One of the best teachers I’ve had at university once told us that people who become the best social scientists are usually the ones who have been part of two contrasting groups in society at some point in their life: People who’ve belonged to and had access to both, but never fully felt part of either.
The first example that springs to mind is that of my friend. She was born in a white, native Dutch family, but attended a primary school with a large minority population. She subsequently attended a fairly high-ranked, mostly white, middle-school in Amsterdam. Not only the demographics differed from her previous school, but so did everything else: from codes of conduct to tastes and opinions. She never understood these differences, especially the fact that she was able to fit into both groups, but other members of the groups never mixed.
Growing up in Belgrade, but having a parent living in Amsterdam, I experienced something similar. The first time I came here to visit my father, I remember driving from Schiphol Airport in complete awe. At that time, Serbia was a place one would rather leave. The country was torn down by wars and bombings, with every institution in the country either privatized and sold or ruined. While inflation and unemployment rates were still raging, people – despite their undying, cheerful Balkan spirit – seemed overall hopeless.
“The concept of planes had always confused me as a child, because when I stepped off of one for the first time it felt like landing into another universe”
The concept of planes had always confused me as a child, because when I stepped off of one for the first time it felt like landing into another universe. Western Europe seemed like Disneyland in real life. A theme park that’s open 24/7, where everything was new and shiny, and where people didn’t need a fierce spirit just to feel and express positive emotions.
Now of course, I understand why this was the way it was, but I spent a lot of my childhood wondering why Amsterdam looked like that, and where I lived didn’t. Why did they get to have all that stuff over there, but we didn’t? We were also nice people just like them. What sometimes scared me the most was noticing how differently I behaved in these two contexts. When I was about 10 or 11, I would notice my habits and vocabulary changing drastically every time I visited my dad for the summer and never understood why.
So you see, the craziest combinations of the groups you can fall in-between are possible and you will be surprised at the answers people give if you get them to think from this point of view. In my opinion, the people who recognize this in themselves are the ones who will try and understand the ideology behind such group dynamics, and often try to work out how to place themselves in society. They will be the best at what they do because they care more for people and less for boundaries.
“We are taught to try to see beyond our own cultural repertoires, to […] acknowledge other people’s realities”
In my experience with social sciences, we come to realize how much of our personalities we subconsciously put into our work. We are given the tools needed to realize our own subjectivity and work with it, instead of denying it was ever there. Not only that, but we also learn to understand another person’s reality, the kind of world they live in from an insider’s perspective. And, we do this following the rules of their specific reality, instead of poking it with a stick from our end of the social space. We are taught to try to see beyond our own cultural repertoires, to look at symbols as man-made concepts and acknowledge other people’s realities. We know that there is a whole invisible structure behind everything that happens in society, and it is our mission to try to uncover the underlying causes of influential phenomena.
Public debates on societal issues tend to steer away from reasonable arguments, and towards building policy propositions on moral or ideological bases. The problem is that politicians nowadays tend to dress their arguments in formal and scientific language, and they often misuse sociological research to back up their standpoints. And the more recent the research you quote is, the better your argument will be.
One of the first articles we read at university was Godfried Engbersen’s Fatale Remedies. Engbersen explains how everything you publish as a social scientist can be misused in public debate. In another Dutch article by Frank Bovenkerk, the different explanations of the riots that took place in Amsterdam on April 30th, 1980 are given an account. Each explanation stemmed from different ideologies. As you continue reading, the story starts to seem ridiculous, especially when you compare them side-by-side.
“Scientists are not and should never be politicians.”
Scientists are not and should never be politicians. It is not our purpose to guard society from its own ailments, only to point these out and explain why they may occur. What society needs is for more people to look at the world from our perspective, so that we can eventually be in a society that works for everyone.
Nevena Vracar is a sociology Bachelor student at the University of Amsterdam.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Amsterdammer.