Research into Humanities and Social Sciences ‘can’t make an iPhone’ – but it can tell us why we use it


MA Publishing student Naomi Peel discusses a Masterclass matter that lies close to her heart.

In our second Masterclass of the season Ziyad Marar, Executive Vice President and Global Publishing Director of SAGE Publications, provided us with a timely and passionate introduction to academic publishing. He described the industry as ‘lively and vibrant’ and enthused about the importance of education and scholarship and the impact it has on society and culture. His fervour for this field was infectious and I’m certain that many students left considering SAGE – indeed the arena of academic publishing – as a fantastic potential environment to work in.

Ziyad Marar in action at the Campaign for Social Science

Ziyad Marar in action at the Campaign for Social Science

Ziyad loves the company he works for and with apparent good reason. With their anniversary approaching (the company will celebrate 50 years in 2015), SAGE, like many other publishers, are looking towards the future whilst taking the time to reflect on what has come before. The need to learn from the past to inform the future was clear in Ziyad’s exploration of the ‘content play’ and the good, dumb, bad and smart actors within it. SAGE aspires to convince authors that they are not only good actors who will take care of and ‘babysit their intellectual babies’, but also that they are smart actors who have the skills and know-how to deliver their ambitions. Ziyad made it clear that to operate in the world of academic publishing – or any kind of publishing – one must find a competitive edge or unique selling point to thrive within the reputation economy on which it is based. SAGE’s reputation lies at the heart of the business and in a previous blog Anna Faherty discusses how the company manages the balance between love and money.

On my way home that evening I found myself thinking about Ziyad’s discussion about the attack on the study of and research into Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS). Unsurprisingly, as a Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences student, this was unsettling and I began questioning the logic of those who oppose it. Ziyad’s case study on Tom Coburn’s series of amendments for to the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 illustrates that there are powerful people questioning the validity of HSS – in this particular case, political science – over that of ‘real’ sciences. Coburn suggests that if any research project is not certified as ‘promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States’ then it is unworthy of funding. Shockingly the bill, including the amendments, was passed until academics, with the support of SAGE, were galvanised to rally against it and have the amendments turned over securing funding for HSS for a while longer. This was a chillingly close call and it is clear that the fight against funding threats is far from over.

What I find unfathomable is the belief that the study of HSS is somehow inferior to ‘real’ (scientific, technical and medical or STM) science.  I am by no means suggesting that STM research is not integral to the survival of the human race but the longer I live, and having recently re-entered the world of academia, the more I am convinced that research into HSS is just as integral. Science and technology may have created the iPhone but the market for the product is firmly grounded in the modern phenomenon of needing to be in constant contact. It offers multiple avenues of communication, allowing people to connect and build communities. But why do they want to? Why has it become a phenomenon? Research within the fields of HSS help us to begin to answer these questions and it is essential because without understanding why people want or use an iPhone what would be the point in making one?

It would seem to me that the disciplines are reliant on one another. It’s vital and necessary work to study medicine and create new technologies but who is to say they are any more important than understanding how humans interact or what we gain through the study of history. Ziyad claimed that scholarship and research are fundamental work formulating the building blocks that form the operating system of a healthy society. I could not agree more and I am a fervent believer that any undertaking to understand more about the world – whatever field that may be in – is incredibly important and should be applauded.

Long live publishing’s ability to perpetuate this, all be it in an increasingly complicated and changing landscape.

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