Social Sciences Division

The Social Sciences Division at the University of Oxford is one of four academic divisions in the University, bringing together one of the largest groupings of social scientists in the world.

Most of the departments within the division significantly predate the creation of the Division itself. The School of Anthropology & Museum Ethnography, School of Archaeology, and School of Geography and the Environment represent disciplines and departments at the University of Oxford having origins in the nineteenth century, deeply entwined with the European colonial project.  When founded, these departments provided training for colonial explorers, officers and administrators. The departments outline on this site how they have sought to address this historic complicity, through developing their research, curricula, and undertaking work across the wider institution, for example working with the University Museums to decolonise their collections.

Some of the largest departments in the division (in terms of both staff and students) also outline on this site the evolution of their disciplines over time. The Department of Politics and International Relations describes how developments have gathered pace over the last two decades to de-center, provincialize and globalize the study of International Relations. The department’s Global Thinkers discussion series aims to raise awareness of individuals who have made significant contributions to International Relations but have been excluded from its teaching canon and practice due to biases of language, region and gender. The process of curriculum review undertaken by the department is used as an exemplar within the University. Amongst other activities, the Faculty of Law describes how it has embarked on a process of diversifying the curriculum, established forums for debates on decolonisation and the law, and worked with colleges to create four new scholarships for UK Black and minority ethnic doctoral candidates. The Department of Economics outlines the extent to which 20th century economics in Oxford benefited enormously from links with Commonwealth countries, which helped to establish Oxford’s approach to economics as outward-facing and global, with a particular focus on the Global South. The department also describes recent curricular reforms which have moved away from an abstract and theoretical perspective, privileging US and European economies, towards a broader, more applied approach. All the departments recognise that there is further work to be done.

Some of our smaller departments have particularly interesting and international pasts and presents. The Oxford Department of International Development began life in the post-war period as a new college for colonial officers. It underwent radical change in the 1960s when it began to engage with the emerging field of development studies and the United Nations, entailing an explicitly postcolonial view of economic development, based on national independence, state-led industrialisation, and poverty reduction.  A founding rationale of the department’s flagship MPhil in Development Studies, established in 1996, was to reflect critically on the links between colonialism, postcoloniality and the project of ‘Third World’ development as a neocolonial enterprise. The Department of Social Policy and Intervention and the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies are also home to academics and researchers from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, international in outlook, and attract students from around the world. Both undertake extensive joint working with African and Asian countries, such as the UKRI GCRF Hub on Accelerating Achievement for Africa's Adolescents, and these two departments are amongst the many within the division engaging with the Africa Oxford Initiative (AfOx) – a cross-university platform which supports the work of universities and research institutions across Africa, and facilitates the development of collaborations between Oxford and African institutions. 

The Department of Education outlines in detail on this site how their research has illuminated colonial and postcolonial issues, including the colonial biases inherent within educational systems.

Some of the newest departments in the University belong to the Social Sciences Division. Since its founding in 1996, the Saïd Business School has strived to be purposefully global.  Activities are driven by the School’s mission to have a positive impact through tackling issues that cross borders, cultures, and business practice. The Blavatnik School of Government has a vision of “a world better led, better served and better governed”, with research and curricula seeking to derive lessons for better government from countries worldwide.   Both are highly international schools, with students drawn from across the globe. The Oxford Internet Institute, founded in 2001, notes that whilst the modern technologies the Institute was founded to study were lauded as emancipatory, democratic and egalitarian, they have been revealed to reflect, reproduce and even exacerbate social injustice. The Institute outlines how conscious intervention will be required to avoid perpetuating inequality.

All departments across the division have now established equality, diversity and inclusion (or equivalent) committees, which take forward work at the departmental level towards a more equitable University. Cross-departmental initiatives are taken forward by a divisional Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Panel, comprising representatives from all departments. A number of departments now have an Associate Head of Department position with specific responsibility in this area, such as the Associate Dean for Equality & Diversity in the Law Faculty, and the Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion in the Saïd Business School.

Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter campaigns and protests have provided renewed vigour to this work, and departments across the division are developing anti-racism action plans, including goals to diversify the staff and student body, diversify and decolonise the curricula, and to create a working environment in which all staff and students can thrive. A cross-divisional Listening Project in 2021 will facilitate conversations across the division, to enable us to understand how to work together most effectively to advance race equality. There is much work to be done. As one of the largest social sciences teaching and research centres in the world, committed to tackling some of the major challenges facing humanity, it is incumbent on us to play a leading role in these endeavours. A growing understanding of our complicity with imperialism in the past must also drive forward our commitment to fighting racism in the future.