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The sociology of the Maltese Islands

Monday, 21 November 2016, 15:13 Last update: about 8 years ago

Angele Deguara


The recent sociology reader, Sociology of the Maltese Islands, edited by  Michael Briguglio and Maria Brown will serve to open the window a little wider on how our society has been unfolding over the years and what the people of the Maltese islands have been up to since we last looked.  Actually this is not the first publication of its kind in recent decades, reflecting heightened interest in and opportunities for social investigation which also served to address the dearth of systematic knowledge about our immediate social world which existed in the past and which still inevitably exists especially in certain areas.

In this volume, the contributors (who I am happy to note come from different disciplines which may share some common questions with sociology) engage with various issues ranging from stages in the lifecourse and demographic trends to politics, consumption patterns, art, media, tourism, environmental concerns, race and ethnicity, social class, poverty, deviance and social control, education and development.  Traditional institutions such as religion and the family are also put under the scrutinity of the sociological microscope and evaluated critically.  We have a collage of writings which engage with both the modern and the postmodern, within both a historical and a contemporary context. The pieces in the Reader are generally factual-argumentative in nature and style rather than theoretical, presenting statistical or other forms of research evidence, noting and commenting on social changes and at times hinting at where we are heading.   

Sociologists are often accused of confirming the obvious, of telling us what we already know in more elaborate and less accessible language.  And I will not deny that at times I am also tempted to admit this.  However, when one thinks of the tools and the skills that sociology equips us with to enable us to engage with the social world, I would have to challenge such claims.  At the risk of sounding like an introductory sociology textbook I still have to note that sociological research and theory continue to provide us with the vocabulary, with the concepts to help us understand the what, the why and the how.  It is true that sociology is concerned with issues and processes which are often familiar and which we may experience directly but the sociological imagination knows no bounds.   Sociological inquiry involves asking interesting and intelligent questions about anything remotely related to the social world.  This may also involve the mundane, the taken for granted, the apparently trivial and inconsequential or even stupid.  But that is what the sociological imagination is all about.  It  enables us to see things from different perspectives and which may not have been so evident at face value.  It provides us with answers which may challenge the status quo and questions taken for granted assumptions.  Sociological knowledge fills the blanks and may put an end to certain controversies even if at the same time it may create more controversies, debates, questions, curiosities, challenges and hypotheses. 

We conduct sociological research for a number of reasons.   We may want to obtain factual information about the social world and more pertinently to generate theoretical explanations and concepts. Sometimes we do research because we do not really have a choice especially when we are still undergraduates. Some studies are carried out simply because there are funds which need to be utilised and  researchers who are eager to make some money out of a commissioned research project.  I would not exclude that the reports which ensue from such research initiatives find themselves gathering dust on some lonely shelf.  However, I am sure that for many researchers, sociological investigation is a labour of love and not just an academic exercise in the hope of finding a publisher, getting a degree or earning some money.  Many of us would probably also like to think that what we do has some utilitarian value to society, to students, to other researchers as well as to policy makers.   Through sociological research, we may want to give a voice to the research participants and to improve their predicament or we may simply want to satisfy our curiosities.  Actually, there is no universal agreement among sociologists regarding the role or scope of sociological investigation. There are those who believe that sociology should be about the pursuit and enhancement of knowledge.

There are others, such as myself, who believe that, wherever applicable, the knowledge emerging from sociological research should serve to guide social policies. Since its inception, the aim of Sociology was not only to understand society but also to change it.   For example, studies about the poor and other disadvantaged groups in society have often led policy makers to improve the lives of these people.  Feminist theory is another example of how sociological input has in different social contexts led to policies and legislation aimed at fighting patriarchy and gender inequalities.  That said, facts and theoretical concepts may not, on their own, serve to bring about the necessary changes and may need the leverage of social movements and political action for radical changes to materialise.  

While policy makers may commission social research themselves in order to be able to formulate evidence-based policies, they may also choose to ignore social research evidence for a number of reasons: perhaps because it may not fit their ideological framework, because it may be seen as too controversial or unpopular with the electorate.  They may be reluctant to affect radical changes or they may not want to offend powerful lobbies in society.  Although not all the pieces in this publication necessarily make specific recommendations, they still raise a number of pertinent issues and concerns which policy makers would do well to heed.

