The Nordic Africa Institute

NAI update

“Social science is needed more than ever”

NAI head of research, Eleanor Fisher.

“Research should lead to actions that take people’s real lives into account”, says Eleanor Fisher, new head of research at NAI. Photo: Mattias Sköld

Date • 4 Sep 2020

In the face of profound challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, the world needs social science research more than ever, according to Eleanor Fisher, NAI’s new head of research. While “hard science” can deliver fantastic advances, real progress only happens when we also understand how people behave, she says.

Fisher, a professor of international development, began her academic career studying community-based conservation in Tanzania. Since then, much of her work has been dedicated to livelihood processes and the dynamics of poverty and inequality.

She cites curiosity about people’s lives as being one of the things that make her tick as a researcher. On the list is also how research can contribute to making the world a better place.

“Research should lead to actions that take people’s real lives into account”, she says.

Working with African governments and donors since the late 1990s, Fisher has spent a lot of time dealing with the complicated question of how research can feed into policymaking.

She stresses the importance of researchers working across disciplines and engaging with non-academic stakeholders. It is also crucial to get everyone on board from the beginning of a research project, according to Fisher.

“It’s about relating to needs and drawing different stakeholders, including policymakers and community members, into the process from the beginning. To me that is of fundamental importance”.

She admits that involving stakeholders while staying independent can be a tricky balancing act for researchers.

“I appreciate the issues. Nevertheless, for publicly funded research we are beholden to demonstrate societal impact. Actually, in my experience, the role of stakeholders can be negotiated. You can still get scope to be independent and produce high-quality, robust evidence while speaking directly to policymakers”.

During the interview she comes back to how research should increase our understanding about how people live and what their priorities are. The challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic have made the need for social science-based knowledge even greater, she argues.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on people’s lives across sub-Saharan Africa, setting back poverty reduction by many years. We need to understand these impacts and how best to support how people develop actions themselves. Sometimes this is about being a catalyst to voice people’s priorities”.

As her academic career has progressed, Fisher has built up extensive experience as a team leader of participatory research.

“It is amazing to see researchers thrive and spread their wings. Doing research in sub-Saharan African countries is not easy. It often involves challenging governance issues, tricky politics, and can be physically tough, too. But it always has new learning that invigorates me”.

Of her new position, she says: It is a fantastic opportunity, to be focusing on social science and transdisciplinary research, and to work at the interface between research and policy.

She mentions current work being undertaken by NAI researchers.

“It reiterates how important NAI is as an independent voice providing informed, high-calibre research that looks beyond simplistic assumptions, capturing depth and nuance to people’s lives in the world, understanding how change actually takes place in practice”.

TEXT: Mattias Sköld

Eleanor Fisher is a professor of international development and was head of the Department of International Development in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading in the UK. She is a social anthropologist, focusing on development issues. While she has worked in countries around the world, her regional expertise is on sub-Saharan Africa and in particular East Africa. She grew up in Ghana and Zambia, where her father John worked in technical education and her mother Pamela was a singer.