”
The impact of COVID-19 on the global economy is profound, and yet economists must grapple with how this impact will shape the future. In their chapter “The Interactional Foundations of Economic Forecasting”, Werner Reichmann explores how economic forecasters produce legitimate and credible predictions of the economic future, despite most of the economy being transmutable and indeterminate. Meanwhile, in “Why we can be cautiously optimistic for the future of the retail industry”, Alan Treadgold explores the new retail landscape following the COVID-19 pandemic. Although there is unprecedented uncertainty for retail outlets, Treadgold argues “there are substantial opportunities for reinvention also.”
Music also has the power to enact social healing and transformation following crises. In their chapter “Unchained Melody: The Rise of Orality and Therapeutic Singing”, June Boyce-Tillman explores therapeutic approaches to singing, finding that “singing has the ability to strengthen people physically and emotionally,” which brings “individuals and communities together in order to provide healing at the deepest level.”
SHAPE research is an essential component of all societies and will be critical for rebuilding from the global COVID-19 crisis. In “Humanities of transformation: From crisis and critique towards the emerging integrative humanities”, Sverker Sörlin evaluates the efforts to enhance and incentivize the humanities in the among Nordic countries in the last quarter century, finding a far richer and more complex image of quality in the humanities following structural education reform in 1990.
Meanwhile, Jack Spaapen and Gunnar Sivertsen assess the societal impact of SHAPE subjects, arguing that the social sciences and humanities have an obligation to assist the main challenges faced by people and governments.
As governments, universities, and research institutions consider where and how they focus their efforts as the world tentatively begins to explore the idea of recovery, the range of research that we’ve gathered here demonstrates that, while science and technology must play a crucial role, a recovery without SHAPE will be no recovery at all.
Featured image by Ryoji Iwata via Unsplash