The impression I get of the Maltese Islands from what I read in this book reflects the huge strides that were made in the recent past in terms of, just to mention a few examples, equality and human rights legislation, quality of life and economic wellbeing, media communications and technology, educational opportunities, democratic processes and civil society participation.  However it also suggests that there is still much cause for concern with regards to a number of issues such as the steady deterioration of our natural environment,  the persistence of poverty and of various forms of social inequalities, social injustice and discrimination, precarious employment and occupational hazards, the growth of individualism, our penchant for material consumption and for construction sites, our tribal divides, the spread of racism and a growing sense of "othering" especially in our increasingly diverse, multicultural society.  These few examples reflect the rapid socio-cultural, economic and political changes that have swept over the islands in the past decades instigated by various forces both from within and outside Maltese society.  They also attest to a society which still clings to an insular or provincial mindset.  It is a society of many contrasts and shades as I prefer to see it.  Godfrey Baldacchino concurs with the idea that we should speak in terms of societies rather than society considering the different co-existing realities of our islands.

In the prologue to the book, Baldacchino starts with an anecdote about a small crowd of boisterous, middle-aged men eating pastizzi with tea or beer at a bar in Żejtun he happened to encounter while touring the old streets of the village.  These men, gabjetta  in one hand and a trendy smart phone in the other, symbolised for Baldacchino the way that the past and the present tend to be woven together just as much as the local and the global tend to intertwine in a society caught in a whirlwind of change while still holding on to remnants of the past.  

Sociology of the Maltese Islands is dotted with  indicators of such trends.  While we have become more European in certain aspects such as personal lifestyles and consumption patterns, we are also witnessing a stronger sense of nationalism, not in the sense of preserving our national heritage whatever that may mean, but in the sense of not wanting others, especially those of African origin to taint our white, Christian legacy.  We constantly want to assert our Malteseness in the face of threatening barranin especially suwed or klandestini.  This  from a Christian nation with a long history of emigration. Our ambivalence as Europeans is also evident when we seek to resist European values or even regulations, emphasising our uniqueness in terms of size, at other times using some other idiocyncracy such as our traditions or our Catholic beliefs as an excuse.  This is particularly evident in how we continue to defy the EU birds directive and in our procrastination to implement renewable energy measures.

Globalisation has enriched our culture in many ways, enhanced our lifestyle choices and our experiences but it has also brought out in us certain contrasting traits such as our hostility towards foreigners while at the same time being so proud of our hospitality that we even adverise it on our tourism websites and brochures.   We have enhanced our environmental awareness, yet we continue to destroy our natural environment, not only as a result of political decisions but also through our lifestyle choices and consumption patterns.  We are more health conscious; yet we have the worst obesity figures in Europe and our streets are clogged with traffic.  We have seen significant, even radical changes in our family and relationship patterns but we are still struggling against patriarchy and its discontents such as gendered violence as traditional gendered patterns and roles persist.  We have enacted civil rights legislation which is among the most progressive in the world, yet those who do not conform to traditional gender binaries are still misunderstood and stigmatised. We have set up structures to protect and safeguard the rights of our children but we are denying them the open spaces in which to play.  We spoil and pamper our children yet encourage them to be independent especially as dual-earner and lone-parent families increase.   We have become a consumer society where going to the mall has become a leisure activity in itself, yet thousands continue to live in poverty and experience material deprivation.   In recent years we have seen the development of a more vociferous civil society challenging the powers that be, not least the once monolithic Roman Catholic Church which has lost its moral hegemony over Maltese society even as belief in God is still the strongest in Europe. We have seen instances where civil society has joined forces across party lines.  We are also experiencing a small but significant shift in partisan allegiance when it comes to voting patterns, indicating a more rational, less predictable electorate.  Yet, the two-party system is still alive and kicking and the partisan tribalism characteristic of Maltese politics is nowhere near extinct as can be noted even if one just happens to take a cursory look at popular comments on the social media.

All in all, I believe that this publication is an important contribution to the development of local sociology at a time when the  people on the islands are exploring and experiencing new ways of living and of looking at the world in our increasingly individualistic and pluralistic society;  new ways of doing things such as meeting others, communicating,  learning, working, shopping, presenting themselves and doing politics.  It gives a vibrant image of the many facets which make our society unique and yet not so distinct from other modern societies.  It portrays the Maltese islands as they were moulded and changed by their geography, by their eventful and turbulent history, by both global and local happenings, by powerful institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church and Politics, by their traditions and beliefs as well as by the actions and experiences of the people on the islands who are after all the main protagonists.  


Sociology of the Maltese Islands

Brigulio M & Brown M (eds)

Agenda Publications, 2016

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