The so­ci­ol­ogy of the Mal­tese Is­lands

So­ci­ol­ogy of the Mal­tese Is­lands Au­thor: Brigulio M & Brown M (eds) Pub­lisher: Agenda Pub­li­ca­tions Year: 2016

Malta Independent - - BOOKS - An­gele Deguara

The re­cent so­ci­ol­ogy reader, So­ci­ol­ogy of the Mal­tese Is­lands, edited by Michael Briguglio and Maria Brown will serve to open the win­dow a lit­tle wider on how our so­ci­ety has been un­fold­ing over the years and what the peo­ple of the Mal­tese is­lands have been up to since we last looked. Ac­tu­ally this is not the first pub­li­ca­tion of its kind in re­cent decades, re­flect­ing height­ened in­ter­est in and op­por­tu­ni­ties for so­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion which also served to ad­dress the dearth of sys­tem­atic knowl­edge about our im­me­di­ate so­cial world which ex­isted in the past and which still in­evitably ex­ists es­pe­cially in cer­tain ar­eas.

In this vol­ume, the con­trib­u­tors (who I am happy to note come from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines which may share some com­mon ques­tions with so­ci­ol­ogy) en­gage with var­i­ous is­sues rang­ing from stages in the life­course and de­mo­graphic trends to pol­i­tics, con­sump­tion pat­terns, art, me­dia, tourism, en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, race and eth­nic­ity, so­cial class, poverty, de­viance and so­cial con­trol, ed­u­ca­tion and de­vel­op­ment. Tra­di­tional in­sti­tu­tions such as re­li­gion and the fam­ily are also put un­der the scru­ti­n­ity of the so­ci­o­log­i­cal mi­cro­scope and eval­u­ated crit­i­cally. We have a col­lage of writ­ings which en­gage with both the mod­ern and the post­mod­ern, within both a his­tor­i­cal and a con­tem­po­rary con­text. The pieces in the Reader are gen­er­ally fac­tual-ar­gu­men­ta­tive in na­ture and style rather than the­o­ret­i­cal, pre­sent­ing sta­tis­ti­cal or other forms of re­search ev­i­dence, not­ing and com­ment­ing on so­cial changes and at times hint­ing at where we are head­ing.

So­ci­ol­o­gists are of­ten ac­cused of con­firm­ing the ob­vi­ous, of telling us what we al­ready know in more elab­o­rate and less ac­ces­si­ble lan­guage. And I will not deny that at times I am also tempted to ad­mit this. How­ever, when one thinks of the tools and the skills that so­ci­ol­ogy equips us with to en­able us to en­gage with the so­cial world, I would have to chal­lenge such claims. At the risk of sound­ing like an in­tro­duc­tory so­ci­ol­ogy text­book I still have to note that so­ci­o­log­i­cal re­search and the­ory con­tinue to pro­vide us with the vo­cab­u­lary, with the con­cepts to help us un­der­stand the what, the why and the how. It is true that so­ci­ol­ogy is con­cerned with is­sues and pro­cesses which are of­ten fa­mil­iar and which we may ex­pe­ri­ence di­rectly but the so­ci­o­log­i­cal imag­i­na­tion knows no bounds. So­ci­o­log­i­cal in­quiry in­volves ask­ing in­ter­est­ing and in­tel­li­gent ques­tions about any­thing re­motely re­lated to the so­cial world. This may also in­volve the mun­dane, the taken for granted, the ap­par­ently triv­ial and in­con­se­quen­tial or even stupid. But that is what the so­ci­o­log­i­cal imag­i­na­tion is all about. It en­ables us to see things from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and which may not have been so ev­i­dent at face value. It pro­vides us with an­swers which may chal­lenge the sta­tus quo and ques­tions taken for granted as­sump­tions. So­ci­o­log­i­cal knowl­edge fills the blanks and may put an end to cer­tain con­tro­ver­sies even if at the same time it may cre­ate more con­tro­ver­sies, de­bates, ques­tions, cu­riosi­ties, chal­lenges and hy­pothe­ses.

We con­duct so­ci­o­log­i­cal re­search for a num­ber of rea­sons. We may want to ob­tain fac­tual in­for­ma­tion about the so­cial world and more per­ti­nently to gen­er­ate the­o­ret­i­cal ex­pla­na­tions and con­cepts. Some­times we do re­search be­cause we do not re­ally have a choice es­pe­cially when we are still un­der­grad­u­ates. Some stud­ies are car­ried out sim­ply be­cause there are funds which need to be utilised and re­searchers who are ea­ger to make some money out of a com­mis­sioned re­search project. I would not ex­clude that the re­ports which en­sue from such re­search ini­tia­tives find them­selves gath­er­ing dust on some lonely shelf. How­ever, I am sure that for many re­searchers, so­ci­o­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion is a labour of love and not just an aca­demic ex­er­cise in the hope of find­ing a pub­lisher, get­ting a de­gree or earn­ing some money. Many of us would prob­a­bly also like to think that what we do has some util­i­tar­ian value to so­ci­ety, to stu­dents, to other re­searchers as well as to pol­icy mak­ers. Through so­ci­o­log­i­cal re­search, we may want to give a voice to the re­search par­tic­i­pants and to im­prove their predica­ment or we may sim­ply want to sat­isfy our cu­riosi­ties. Ac­tu­ally, there is no univer­sal agree­ment among so­ci­ol­o­gists re­gard­ing the role or scope of so­ci­o­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion. There are those who be­lieve that so­ci­ol­ogy should be about the pur­suit and en­hance­ment of knowl­edge.

