Nine Fellows of the British Academy on how their subjects could shape the 2020s

24 Jan 2020

What role do the humanities and social sciences have to play in shaping the 2020s? Nine Fellows of the British Academy, representing a wide range of academic disciplines, set out the challenges and opportunities they see for their subjects over the next decade. 


Peter Gatrell FBA, Professor of Economic History at the University of Manchester
“Whenever I see the word ‘unprecedented’, whether in relation to migration, famine, infectious diseases, global inequalities and environmental change, I remind myself that historians are well placed to challenge or at least to reflect on the assumptions that underpin these generalisations. Certainly this applies to casual comments about an ‘unprecedented refugee crisis’, a formulation that neglects the growing body of work in the global history of mass population displacement. This is another way of saying that history can be constructively subversive of presentism in public debates, provided that there is no loss of commitment to evidence-based enquiry. I hope and expect to see more and more people beyond higher education institutions involved in these challenging conversations about the past and holding those in power to account.”


Sarah Broadie FBA, Professor of Philosophy at St Andrews University
“It is very good that more and more analytic philosophy is being directed towards the conceptually trickiest practical problems of our time, such as collective responsibility and obligations to future persons of indeterminate identity, to name but two. However, given how our subject has been developing over the last 40 or so years there is real reason to fear that philosophy will die the death of dissolving completely into more technical sub-disciplines. The great challenge is to find ways of educating excellent professional philosophers to keep an active interest in more than one contemporary branch, and in some of the great past philosophers, and to be animated by an open-ended love of adventures in ideas while fully maintaining their obsessional practice of critical clarification. The latter is essential for the subject to move forward, but without the former that subject risks ceasing to be philosophy.”


Sheilagh Ogilvie FBA, Professor of Economic History at the University of Cambridge
“I hope economics in the 2020s will work out how societies can change their institutions. Recent research has found that institutions – the “rules of the game” that shape human interaction – are fundamental, if poor societies hope to improve growth and well-being. Thanks to close cooperation between economists and economic historians, we’ve discovered that it’s not a single magic bullet, but a whole interconnected cluster of institutions that support well-functioning markets and impartial governments. But we don’t know how to get from where we are now to an institutional cluster that’s friendlier to growth. To change institutions, we need to understand them better. This needs economists and economic historians to work together – even more closely than we already do.”

Modern languages

Neil Kenny FBA, Lead Fellow for Languages at the British Academy and Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, University of Oxford
“Will global English and Google Translate squeeze out the discipline of modern languages? No, because the latter can do what the former two can’t – change our very minds. Global English and Google Translate can help facilitate transactions. But neither can change the brain of an Anglophone in a way that learning another language does. That change involves perspective-taking of a deep, embodied kind: the better you speak a language, the more you can see things from its native speakers’ cultural point of view. That ability is as important for the international stage in an era of resurgent nationalisms and isolationism as it is for citizenship in a UK that is, if you scratch the surface, richly multilingual. The 2020s may also be the decade when we better understand how the changes produced in our brains by language-learning can make our ageing population healthier, by building up cognitive reserve.”


Jane Lightfoot FBA, Professor of Greek Literature at the University of Oxford; Charlton Fellow and Tutor in Classics at New College, University of Oxford
“Two museum cases: one containing a perfect, round, carbonised loaf of real bread from Pompeii, the other the manacles of an ancient slave. I propose that Classics, as the subject which has contributed almost more than any other to our sense of ourselves, is superbly placed to provoke reflection on what it is to encounter a culture some of whose aspects revolt us, while others engender extraordinary recognition, and others again (texts, artefacts, ideas) an intellectual challenge which each generation must process anew. Its lesson for the coming decade(s)? The problematic of a combined sense of estrangement and empathy. Civility is one lesson; the perils of applying a strident and overzealous modern puritanism to those who did not think in our terms may be another.”

An outdoor night-time celebration of the New Year 2020 with a crowd of people and golden balloons spelling "2020" in the foreground.


Roberta Gilchrist FBA, Professor of Archaeology and Research Dean at the University of Reading
“Archaeology provides a deep-time perspective on human history, offering a distinct viewpoint on contemporary global challenges. Two pressing concerns for the 2020s could benefit from an archaeological lens: the first is gender and the second is climate change.

The #MeToo generation has reasserted the importance of social justice and empowerment for women and marginalised people. An important angle on inequality is understanding that social structures are historically specific and can be changed. Pioneering work in feminist archaeology challenged the idea that binary gender structures and social roles were natural, timeless or universal. Archaeology has a key part to play in informing alternative (non-binary) histories and building new social identities.

The urgency of climate change is impacting on personal behaviour and prompting new levels of social activism. Archaeology provides insights into environmental crises in the past and how communities developed strategies for environmental resilience, personal well-being and social cohesion. A deep-time perspective will not solve climate change, but it may help to shape a hopeful future.”

War studies

Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London
“War studies is a broad field, as war can touch all aspects of human affairs. Much of the focus is historical and while one might think the world wars have been examined from every possible angle, it is remarkable how new areas are still found to investigate. There are many aspects of imperial warfare, including the later anti-colonial campaigns, as well as the Cold War to keep researchers busy. 

At the moment the forward-looking agenda is dominated by considerations of great power politics, in particular China’s ascent and questions about whether the US, at least under Trump, is prepared to play the sort of active alliance role it has played in the past. The exploitation of artificial intelligence appears as a key area of strategic competition, along with information campaigns. Negotiated arms control agreements are in trouble and so there are issues as to whether their absence leads to arms races or alternatively a search for other forms of dialogue and cooperation. However old problems – whether the persistent instability in the Middle East or civil wars in Africa – are unlikely to be resolved and will continue to set challenges for academics seeking to engage in policy debates.”

Disability research

Tom Shakespeare FBA, Professor of Disability Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
“Disability research, whatever epistemological approach it takes, needs to strengthen our evidence base. We still make too many generalisations, without close attention to how particular phenomena operate for different people with disabilities. I would like to understand how the many factors – biological, psychological, social, cultural, political – combine to produce particular disability experiences. In particular, half of all disabled people are over 60, so we still need to take our insights into disability that arrives at birth or early adulthood, and apply those to older age. I love being a qualitative sociologist, but I am always very glad to see good quantitative researchers turning their attention to disability: we should embrace these approaches.”

Political studies

Richard English FBA, Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast
“How should political studies contribute to shaping the 2020s? It would be naive to think that academic research and argument will decisively determine this decade's trajectory. But it would be irresponsible to ignore the challenge of improving, in however limited a fashion, our febrile and fractured political condition. So let me suggest three elements that might be considered. First, those studying politics need to prioritise what is most significant. Work on all political subjects can relate to major global transformations. But some issues (climate change and its political effects, for example) demand high-intensity, large-scale reflection, while work on all subjects should consider how its insights illuminate our reading of truly major phenomena. Second, long-termism must be evident in our work. However contemporary the issue under interrogation, scholars should produce work whose insights will long outlive current political obsessions, and certainly outlive the 2020s. Third, we must counteract the various divisions that exist within a currently fissiparous field of analysis: geographical divisions between different countries and their academic work; mutual deafness between disciplines and between sub-disciplines; a persistent under-engagement by students of politics with recent scientific research – all of these divisions should be fought against, as we integrate what we distinctively discover and argue about all that is political.”

Fellows of the British Academy are elected on the basis of outstanding scholarship in any branch of the humanities and social sciences. The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by the Academy but are commended as contributing to public debate.


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