The changing face of social sciences and the liberal arts

The days of stand-alone disciplines in academia are over, as liberal arts subjects are being integrated into other areas of study in higher education institutions in order to focus on development issues, according to Tayo Adesina of the University of Ibadan’s history department.

Speaking on the issue of “Inter-disciplinarity and ‘Engaged Research’” during the launch of the African Research Universities Alliance, or ARUA, held in Accra from 3-4 April, Adesina distinguished between “basic” research and “engaged” research, saying the latter was geared towards dissemination of knowledge.

“It is no longer scholarship for scholarship's sake but designed to touch on the well-being of society,” he said.

According to Adesina, higher education institutions must move to take engaged research seriously. “The humanities must reposition itself in order to get involved with the current trend,” Adesina said.

No monopoly

Since social sciences no longer hold the monopoly in societal research, researchers should interface with other disciplines in order to make their work relevant to the needs of society, he said.

Adesina said his own discipline of history had shifted gradually, away from the study of the rise of empires to the study of what these empires mean in the lives of people today; in other words, towards a greater focus on people. Students were now being led towards history through other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, he said.

He said history could no longer be described as a “useless discipline” and wanted to use his paper to “lift the scales” from the eyes of delegates. He said through history, academics had discovered new challenges, new values and new ideas which are relevant today.

“We have reached this stage because of how the humanities succeeded in interfacing with other disciplines for scholarship,” he added.

Adesina said an inter-disciplinary Global Africa Research Network has been established at the University of Ibadan to undertake engaged research.


Speaking on “Emerging Research Areas in the Social Sciences”, Samuel Agyei-Mensah of the Geography Department at the University of Ghana, said the time had come for researchers looking into inequalities across Africa to use geographical information systems to identify the particular causes of inequality. He said research had shown that differences in income alone did not explain housing inequality in some countries.

According to Agyei-Mensah, another emerging research area in Africa was the issue of fertility and population growth rates. He said social scientists and policy makers should find common ground to solve society’s problems.

Agyei-Mensah said social scientists were also collaborating with scholars in climate science to tackle population-related issues and the regulation of air pollution.

He said African social scientists have also been collaborating in areas such as democracy and governance, and said the issue of “third-termism” (the quest by state leaders to remain in power), which has seen trouble in Burkina Faso and Burundi over the past year, has since 2014 become an interesting issue that is being interrogated by researchers.