As I rushed to attend my sociology class the other day in school, my friend — a student of pure sciences — stopped me in my tracks. “Bunk the class, man,” he urged. “Such a loser you are for attending classes of the easiest subjects.” I just laughed off his obnoxious comment because I was getting late, but more importantly because I knew better than to tell him that sociology is not such a piece of cake. I really didn’t want to hear him boasting about physics or biology.
But many other students have gotten annoyed with similar comments. When a classmate asked me which subjects I had selected for my A levels (which by the way are purely social sciences), my response made her blurt out, “Did you flunk your O levels?” The look of surprise and sympathy she gave me was infuriating and how she assumed that choosing social sciences had a relation with flunking O levels was beyond me.
I simply hate the generalisations associated with being a student of the social sciences. Yes, I have taken up social sciences in my A Levels and I’m absolutely delighted about it. Now I would very much appreciate it if you don’t quibble about how easy my life must be or come up with reckless theories of how I must have had horrible grades in O levels, to land with subjects which are “useless”.
No, I wasn’t forced to jump into the social sciences bandwagon because I was a poor student who failed to make it to the allegedly more difficult streams of commerce or applied sciences. I also didn’t choose to take these subjects because I want my life to be a breeze. The fact is that I happen to be genuinely interested in studying sociology, psychology and English literature. Physics and chemistry don’t fascinate me at all. Will I have to give up citizenship of the country for not pursuing a career in medicine or engineering? Will everyone now call me a “psycho” for studying psychology?
A deep-seated and narrow-minded notion in our society is that the social sciences don’t have ‘scope’ in our society. What on earth does “scope” mean? Abused and overused as this idea is, ironically many of us don’t know what it means. We are just used to repeating the clichéd dialogue we’ve heard over and over again from our parents, adults or friends.
We need to move beyond a society which only aims to produce doctors, engineers and accountants and realise that the social sciences are just as important. As a matter of fact, they are even more important, in many ways. I appreciate the value of natural sciences; they are an essential branch of education and are required because they state the laws of nature. Nevertheless, they are exact sciences. Anywhere in the world you go, it’s acknowledged that two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen make water. This formula will never change. Social sciences, on the other hand, are approximate sciences and they examine change in social interaction across time and space. The charm of social sciences comes from the uncertainty of things.
Studying about society, people and their interactions is no less helpful than healing patients. If we want to improve our lives, choices, and institutions do we not first need to learn about how they work, why they exist and their history?
Did materialism always play an important role in human societies? Why does military rule keeping recurring in Pakistan’s politics? Why did the Arab Spring happen so spontaneously in countries which had experienced decades of stable dictatorship? How should we interpret our dreams? Is our society traditional or modern?
All these are important questions and the social sciences give us answers for them. How else will we be able to explain social relations and change societies for the better without their knowledge? There is so much that social sciences have to offer and people just don’t realise that.
But luckily I do. I know that students of commerce and science will continue to give me looks of surprise, shower me with naïve criticism about lack of “scope” and pass sardonic comments about not carrying books half as heavy as theirs. But I’ll just excuse their ignorance and continue to study the subjects I love.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2011.