Social sciences key to meeting today’s global challenges

Social sciences key to meeting today’s global challenges

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Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari surveys the entire length of human history, from the evolution of Homo sapiens in the Stone Age up to the political and technological revolutions of the 21st century. (Screengrab)

A few years ago, I traveled to London to attend a training workshop. It would be the perfect time, I thought, to start reading the highly acclaimed book “Sapiens,” by historian Yuval Noah Harari. If you haven’t read it, this masterpiece promises to take you on a mesmerizing journey through 70,000 years of mankind’s history. By the time you finish it, you will have become well versed in many fascinating aspects of human affairs, from anthropology, agriculture and linguistics to economics, evolution and science. Each chapter is riddled with entertaining tales and readers can enjoy countless riveting conversations with other bibliophiles on the role of communities, the benefits of imperialism, or the meaning of happiness. I took that book everywhere with me, taking in snippets now and then during my free time, and was interrupted by countless random people who were raving to me about how good it was. It got me thinking about the role of social sciences in shaping our past and how they could perhaps be better harnessed today to solve our most wicked problems.

The social sciences are essentially focused on the study of human societies, and encompass branches like anthropology, archaeology, education, economics, human geography, law, linguistics, political science, psychology, sociology, and social history. These disciplines provide rich insights and information about how our society functions, from the causes of unemployment to the drivers of well-being, how to boost economic growth, and how to reduce poverty. This, in turn, informs policymaking and decision-making for governments, businesses and nongovernmental institutions.

For years, governments have placed great importance on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, encouraging students to pursue careers in these fields and prioritizing them in their policy agendas. However, it is important to push for an interdependence and intersection of STEM and the social sciences in order to fully realize the benefits of both disciplines. 

Social scientists are increasingly playing critical roles in solving today’s pressing global challenges. The Western African Ebola virus epidemic of 2014-2016 illustrates this perfectly, as social scientists were involved in understanding the anthropological aspects of the affected countries and their influence on the outbreak. In this regard, the World Health Organization published research that evaluated the strategies and interventions undertaken by countries in West Africa to control the outbreak. For example, medical anthropologists ascertained that high-risk behaviors, such as ancestral funeral and burial rites, were among the driving factors behind the spread of the virus and impeded containment. In fact, data reveals that 60 to 80 percent of cases in these countries were linked to such practices. West Africa is also stricken with high poverty levels, which drive population mobility within and across borders as people look for food and work. Studies indicate that population mobility in this region is seven times higher than anywhere else in the world and was one of the main drivers of the Ebola outbreak. 

Additionally, many new cases were linked to contact with traditional healers or herbalists, instead of people seeking medical treatment at government-run health facilities. Public health messages were also grave and emphasized how deadly the disease was. Such negativity compelled people to forego medical care and, instead, remain among family. This led to entire households dying of the disease. It seems clear, then, that while it was vital to harness the power of science to develop treatments, governments should have looked into the unique socioeconomic factors of those countries to better understand how they could have contained the outbreak.

Social scientists have also contributed to population policy and understanding the impact of demographics on societies and economies. With their help, governments have been able to design family planning programs that impact fertility rates, employment rates, productivity levels, immigration policy, tax incentives, and economic performance. Sociologists also design paternal leaves, subsidized child care services, child allowances, and other incentives in order to achieve government outcomes in boosting female participation in the workforce.

Understanding societal behavior is one of the key tenets of social science disciplines. In the past decade, more than 200 public bodies have been established to capitalize on behavioral insights — a multidisciplinary approach combining behavioral science, economics and psychology to formulate better policies. This interesting approach explains how people make decisions and recommends interventions to nudge them into adopting better choices. For example, the Behavioral Insights Team at the UK Cabinet Office teamed up with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, an entity responsible for collecting taxes, to understand how to encourage people to pay their taxes on time. Their intervention involved rephrasing the letters that get sent to tax debtors, stating that the majority of residents in their local area had paid on time and with similar debts. This simple adjustment helped the government collect an extra £210 million ($268 million) of tax revenue in the 2012/13 financial year.

Social scientists have contributed to population policy and understanding the impact of demographics on societies and economies.

Sara Al-Mulla

The UK’s Ministry of Defense also collaborates with social scientists at universities and think tanks to research novel approaches to psychological warfare and behavioral manipulation. Just last year, its Defense Science and Technology Laboratory had a budget of £70 million to spend on the Human and Social Sciences Research Capability project, which interweaves the influences of the arts, humanities and social sciences to shape military and security policies and interventions.

Social scientists have contributed significantly to improving our lives. Governments need to partner with them to design better solutions and help make the world a better place for us all to live in.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.
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