Becoming SHAPE

by Professor Julia Black PBA

1 Jun 2022

Professor Julia Black, President of the British Academy, explains why SHAPE (social sciences, humanities and arts for people and the economy) came into being.

Our aims in developing SHAPE are fourfold: to inform people about the nature of the social sciences, humanities and arts, to illustrate their value and relevance, to inspire people to study them and follow careers using the knowledge and skills they gain in doing so, and to include as many as possible in all of those endeavours. For we need SHAPE insights now, more than ever.

SHAPE subjects are not only essential for understanding the human world, but to understanding the interaction of people with the natural and physical world. It follows that those working in STEM and SHAPE subjects need to engage closely with one another. SHAPE is not in opposition to STEM – rather we want to encourage more joint working between them. We also want to encourage a broad educational curriculum, where students have the opportunity to learn both SHAPE and STEM subjects throughout their educational journey. For no matter what the context, we know that insights become transformations when people from a wide range of backgrounds, experience and knowledge work together towards a common end.

We also want to celebrate the richness and diversity of SHAPE subjects and their different mindsets, methods and modes of expression. The mindset may be one of objective inquiry, of analysis, critique, observation, subjectivity, empathy, expression, creativity, and more. Methods may be quantitative, qualitative, performative, empirical, theoretical, and more. And their modes of expression are equally varied. But they all share a focus on being human – on cultures, behaviours, on how we organise our economies, societies, communities in different places and at different scales – now, in the past, and in the future.

So working with the Arts Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the London School of Economics and a few ‘friends’ of our subjects, including the creative agency Porter Novelli, we are thrilled to have launched SHAPE. We are delighted to see the acronym being increasingly used by universities, colleges, museums and individuals and by journalists and members of Parliament. Other organisations, such as Oxford University Press, are using it as an organising principle to drive strategy and the positioning of their activities. As the term SHAPE becomes more widely used, we think it can become an incredibly powerful and inclusive way to inform, illustrate and inspire people about the value of understanding our human world.

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