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Reflections of a Sociology Major: Tendencies and Challeges to Relevance

A few weeks ago, I met a friend of mine, an engineer, as I was heading home from work that day. I just came from an interview for a Research I was helping in and our conversation shifted to just that. He asked what I was doing and I replied, “research”. His remarks –both expected and dreaded — would prompt this talk: wala na bang ginawa ang social science kundi research?

This question was, in fact, bugging me ever since I had the mind to think outside my discipline and I was trying to justify the need for the so called soft sciences. How is it relevant if the last things needed by the country are pieces of paper that deal with seemingly far-fetched topics? We cannot boast of mighty innovations like those produced by engineering or the physical sciences nor can we claim of wide ranging effects like the Manhattan Project. If the physical sciences were borne out of need and remained to answer human needs, what of the social sciences?

The social sciences were also borne out of need to understand social realities[i]. Drawing from this discussion, I suppose that  the whole of the social sciences were meant to understand this situation, particularly in Europe during the time where vast changes in the social landscape are occurring–where traditional family and community relations are unsettled by the rapid industrialization and where social norms and values are changing as well. Alongside this, people began developing ideas on how societies work and attempted to mold it according to a certain framework, most famous of this, perhaps, is Russia’s October Revolution that propelled the backward country into an economic power rivalling the United States. Thus, I think that the social sciences are relevant disciplines of today especially that economic and social upheaval seem to be commonplace. What I offer below are my reflections on the obstacles faced by budding social scientists from the point of view of a newbie in the field.

First, the Ivory Tower really remains an issue. As an Academic, we are exposed to a lot of theories and perspectives on almost every conceivable issue of the day. In fact, in UP, it’s something that won’t go away and is something you just get used to. An ivory tower — the tendency to pontificate on real life issues — is therefore always a probability. New social scientists like me should realize that the concepts and ideas we discuss inside the classroom are not mere concepts and ideas for the agents in the field but are realities that confront them every day. Our jargons, our European and well-explained Filipino terms, evaporate to irrelevance to the people we are supposed to be struggling with if they are not translated into real and authentic actions. One of my experiences as an instructor at the local university is really to see poverty first hand. Many of us here really know about working students, for example, but how many of us understand the predicaments they would have to face every day just to get into and outside of school? I had a student who remarked that she believed that many teachers do not teach what they are supposed to because we do not inform them of real life situations but are rather content to inform them concepts upon concepts that can be found in books offering neither hope nor understanding for them. History is merely the succession of events and not a tool to understand our common situation, logic nothing more but a complex system of rules that are at best useful as a college subject requirement and economics is but barrage of jargons about forces that have no bearing in their lives. Let us change that.

Second, we may feel trapped in the feeling of our own inadequacy. After all, a keen understanding of social realities and the structure underneath it makes it a very well-known fact that not everything is based upon the agent. I don’t think even the most micro-sociological approach could deny the influence, or as the materialists like to say, control that society have over our being. Patriarchal will always be patriarchal, sexist will always be sexist and conservative will always be conservative. But society is not static and time and time again I have seen opportunities passing me by just because I thought that the immutable laws of society will work against me — but the immutable laws I claim became nothing more but prejudice on my part. I am not saying that class, gender and race are only prejudicial, to be sure they are not and they are most real but when applied to day to day reality, it is a safe bet to try and fail rather than be cloistered in our preconceived notions. For example, in my first job I was harassed by a colleague. Believing that the inside-thinking of the school is conservative, I thought to myself that to be safe it would be better if I kept quiet and simply ignore or endure whatever is thrown at me. After quite some time enduring, I eventually decided that come what may, even I lost my job, I will see to it that justice is served. Today, I am proud to say that we have organized an anti-sexual harassment seminar conducted by UP OASH as part of the settlement deal I had with the offender. Had I stayed in my idea of conservatism, things would turn out differently. I am not saying that we can move autonomously of these social structures, what I am saying is that structures are built up by agents – though agents do not exist in a vacuum – they are agents, nevertheless.

