“I always thought you were going to do Political Science.”
So it seemed, to many around me. (It must have been my acute interest in the 2008 US presidential elections.) It’s clear by now that I’m opting for Sociology. Yet the truth is, Political Science had never once been my first choice, though it was a reliable alternative.
Once I outgrew common misconceptions of Psychology – studying it academically is very different – Sociology took the top spot, first tentatively, then permanently. Political Science, probably a minor.
No longer, after the Political Science exposure module.
Don’t get me wrong. Many students enjoyed the module (NUS PS1101E), and raved about the engaging lecturer. My tutor did an excellent job furthering our conceptions of state ideologies and international relations. I will recommend it to anyone eager to comprehend the larger political systems governing our societies. It enriched me, and will enrich anyone.
The thing is, I find the content all too removed.
Political Science: Limits of Agency
Political Science is the scientific study of politics. Politics is the struggle to attain and retain power. All discussions revolve around states; non-state actors are discussed, but most often in relation to states. Power struggles are interesting because they define history, explain status quo in modern societies and represent the potential for significant future change.
All good. Yet what can we, as individuals, then do? Why study it?
Of course, knowledge is power. All subjects, in one way or another, train one’s mental capacities. They should challenge students to think and analyze things more critically and creatively. The arts and social sciences are valuable because the analytical skills are more readily transferable. Nonetheless, the diverse options allow us to look for more. I don’t quite appreciate the ‘more’ in Political Science, just like in Philosophy. At least not in practical terms.
One must keep the future in mind. How many political analysts do we need?
Sociology seems to the layperson a superfluous discipline. Common sense, they say. Worse still, they mistake it for Social Work. No, sociologists serve by thinking and observing. I don’t blame anyone for these misconceptions. I’ve found it hard to explain its merits too, but I will make an attempt here.
Sociology challenges us to see the unexpected, by linking the ‘social’ and the ‘personal’ – this is a quality of mind termed as sociological imagination. (I’m simplifying, of course.)
Examples of Sociological Imagination
For instance, what does it mean to be male? Should I like toy robots over Barbie dolls? Should I pull the chair for the lady to sit, then foot all the bills? Should I be out working while my spouse cleans the house and raises the kids? And really, should I not wear a dress? If you answered yes to any of these, who said so?
It’s one thing to be born male, and another to play out the social role of a male.
Another example: What does it mean to be sick? If I feel nauseous but don’t get an MC, am I sick? If my leg is in a cast, but I can still perform mental tasks, am I sick? If I have a disease but feel perfectly normal, am I still sick? Here, there are many ambiguities. Who makes the call, doctor or patient? Are MCs good measures at all?
And I’m not even asking what it means to be healthy, an even harder proposition.
Sociology: Closer to Real Life
I like sociology because not only does it train the mind, it also helps me to relook at all the different facets of social life. It is an exercise in debunking common sense. While it never tells you what to do, it helps you to figure out for yourself. In asking the above questions, I may become less judgmental of deviance in both genders, and I may stop defining my health in terms of what doctors tell me.
If these seem common sense, then I’d say the sociological imagination is already at work. That said, it takes effort to turn vague awareness into coherent agency.
While there are overlaps – power and social change – Sociology and Political Science are very different. Sociology tells us that while our lives are shaped by the social structures around us, we can become conscious of them. In doing so, we can choose to act differently, or better still, work to shape public discourse on different themes and fight for incremental social change. There is always demand for that. (Even elections are social events/constructs, aren’t they?)
My Political Science tutor says that “every choice is a non-choice”. By choosing to study something, you are choosing not to study all the other things available to you. We’ve got to make the most out of our time in university.
I’ve made my choice. Have you?
[Update: This is a choice that has kept on giving. In the summer of 2016, I gave voice to A Multiplicity of Visions which keeps me going. In the summer of 2017, my imagination took me to Facebook. Sociology has become a way of life for me. Whatever you study, I welcome you to join me on this journey!]
Original links can be accessed by clicking on the photos.