Editor’s Note: Dr. Manuel Victor J. Sapitula, Sir Mano to my undergraduate batch mates, is an Assistant Professor from the Department of Sociology of the University of the Philippines. He got his Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree, both in Sociology from the same university and was awarded his PhD in Sociology from the National University of Singapore. He is also an incoming board member of the Philippine Sociological Society. Below is an interview from a remarkable sociologist of our time.
[Yvan] What made you choose the social sciences as a specialization?
I have always been interested in knowing about what people do and how they make sense of what they do. My first exposure to such questions was my interest in religion. As I see people kneeling to pray, lighting candles or wiping images of saints in church, I asked myself why people needed to do these things to express their faith. When I entered UP last 1998, I had these questions in mind, and I was happy that sociology gave me tools to explain such phenomena, and many more. Way back then, I intended to shift to another course, but sociology just fascinated me so much that I never left the discipline!
[Yvan] What are your thoughts on the idea that the social sciences is only an intellectual pursuit and not a ‘real’ science with application like engineering?
Like any academic discipline, the social sciences have ample room for theorizing and developing research methods. Theoretical constructs in the social sciences aim to understand the nature of social life holistically and integratively. But it would be a mistake to say that the social sciences “is only an intellectual pursuit” because the implications of social science research is profound and affects the lives of individuals and communities. In fact, even some theories have explicit claims about addressing persistent and substantive concerns that people face in their everyday lives. Questions of urban transitions, safety, sustainability, among others, are substantive as much as they are academic. Some social scientists, in this regard, even ensure that research findings are used so that individuals and communities enjoy sustainable lifestyles and living arrangements. So I think that while the social sciences have a strong theoretical dimension, they also have a strong “applied” dimension as well.
[Yvan] Some of your writings deal with Religion. What made this specific subject interesting for you? Is the study of religion still relevant despite the ‘more urgent’ problems of politics and economics?
I guess it had something to do with socialization. I was born in a family of devout Catholics and was schooled in Catholic schools. My baseline views about the world was significantly influenced by religion, and I guess this would be true for a lot of individuals in the Philippines. The issues surrounding religion are quite engaging and multi-faceted, and it has earned the attention of respectable scholars. As a sociologist, I always held that religion remains relevant even in a world that is transitioning to “modern” forms of social arrangement. Of course, institutionally there are issues about how relevance is crafted and maintained, but for a lot of people religion is used as a resource to understand the world. In my own research the issue was not primarily how “religious” and “secular” values clash and disagree, but how individuals and institutions use religion as a tool to understand the world they live in and the implications of such attempts in their choices and actions. So if you block off the study of religion in modern societies, there is so much that would not be accounted for in research. My aim as a sociologist is contend with these issues academically, so that fuller perspectives are attained.
[Yvan] You graduated both from Harvard and the National University of Singapore, can you tell us about the experience?
Receiving education and training overseas was personally very enriching for me. In the United States and Singapore, infrastructure and facilities for education is quite efficient and superior. Singapore offered an additional advantage of being close to home. This generally made studies relatively more comfortable, though not necessarily easier. One of the most satisfying aspects of overseas education is access to the most updated and state-of-the-art materials and literature in the field, and getting the chance to meet respectable sociologists from different parts of the world. It was surely a pleasant experience to know that authors we read are real people and not just names on book covers!
[Yvan] Any tips on those who want to pursue their studies abroad?
At this age, education overseas is more accessible, but it has also become quite expensive. There are many options in many parts of the world that offer competitive programs, so it is good to think very well about how a graduate education can help in one’s prospective profession. Though in many parts of the world the US standard of the Master’s and Ph.D. is highly esteemed, there are also very good programs in other parts of the world. So it is good to think hard about one’s options, because there are many. Beyond questions of ranking among world’s universities, which are trendy nowadays, students must also assess issues of relevance and contribution to the country.
[Yvan] You chaired one of the Sociology organizations based in UP, what could organizations do to promote the social sciences?
I think students’ organizations enhance the learning of sociology outside the conventional means offered by the Department’s academic program. Organizations offer another venue for students to learn about the discipline through interactions with fellow students outside the classroom setting. In my experience, organizing conferences and symposia for UP Praxis (a Sociology students’ organization) allowed me to interact with professors within and outside the University who excel in their respective fields. Moreover, students’ organizations allow sociology majors to assume greater responsibility in promoting the discipline and make it relevant to contemporary society. I find it quite pleasing that sociology majors organize mobilizations and campaigns touching persistent national issues; they have a stake both in extending the reach of the discipline and responding to social issues.
[Yvan] What is your most unforgettable experience as a professor, so far?
When I assigned a thematic autobiography for my students in Socio 10 (Being Filipino: A Sociological Exploration), I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and engagement of UP students from all walks of life. This has strengthened my faith in the role of UP as the national University in forming new generations of leaders by challenging them to see things beyond what their usual patterns of thinking. The national government has to strengthen this mandate by ensuring that UP remains up-to-date internationally and relevant locally. This is a responsibility they owe to the Filipino people.
[Yvan] You are an incoming officer of the Philippine Sociological Society, how would you spend your term?
Generally, officers in the PSS organize the yearly National Conference to enable sociologists around the country to engage in academic discussion and form new partnerships. But of course, the new officers are thinking of there are other ways by which the PSS can serve the needs of its members through other engagements beyond the annual National Conferences. This is what the new board is willing to explore collectively. I hope we can come up with something during our term.
[Yvan] Any message to young social scientists out there?
Be proud that you are social scientists! We have what it takes to understand the nature of our life in society, a life lived with others, and one that that has implications not only for our personal lives but also for the larger structures that we find ourselves in. We have a mandate to understand the human condition and seek ways to improve it for future generations. Do not take this mandate lightly! We have much to contribute, so let us not renege from our discourses, roles and research.
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.