Rethinking sociology

I do not know what it is about taking a break when you are past the half-century mark.  Events seem to conspire to make it almost total. Last week, I said goodbye to television.  Now, by an interesting coincidence, I am also taking a leave from teaching.  Thus I am about to embark on a year-long journey to re-compose myself, and, as importantly, to take a fresh look at the two vocations that have consumed a great part of my adult life.

It is 30 years now since I became an instructor in sociology, a field of study that I stumbled into by accident while preparing for a career in law.  The discipline captivated me so completely that I forgot about being a lawyer.  I guess its vitality was what attracted me.   Among the social sciences, sociology best exemplified the reformist yearnings of the new sciences.  The field of development was sociology’s natural territory, and we, its students, were expected to examine our culture and society from the perspective of modernity.  The favorite topic in the ‘60s was Filipino values.  Interestingly, the writings on this subject were coming not from the University of the Philippines where I was, but from the Ateneo Institute of Philippine Culture.

Ateneo was problematizing culture, while we were vaguely problematizing development itself.  This divergence should have led to a productive division of labor, but something was happening to UP sociology that prevented it from proceeding with the critique of development.  Of course, it was difficult to go against the general prevailing optimism about development, but the more important reason was that we did not know our own society enough to write anything worth printing.

I entered the UP department of sociology just after its divorce from the department of social work.  That separation proved propitious for social work, but I think it stunted the growth of a Filipino sociology.  No longer burdened by any pretense at universal theorizing, our colleagues from social work proceeded to carry out the rich promises of an applied discipline.  Their efforts led to the formation of a new department in a related applied field, community development.  While their students learned the rudiments of social theory as practical tools of organizing and social intervention in real communities, we at sociology prided ourselves in the pursuit of pure theory.

We conveniently overlooked the fact that the theories we were mouthing had been distilled from the experiences of societies vastly different and distant from ours in time and space.  We thought we were being properly analytical when we could expose the weaknesses and hidden ideological assumptions of certain dominant theories in the light of a new vocabulary from yet another Western author.  It was farthest from our minds that we were making a profession out of a sterile scholasticism.

More than anything else, television showed me how far removed sociology had become from the everyday concerns of our people. On TV, I met people who were troubled by practical problems, who relied on their moral intuitions to justify their outrage or anguish, and who wanted answers to the dilemmas that trapped them.  During these weekly encounters, I realized that there was very little I could draw from the courses that I taught or from the books that I read that would lend clarity to the real situations being presented.

I felt this alienation too whenever I was invited to give what social movements call “national situationers”.  Over the years, I became fairly good at providing a comprehensive account of where we stood as a nation in relation to our collective aspirations.  But at the end of each lecture, someone was always bound to ask: what is to be done?  In such instances, I invariably groped for an answer, and managed to mumble something about the need to form constituencies.  But in my mind, I was always overcome by the uselessness of what I knew as a sociologist and by the little I could say about choices of policy and the feasibility of concrete institutional reforms.

I do not mean to suggest that all sociology must result in policy statements to be useful.  I am saying that all social theorizing is productive only to the extent that we can relate it to the task of remaking our society.  The Brazilian writer Roberto Unger puts it better: the aim “is not to show that we are free in any ultimate sense and somehow unrestrained by causal influences upon our conduct.  It is to break loose from a style of social understanding that allows us to explain ourselves and our societies only to the extent we imagine ourselves helpless puppets of the social worlds we build and inhabit, or of the lawlike forces that have supposedly brought these worlds into being.”

Unger says that existing theories and ideologies have produced “a willful closure to the surprises of politics”.  I would go further and suggest that much recent theorizing, especially of the postmodern variety, has led to a paralyzing pessimism, a luxury a young nation like ours can ill afford.

The rebuilding of social institutions is the historic office of sociology. But because of “physics-envy”, the founding ancestors of the discipline set it on a futile quest for “laws of motion” of social life and for “deep structures” that supposedly underpinned the dynamics of everyday life. I am now convinced that there are no intrinsic laws of social life to discover and no deep structures to uncover, but only better and more humane societies to make.  It is to a sociology that recognizes this that I hope to return and contribute in the coming years.


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