The Irreverence of Sociology
A speech delivered by Dr. Jayeel Serrano Cornelio at the Alay sa Sociology Graduates, 03 July 2017, MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology, Iligan City.
Sociology is a difficult discipline. This should be very clear to you by now.
If not, recall how irritated you were by some comments you saw on social media. How many times did you find it bothersome when people resorted to personal explanations about behavior: that people, for example, were poor because they were not trying hard? Or drug addicts could have just used their time for other productive things? Hearing our friends say “it all depends on the person” sets off the alarm in our ears.
This is because to us, human behavior does not come about in a vacuum. We recognize that people’s choices are shaped by social forces that are far bigger than one man (or woman) could ever change by himself (or herself).
Recognizing the relationship between structure and agency is a perspective we swear by and we call it the sociological imagination.
A perspective that is of course not easy.
It is far easier to blame the rape victim. It is far easier to blame voters for electing corrupt officials. It is far easier to blame drug addicts for their laziness. It is far easier to blame PLHIV for being promiscuous. It is far easier to blame the minority for not keeping up with the rest of us.
It is far easier to blame people for their mishaps in life.
The sociological imagination is what makes the discipline we have chosen to be irreverent and yet relevant at once. It is irreverent because it challenges some of the core assumptions that people hold dearly – their religion, beliefs, identity, and even personal accomplishments.
Irreverence questions the place of power and privilege in a society that places the blame on victims.
And yet in its irreverence, sociology in fact first listens to people. Whether it’s qualitative or quantitative, we have systematic attempts to listen to people. Only then can we make careful assertions about social issues that bother us today.
Irreverence thus allows us to see the world in a different light and empowers us to act accordingly.
Therein lies this beautiful paradox: The relevance of sociology’s irreverence is what gives sociology its timeless charisma.
At the same time there lies in us an unyielding conviction: sociology sides with the oppressed. How so?
Recall the basic concepts of our discipline: Weber’s iron cage rationality, Durkheim’s anomie, Marx’s alienation, Simmel’s blasé attitude, Giddens’s juggernaut, Habermas’s colonization of the lifeworld, Foucault’s panopticon.
All of these point to the dismal state of human beings in this condition called modernity. (We can debate later on whether where we are now is, in fact, post-modernity or post-post-modernity.)
You will of course be pursuing careers soon after tonight’s remarkable event. Yes, it is a celebration of what you have accomplished over the years. But like any ritual, this is simply a liminal moment. The stuff of life that haunted you in the classroom will become more real than ever in the world out there.
And so consider my speech as a call to arms: It is sociology’s irreverent-yet-relevant potential that you must bring with you when you step out of the halls of this life-changing university. C. Wright Mills, in the Sociological Imagination, asserts that “it is the [social scientist’s] task to display in his work…and in his life as well – this kind of sociological imagination.”
To sharpen my point: the sociological imagination can only fulfill its potential when used for the emancipation of the oppressed. You have to bear this in mind regardless of the career paths you later on take.
Therefore, may we dream not just of our own personal successes.
I will not deny that you have dreams for yourselves, your families, and the future. Some of you will be in industries, while others in the academe. Some will be in public service, others in the non-profit sector.
But along the way, be unforgivingly grounded in the ordeals of society. Just listen to the people you will work with and for.
Ladies and gentlemen, you are now free from the structures of the university. But proceed with caution. The world out there will offer another set of structures to deal with, some of which are inherently corrupt.
You are called to be relevant, but this is not just for yourselves. The only antidote to the selfish proclamations of the free market is irreverence – even unto yourselves.
Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, PhD is a visiting professor in the Department of Sociology, MSU-IIT and the treasurer of the Philippine Sociological Society. The National Academy of Science and Technology has named him the 2017 Outstanding Young Scientist in the field of sociology. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.