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The Power of Sociology

The power of sociology lies in the fact that it allows you to gain insight into literally any subject. Want to study pet ownership in Kenosha, Wisconsin? Sociology can help you with that. Interested in learning about beauty standards in light of the summer blockbuster Barbie? Sociology can help. How about studying how AI technology impacts family dynamics in wealthy versus poor countries? Yes, sociology can do that, too. Sociology can assist in understanding such a wide range of topics because, on some level, everything is about relationships in society, and sociology is the scientific study of social relationships, institutions, and societies. To further illustrate the power of sociology, let’s turn our attention to a more serious issue: the plight of a Muslim ethnic group known as the Rohingya. In the end, we will see that sociology can be used to analyze and better understand the experience of people, even in the most desperate of circumstances.

The Rohingya are a stateless people. In other words, they don’t have a country to call home. While formally, most of their population lived in Myanmar, in 2017, military-sponsored attacks drove them out. The root causes of this ethnic conflict are the government-instituted discriminatory policies that have been imposed by the nation’s ruling Buddhist majority since the 1970s. These include, but are not limited to, restrictions on Rohingya education, employment, marriage, and family planning. Rohingya couples in some parts of Myanmar are even prohibited from having more than two children.

Today, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that 900,000 Rohingya live in refugee camps in Bangladesh.  Recently, it was reported that up to fifty Rohingya died when their boat sank as they attempted to cross the Andaman Sea to reach Malaysia. Sadly, their deaths are not an isolated incident. In 2022 alone, it was estimated that at least 348 Rohingya died at sea trying to flee the military crackdown in Myanmar. According to experts, the Rohingya are the most persecuted minority group in the world.

Studying the experience of the Rohingya from a sociological perspective would involve the process of understanding and explaining how individuals and groups interact within society. This would require looking at the social interactions and social factors that influenced not only them but also the groups that persecute them. This includes examining what their life was like in Myanmar before 2017. What political, social, cultural, or economic factors precipitated the attacks in 2017? Sadly, their experience was the culmination of a long history of violence and discrimination.

An important part of analyzing the Rohingya experience would entail considering the details of their lives in the context of larger social structures as opposed to merely personal choices or personal troubles. Known as the sociological imagination, this teaches us that the experiences of the Rohingya cannot be understood outside the context of the larger society. While a single Rohingya experiencing matters at the individual level could be said to have personal troubles, the sheer magnitude of the crises experienced by Rohingya men, women, and children tells us that this must be viewed as a public issue because it impacts society as a whole. By looking at the big picture, one sees that the Rohingya’s experience easily qualifies as a social problem because it involves societal conditions that harm segments of society. The social problem label is not only true for them but also for the Bangladeshi society that finds itself in the middle of a massive refugee crisis. In March 2023, the problem got worse when a fire raced through the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, leaving 12,000 homeless . . . again.  

In the end, using sociology to find solutions for the Rohingya involves not only looking at subjective concerns or people’s feelings about the problem but also looking at the objective conditions or scope of the problem. In other words, it is not just about our gut reaction to what we have read but rather a scientific understanding of what is happening. Applied sociology in the form of sociological theory, research, and methodologies can offer solutions to those in crisis. In doing so, it can also offer verstehen (fehr-shtay-en), an empathetic approach to understanding the various aspects of human behavior.

Thompson is a co-owner of UITAC Publishing. UITAC’s mission is to provide quality, online, affordable, and socially responsible course materials that engage students and promote critical thinking.

Images in this blog:

  1. Myanmar in its region by TUBS. Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0 ). No changes were made to the image.
  2. Rohingya displaced Muslims by Seyyed Mahmoud Hosseini. Tasnim News Agency. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). No changes were made to the image.
  3. Rohingya Camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh by Tauheed. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). No changes were made to the image.
  4. March 2021 Rohingya refugee camp fire by Rocky Masum. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). No changes were made to the image.

About Author

Angela L. Thompson, Ph.D.

Dr. Thompson received her B.A. in English and Sociology from Wellesley College, her joint M.A. in Sociology and Women’s Studies from Brandeis University, and her Ph.D. in Sociology also from Brandeis University.

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