By Meghann Jones

10 September 2014 - 15:28

People expect humanities graduates to be able to write, present, and speak in a manner sensitive to local cultural contexts. Photo of Sindh after the flood by (c) DFID. licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Humanities graduates are expected to write, present, and speak in a manner sensitive to local contexts.' Photo ©

DFID. licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Scientific and technical knowledge is vital in tackling development challenges such as poverty and security, but so are the humanities, according to a study into the value of the humanities. Meghann Jones of Ipsos Public Affairs, which carried out the research, explains.

Why do the research?

The practical and economic value of a humanities degree is sometimes compared negatively to degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. Subjects such as history, political science, anthropology and religion are seen as less pragmatic choices for graduates faced with the world’s most pressing issues, e.g., food and water shortages, security, and poverty. So we decided to find out how studying humanities disciplines could help people contribute to a field tackling such issues: international development.

How the research was carried out

We took part in detailed interviews and online discussion boards with people working for international development agencies, from senior managers to programme managers ‘on the ground’, plus the people in charge of hiring new staff — human resources professionals. The research gave us insight into what these people thought were the types of knowledge, skills, and values that humanities graduates have, and how these skills improve the way development programmes are run.

Not all problems can be solved with technical expertise alone

Many international development programmes require technical expertise. But the people who took part in the research said they encounter challenges when designing and delivering programmes that aren’t technical. These challenges include managing complex relationships between people who have a stake in those development programmes, balancing competing objectives for the programme, and sensitivity to social and cultural contexts.

One programme director we spoke to said: ‘When I was working on our Russia programme, the fact that I was familiar with the country’s literature allowed me to understand a little bit better some of the references and some of the deeper things that are going on. The poetry and novels inform people’s cultural context, and it comes up in discussions.’

Our interviewees saw the following skills and attributes as essential: critical and analytical thinking, flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity, the ability to communicate and negotiate effectively, and knowledge of local conditions and contexts. They associated these skills and attributes with the study of humanities subjects. This shows that the range of disciplines that lead to career success in international development go beyond the technical.

Why did people associate these skills with the humanities?

Humanities subjects require a very broad, diverse approach to learning. This could boost students’ ability to critically analyse the different factors affecting a particular situation, and take multiple perspectives into account. Because they are exposed to lots of different opinions and perspectives throughout their studies, humanities graduates may be more likely to respond creatively to rapidly shifting situations on the ground.

People expect humanities graduates to be able to write, present, and speak in a manner sensitive to local cultural contexts. Knowledge of humanities subjects such as politics, geography, history, language, religion, ethics, and culture can fine-tune your understanding of and sensitivity to a particular region or country.

Education isn’t enough, experience matters too

Despite the need for both technical and humanities-based skills and knowledge, the people who took part in the study emphasised that you need a combination of education and experience to effectively deliver development programmes in the field. People considering a career in international development may greatly benefit from studying a humanities discipline. But they should grab any chance they can to add practical work experience to their academic studies.

We’d suggest that perhaps one way to achieve this could be through partnerships between academic humanities programmes and development organisations. This would allow humanities students and graduates to gain necessary experience through study abroad, internships, and international work placements.

Download the full report and see the infographic.

You might also be interested in: