This is Us

Together, we can gain better insight into human nature.

How can anyone begin to make sense of this big, complicated world? At universities around the globe, scholars in the social sciences and humanities are working to understand many aspects of human behavior.

Do modern academics really know more and more about less and less, as the cliché asserts? As knowledge and understanding become more detailed, we often hear, researchers in effect wall themselves into innumerable obscure silos. Not true, say some of NYU Abu Dhabi’s top scholars, who report that academic work is becoming steadily more interdisciplinary and interconnected. Researchers work in full awareness of the changing world around them, even while maintaining a scholarly distance from the clamor of events.

Ernesto Reuben, associate professor of economics, researches gender-bias perception in hiring, among other topics. He says current headlines on gender issues have clearly “triggered more research. You draw inspiration from what’s going on around you.” He jokes that scholars initially “react to what’s on the news by doing the same research they were doing before, but changing the introduction. However, current issues do eventually inform and shape research in important ways.”

Current issues do ... inform and shape research in important ways.

Ernesto Reuben

Jocelyn Bélanger, assistant professor of psychology, studies self-sacrifice, including suicide bombing. Although the topic frequently makes headlines, he cautions that social scientists “are not doing journalism, or history … not just responding to the zeitgeist of social issues.” On the surface, protracted conflicts might look different from one another, yet they often share important similarities, the root cause can be the same. “From a scientific standpoint, the goal is to understand the common dynamics of conflicts and develop interventions that are tailored to the social context,” he says.

PJ Henry, associate professor of psychology, agrees that research problems can “change as the issues do, but as social scientists we work on theory more than social issues,” and theories “are less susceptible to fashion (but rather are) rooted in tradition.”

Few disciplines are more theoretical than philosophy.

Matthew Silverstein, associate professor of philosophy, says research in his field “consists almost entirely of just reading what other philosophers have said. Philosophers think of themselves as joining an ongoing conversation. In some cases, a conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years.”

But even in his subject the outside world can push in. Philosophers’ methods and broad subjects don’t change with current events, Silverstein says, but “as certain questions become pressing in parts of society, philosophers begin thinking about them more acutely.”

He gives the example of pending amendments to the United Kingdom’s Gender Recognition Act. Such public debate over transgender and related issues has “prompted an increased level of philosophical discussion,” Silverstein says, “in official standard venues like journals, but also in blogs” and elsewhere.

NYU Abu Dhabi brings a spectacularly cosmopolitan element to a leading global university, which is part of a worldwide trend toward international scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, the professors agree.

Social psychology, Henry says, “has been most popular in a Western context, and a lot of the theories we developed were tested on (Western) samples. But now … we’re starting to recognize that culture plays an important role. Processes once seen as true and universal are now known to vary with cultural context. That gives us better insight into human nature.”

Bélanger offers an example: “The need for positive self-regard is universal, however there is cultural variability in how it is attained. Western societies, for example, put greater emphasis on individual accomplishments, whereas collective accomplishments are given more importance in the East.”

Henry, whose research focus is prejudice and discrimination, adds that this kind of comparative study is a win-win proposition: “Some of the excitement of working cross-culturally is to see our theories replicated from one cultural context to another. But that’s not always true and when things don’t replicate, that opens up a whole new question.”

Processes once seen as true and universal are now known to vary with cultural context. That gives us better insight into human nature.

PJ Henry

For decades, says Reuben, almost all economics research was conducted in Western countries, where data access has been relatively easy. Now, the revolution in data availability is opening other regions to research, in many fields.

Meanwhile, “increasing pressure to publish in international journals” has made English more than ever the lingua franca of research worldwide, he adds. And the internet is greatly simplifying scholarly collaboration across distance. 

Online journals, too, Silverstein adds, have enhanced cross-cultural studies in many fields. In philosophy, “the American and European tradition has long been influential,” but there is finally increased interest in doing comparative work, “putting Western scholarship in dialogue with Asian and other traditions.”

Social science and humanities studies are also crossing the boundaries of disciplines, “much more than ever before,” Bélanger says, partly because granting agencies are “increasingly asking people to work together” across traditional department lines.

For example, Reuben notes, in recent decades economics “has changed dramatically … Research questions in behavioral economics are more similar to psychology or sociology questions than to traditional economics.”

In his field, Silverstein says, this trend is clearest in the philosophy of physics, where some research “is no different from the most theoretical work that physicists are doing. There’s a lot of overlap, conferences where physicists and philosophers come together.” Meanwhile, he adds, “philosophers of mind will spend a lot of time talking to cognitive scientists.” And the economics of game theory verges on philosophy.

NYU Abu Dhabi is on the cutting edge of this trend.

My office is between a group of climate scientists and a group mathematicians. There’s a lot of sharing of ideas.

Jocelyn Bélanger

“There is a temperament to the faculty here that lends itself to cooperation … collegiality,” says Henry and “because we’re a small campus there are opportunities for interdisciplinarity. At my old university, I would never have gone to a talk on sociology or political science, but here I do all the time.”

Bélanger says opportunities to talk with colleagues in other fields are consistently rewarding. “My office is between a group of climate scientists and a group of mathematicians. There’s a lot of sharing of ideas, conversations you would not have expected. Proximity helps with the cross-fertilization of ideas.”

For now, however, formal research collaboration across subjects is still rare. There are some interdisciplinary journals but the current model, Reuben says, is “talking to each other and then each one goes and does the work.” Academic structure is one reason for that: each scholar needs to publish in their own subject, since that’s the font of tenure and grants, he says. “It’s an element of academia that you have to be tenured somewhere.”

Still, Reuben adds, many at NYU Abu Dhabi “are trying to break some of those barriers. We’ll see over time how successful that is.”