This is an abridged version of the introductory chapter of The Sociology Practicum, a book I have written over several months’ worth of weekends. The journey into the working world has—perhaps to be expected for graduates in my discipline—been challenging. Reading about Marx and Weber surely does nothing to excite us about the terrors of bureaucracy and capitalism. I began to appreciate why people view Sociology as an impractical choice of study.
Yet instead of forgetting my roots, I decided to apply my sociological imagination to the topic of work. How can we make use of this way of thinking to find freedom within the constraints of our work lives? The result is this book of hope, that whoever you are, whatever you do, and wherever you work, you can breathe greater purpose into your working life.
You can do anything you want!
With concealed delight, I held the leaflet to my face again. There it was, a four-coloured wheel spanning 8 clusters of occupations. There was research, there was policy, there was social service, there was communications. Phew, I thought. When I had told people I wanted to switch to the arts—having journeyed from neighbourhood math prodigy into the Science stream—people around me panicked. What are you going to do, be a teacher? Where I lived, in Singapore, teaching is a conventional choice. Not prestigious, but certainly respectable. Though I have immense respect for the occupation, I was pleased to find out it was not a Sociology graduate’s only option.
It was freeing to not have to commit to a profession at the tender age of 19, unlike my peers signing up for programs in Law, Medicine, or Engineering. Lawyers and doctors were the highest-status professions and certainly ideal for many high achievers. But even if I had the grades, I did not have the heart to dissect someone else’s arguments or body parts. It pains me. As for Engineering, I never once bothered. As someone who mused abstractly about topics of self and society, material disciplines appeared to me as nothing more than irrelevant detail.
Once I was convinced Sociology is the one for me—and likewise my sceptical parents—it was time to think about what I wanted in my future work. The first criteria was: Free time. I wanted a job from 9 to 5—or 9 to 6 these days—with no overtime. It was not due to laziness; no one who has clocked in 8 productive hours for the day should be made to feel guilty for leaving on time. What I needed was time to do what I like: To read, to write, to reflect on life, to keep relationships alive. These mattered most to me. As for the choice of occupation, I was happy to bide my time. I’d rather stay on the ground than scale the top of the wrong tree.
Several years have passed since. I graduated with a Bachelor’s and entered the workforce. Guess what I did? I entered market research. It was a swift entry. I worked past 11pm in my second week. The following day, it was 4am. I laughed at the insanity of opening the house door to my parents having breakfast. Eventually I stopped laughing, because I remembered what it was that I wanted. Yet I never could leave at 6. I was a committed worker and I could not possibly forfeit on deadlines and leave coworkers to die. If it meant staying up on a weekend or public holiday, so be it. Everyone did it.
There was no choice… right?
Sociology’s 1st Gift: Releasing Illusion of Free Will
This is the first lesson Sociology teaches: Having no choice. There is a popular notion these days, promoted by self-help gurus and social media influencers, that we are free to do whatever we want. Yet this is only an illusion. Responsibilities exist. You can leave work undone. You can fight with your boss. You can quit your job. You can stay at home. You are technically free to do all these. But practically, you are not free from repercussions. Colleagues can alienate you. Bosses can demean you. Future employers can judge you. Family members can nag at you. They are also free to, aren’t they?
If you care about securing a decent quality of life, you cannot act irresponsibly. YOLO (“you only live once”) is an anthem for those who seek freedom, but it may as easily be adapted for use by their naysayers. Do you want to study now or do you want to be swept along by the ceaseless waves of school assessments into lower and lower-paying jobs? Do you want to work overtime or risk losing your job at the next downturn and plunging your family into not just debts but marital or existential tensions? Come on, YOLO!
Is this a false choice? No doubt. But those with the sociological imagination will recognize the underlying issue of agency versus structure. For non-Sociology students, this can simply be understood as a matter of freedom and constraint. If your actions and the actions of others affect what is possible later in your lives, then are you really free to do anything you want?
Most of what I learned in Sociology involves understanding all the different ways by which our freedom is restricted. We are restricted by not just the judgment of courts but the judgment of people. We are restricted by not just the families we are born into but the peer groups which take us in—or don’t. We are restricted by the economy we live in because it determines the jobs we get to do and the people we get to work with. These are often not within our control. Even so, we are very skilled at interpreting all we do as acts of freedom.
As you learn to see the world from the outside view, and how your free will is influenced by so many external factors, your sense of self may be threatened. Nobody likes living in limbo. Unless there is a solution, a better way of perceiving reality that is empowering, you will easily revert to illusions just as a way to keep sane and function in the face of continual challenges at work and in life.
Sociology’s 2nd Gift: Finding Paths to Freedom
This is a challenge Sociology can take on, even if it rarely does. Knowing where our shackles are can be frightening, but it also gives rise to the possibility of removing them…
If we let go of the mirage of absolute freedom, we can begin the work of increasing relative freedom. What Sociology does is to give us the conceptual basis to change locations, change systems, and change our ways of interaction. This is its second lesson: Making your own choices. We can become more free, whether we choose to stay put or move on…
The Sociology Practicum
This is a 6-week hands-on module designed for both Sociology and non-Sociology students. Anyone who is or expects to work as an employee to any organisation and wants a fulfilling life is encouraged to enrol.
This week, you have been introduced to Sociology and what it can offer for working men and women. Over the next three weeks, you will explore three ways you can exercise your voice in the working world: Express, Transgress, and Recess. Each of them creatively builds on ideas from the three major schools of thought in Sociology: Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism. You can find in each approach several lessons which you can apply to any occupation or workplace you are in or want to enter.
In the 5th week, we will discuss how you can move forward from the three approaches at your disposal. You will be walked through the potential pitfalls involved in each approach and given suggestions to address them by borrowing lessons from the other approaches. You will be encouraged to go deep rather than broad. In the final week, we will revisit what it means to find your voice in work and in life, and unravel what it takes to speak and be heard.
While Sociology thinkers and concepts are referenced throughout, they are included only to the extent that they can enrich your understanding of work. Your life is yours. What matters is that you take what you need to start making your life better. Whatever you believe, escape is not your only option. You may not be able to do anything you want. But you can find out what you want to be, and work from there.