Are You In It for the Sociology Degree?

You’d think sociologists are best-equipped to debunk stereotypes. Surprise then, this semester, when ALL 3 of my NUS Sociology lecturers, in cordial but resigned tones, levelled essentially the same accusation at us students: That we are in it for the degree.

The most subtle instance came during a Social Thought lecture on Max Weber. Weber had posited 4 ideal types of “social action” , which comprises all action and inaction oriented to the past/present/future behavior of others. The 4 types are:

  1. Instrumentally-rational action
    • Determined by expectations of others’ behaviors
  2. Value-rational action
    • Determined by conscious ethics, independent of success
  3. Affectual action
    • Determined by actor’s specific states or feelings
  4. Traditional action
    • Determined by ingrained habit

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Of course, the professor alluded to our presence in the lecture as instrumentally-rational action. True enough, we are obliged to attend lectures to complete graded index cards. We turn up because we expect to be punished otherwise. Taken further, our high attendance rate reinforces her belief that we are motivated by grades, and by extension, we are in it for the degrees.

It is a convenient illustration, but Weber meant these “ideal types” as conceptually pure bases from which to examine deviations in real-life contexts. The categories are thus by no means clear-cut. Personally, I find this particular formulation more flexible, since many important actions cannot be reduced to an approximation of any of these types. For instance, there are elements of all 4 in my continued decision to study Sociology.

Despite this, my professors seem united by the belief that most of us are mostly driven by Type 1. It’s alarming because I think Sociology should mean more in our eyes.

Max Weber Sociology and Social Action

Max Weber. [Credit: The Bully Pulpit]

Combining Types

If we are in it for the degree, then why Sociology? A Sociology degree is not the most practical in the market. Perhaps it is the best option available, for those with lower entry grades and are never likely to score at natural sciences or engineering. Social sciences do appear more practical than the arts, and Sociology is easier to enter than Psychology and is not technical like Economics.

But what about those with higher grades? Interest matters, of course. This would fit under Type 3: affectual action. But there is a certain volatility to emotional states, which may degenerate over time (3-4 years). What then sustains a student at lectures and readings and essays is likely to involve one of the other 3 types.

Type 4 – traditional action – appears to me as unlikely in the modern context. We are socialized by a barrage of emotion-inducing messages and handy access to alternative possibilities around the world. What more, Sociology challenges us to look beyond our ingrained worldviews. We are conditioned to reject tradition.

Type 1 – instrumentally-rational action – is the easiest option. When interest wears thin – cue Year 2 burnout – there’s always the promise of better career entry points to drive us ahead. It was my motivating force for A-Levels.

But what of Type 2: value-rational action? While grades are never redundant, some of us are driven by the belief that Sociology can help in remaking self and society. And only when we open our minds to such possibilities, can we sustain passion in the learning process. It is like Social Work, but rather than act within existing constraints, we focus on thinking about the constraints limiting our action.

If teaching sociologists don’t see this conviction in us, then they may be right. Perhaps I’m the one making the wrong assumptions. All the more, then, that I should push ahead with this blog, this statement for generalist living informed by my conscious ethical belief in the value of sociological thinking for the masses.

What motivates your everyday actions?

Weber, M. (1978). Basic Sociological Terms. In G. Roth & C. Wittich (Eds.), Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press.

Socio Empath

Hi, my name is Eugene. I am a Sociology graduate from the National University of Singapore. This blog is an invitation: To see our selves as colored by cultures, and to brighten the colors of our society. I seek to help you create freedom in everyday life, with empathy and the sociological imagination.

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