The Malta Independent 16 May 2022, Monday

Should we care about sociology?

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 6 January 2022, 06:51 Last update: about 5 months ago

Last Summer I wrote an article in the Malta Independent (22 July, 2021) entitled ‘Why Sociology?’, wherein I discussed the value of choosing the subject as an area of study.

In today’s article I am following this up by discussing why sociology is relevant to policy-making. I wish to expand on this by discussing the various roles which can be employed by sociologists.

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For example, there are sociologists who specialise in empirical research, others who are activists. The former tend to be agnostic with respect to their findings, where they report, interpret and engage what they would have analysed, possibly giving some policy recommendations. On the other hand, activist sociologists take more of a prescriptive and normative approach by affiliating themselves with an ideology, discourse or interest.

In both cases, sociologists may take a public role, for example by publicly engaging with their respective findings and interpretations, and, if applicable, their positions, beyond the academic sphere.

In this regard, one can find sociological interventions which may be affiliated to an ideology or interest (for example, if speaking on behalf of a political, business or civil society interest), or which alternatively are interpreting the social issue under analysis through more of an objective stance, hence having more of a grounded approach in everyday life. Whilst it is impossible to be fully objective, one can be as close to this position as possible by allowing the research process to do the talking, even if findings go against a priori positions, hypotheses or previous research. As Max Weber famously said 100 years ago, the role of the sociologist is to understand human behaviour. This means adopting research methods which can help interpret why certain social actions occur, even if one disagrees with them. A case in point is the sociological study of crime and deviance.

At the same time, there are many sociologists who do not adopt an active role in the public sphere but are still very important with respect to the areas in which they are employed or engaged. For example, authorities such as the National Statistical Office employ social scientists to collect and interpret data on various sectors. Some other sociologists are hired to give expert advice on certain policy challenges, for example, when social impact assessments are carried out on development projects. Here I wish to emphasize that there are so many policy areas which merit social impact assessments in the formation of policies, something which has been acknowledged in the Government’s post-Covid strategy.

In this article I also wish to highlight additional roles which can be taken by sociologists, and I feel that these are pertinent to Maltese society today.

First, the sociologist can act as a bridge between networks in society. To give one example highlighted by a student in a lecture this week, it is important to note that even though Malta is a democracy where citizens have rights, those who are non-citizens (for example third country nationals) may be excluded from certain rights and may be living in their own social networks which are detached from other networks in Maltese society. By bridging such gaps, the sociologist can help identify policies in areas such as employment, education and culture which can be more inclusive.

Second, the sociologist has the duty to identify gaps and voids in policies, public discourses and other political actions. For example, sometimes narratives go viral on the social media, even on delicate matters which are subject to the judicial process, and various ‘influencers’ act as judge and jury, rather than allowing thorough analysis take its course. As I explained in my latest article in this newspaper (Voices Off Stage, 23 December, 2021) some voices may be less influential than others in the public sphere, and hence their realities may be elbowed out of the policy-debate. Sociologists may consequently help identify voices and realities which do not currently form part of the dominant narrative/s. For example, when Malta was deliberating on the introduction of LGBTIQ rights, sociological research helped understand the lived experiences of such persons.

Finally, the sociologist can act as a mediator in policy deliberation. Let us imagine that there is a development project which on the one hand has economic benefits and creates jobs, but on the other hand, impacts the lifestyle of residents and other stakeholders in the area. The sociologist can help identify points where the adversarial positions may intersect, thus creating more workable policy processes. Fellow sociologist Fredy Aldo Macedo Huamán writes more about the mediator role in his article ‘Sociologists in the Civic-Political Arena’ (Global Dialogue, International Sociological Association, August 2021). For those interested, he also identifies other roles which can be taken by sociologists in this regard.

I strongly believe that Malta should invest more in evidencebased and deliberative approaches in policy making in various sectors and fields. Sociology, with all its diversity, provides indispensable tools to apply this approach. Like other social sciences, its approach is slower than that of ‘know-it-all’ influencers, but it is more rigorous and provides more depth.

 

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