Finally, and perhaps most real, is that we get bogged down by real life situations. Capitalism is real and it will remain real even if you have analysed every bit of it inside the classroom. There is no immunity button to capitalism just because you know it. Interestingly, I applied and was offered a job at a certain bank foundation and therein I was constantly reminded of the importance of obedience to authority, the corporate social responsibility which is social responsibility but is corporate nevertheless and the light exploitation that we earn because of our education. I also suffered from job insecurity because the powers that be seem to focus on personal and political survival rather than public good. The system exists and it will do everything in its power to keep everything in order.  But for us to be relevant we must always go beyond what we see into what could be better. I am reminded of the concept of dialectical materialism. Developed by the leftist movement, the concept asserts that in everything there is a struggle and that at the end of every struggle something better will emerge which shall be challenged yet again making history a constant state of flux and of attempts to improve[ii]. This, I think, is a very good concept to live by especially for the likes of us.

All my points lead to a single plan of action: it is the re-recognition that unlike the natural sciences, society itself is our laboratory. Our theories are worthless without application to real life situations, the paper upon paper we produce, even if they be Marxists, if it does not extend to the consciousness of the masses, if it has no effect within society, does nothing but to hinge us tighter into our ivory towers. We must not be reduced as mourners of the world system – comprehending the situation but are rendered unproductive by our sense of inability.  Mourners tamper the promise of sociology. Here I would like to quote Erich Fromm in his work the “Heart of Man”[iii], the social psychologist says that humanity is conscious of itself, that while it is integrated into nature and into society it is capable of stepping back and looking at things from a different angle. Precisely because it is conscious it has the capacity to traverse what we see or where we live in.

Finally, C.W. Mills[iv] offers us a way to not be engulfed in our own life situations: it is when we realize that our real life situations, what he calls personal troubles, are part and parcel of public issues – issues that are known to us through our education – and as such we struggle to change the social ills because in so doing also solve our very own dilemmas.

This is the challenge of relevance for sociology, to move beyond our tendencies and effect change.

Returning to the question of my engineering classmate about what we do I learned something that might answer this ‘poverty’ of sociology. Let us remember that not all innovations are technological and not everything technological are innovations. Sure, we cannot install solar panels, flatten hills and neither can we concoct drugs for the sick but the mechanisms with which these are delivered are not far from reproach and must be improved. But over and beyond this processes our knowledge of social change will allow us to create comprehensive policies for development be it in micro or macro scale – something Leland dela Cruz[v] would call social change management.

As a researcher, I have seen theses of students that developed mechanisms for the improvement of institutions and communities and not in a shallow way; it is rather devoted to the idea of assisting a particular client. They spend a semester trying to understand the peculiarities of the field and then spend another semester trying to collaborate with different agents in the field to effect the most proper innovations. Some attempted to create an SMS based reporting system for TB as for others, prevent fish kills in a certain province[vi]. It is high time that our theses have that particular bent too, applying everything we learned to benefit other people. Praxis need not be a choice between giving up your life like an oblation and dwelling in apathy.

Perspectives for the social sciences are not merely the products of external actors but are also built within the discipline. When we descend our ivory towers, empower ourselves through our consciousness and realize the relationship between our own misery and those of society, praxis becomes relevant and research becomes a tool for change and not something we do because it is the only thing we can.

About the Author
Yvan Ysmael Yonaha (@YvanYonaha) is a Development Practitioner, Technology Enthusiast and Productivity Buff. Yvan holds an AB Degree in Sociology from UP Diliman. He is a former instructor in the Department of Social Science for the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Marikina, and currently works for Ateneo de Manila University as a formator of the Office of Social Concern and Involvement.

[i] Giddens, A. (1997). Sociology. 3rd ed. Polity Press. Cambridge UK

[ii] UP Praxis, personal communication, 2008

[iii] Fromm, E. (1971). The heart of man: its genius for good and evil. Harper and Row Publishers. New York.

[iv] Mills, C. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York. Oxford University Press

[v] Personal communication, 2013

[vi] Research respondents, 2013