There are oth­ers, such as my­self, who be­lieve that, wher­ever ap­pli­ca­ble, the knowl­edge emerg­ing from so­ci­o­log­i­cal re­search should serve to guide so­cial poli­cies. Since its in­cep­tion, the aim of So­ci­ol­ogy was not only to un­der­stand so­ci­ety but also to change it. For ex­am­ple, stud­ies about the poor and other dis­ad­van­taged groups in so­ci­ety have of­ten led pol­icy mak­ers to im­prove the lives of th­ese peo­ple. Fem­i­nist the­ory is another ex­am­ple of how so­ci­o­log­i­cal in­put has in dif­fer­ent so­cial con­texts led to poli­cies and leg­is­la­tion aimed at fight­ing pa­tri­archy and gen­der in­equal­i­ties. That said, facts and the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts may not, on their own, serve to bring about the nec­es­sary changes and may need the lever­age of so­cial move­ments and po­lit­i­cal ac­tion for rad­i­cal changes to ma­te­ri­alise.

While pol­icy mak­ers may com­mis­sion so­cial re­search them­selves in or­der to be able to for­mu­late ev­i­dence-based poli­cies, they may also choose to ig­nore so­cial re­search ev­i­dence for a num­ber of rea­sons: per­haps be­cause it may not fit their ide­o­log­i­cal frame­work, be­cause it may be seen as too con­tro­ver­sial or un­pop­u­lar with the elec­torate. They may be re­luc­tant to af­fect rad­i­cal changes or they may not want to of­fend pow­er­ful lob­bies in so­ci­ety. Although not all the pieces in this pub­li­ca­tion nec­es­sar­ily make spe­cific rec­om­men­da­tions, they still raise a num­ber of per­ti­nent is­sues and con­cerns which pol­icy mak­ers would do well to heed.

The im­pres­sion I get of the Mal­tese Is­lands from what I read in this book re­flects the huge strides that were made in the re­cent past in terms of, just to men­tion a few ex­am­ples, equal­ity and hu­man rights leg­is­la­tion, qual­ity of life and eco­nomic well­be­ing, me­dia com­mu­ni­ca­tions and tech­nol­ogy, ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties, demo­cratic pro­cesses and civil so­ci­ety par­tic­i­pa­tion. How­ever it also sug­gests that there is still much cause for con­cern with re­gards to a num­ber of is­sues such as the steady de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of our nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, the per­sis­tence of poverty and of var­i­ous forms of so­cial in­equal­i­ties, so­cial in­jus­tice and dis­crim­i­na­tion, pre­car­i­ous em­ploy­ment and oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ards, the growth of in­di­vid­u­al­ism, our pen­chant for ma­te­rial con­sump­tion and for con­struc­tion sites, our tribal di­vides, the spread of racism and a grow­ing sense of “oth­er­ing” es­pe­cially in our in­creas­ingly di­verse, mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety. Th­ese few ex­am­ples re­flect the rapid so­cio-cul­tural, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal changes that have swept over the is­lands in the past decades in­sti­gated by var­i­ous forces both from within and out­side Mal­tese so­ci­ety. They also at­test to a so­ci­ety which still clings to an in­su­lar or pro­vin­cial mind­set. It is a so­ci­ety of many con­trasts and shades as I pre­fer to see it. God­frey Bal­dacchino con­curs with the idea that we should speak in terms of so­ci­eties rather than so­ci­ety con­sid­er­ing the dif­fer­ent co-ex­ist­ing re­al­i­ties of our is­lands.

In the pro­logue to the book, Bal­dacchino starts with an anec­dote about a small crowd of bois­ter­ous, mid­dle-aged men eat­ing pas­tizzi with tea or beer at a bar in Że­j­tun he hap­pened to en­counter while touring the old streets of the vil­lage. Th­ese men, gab­jetta in one hand and a trendy smart phone in the other, sym­bol­ised for Bal­dacchino the way that the past and the present tend to be wo­ven to­gether just as much as the lo­cal and the global tend to in­ter­twine in a so­ci­ety caught in a whirl­wind of change while still hold­ing on to rem­nants of the past.

So­ci­ol­ogy of the Mal­tese Is­lands is dot­ted with in­di­ca­tors of such trends. While we have be­come more Euro­pean in cer­tain as­pects such as per­sonal lifestyles and con­sump­tion pat­terns, we are also wit­ness­ing a stronger sense of na­tion­al­ism, not in the sense of preserving our national her­itage what­ever that may mean, but in the sense of not want­ing oth­ers, es­pe­cially those of African ori­gin to taint our white, Chris­tian legacy. We con­stantly want to as­sert our Mal­te­se­ness in the face of threat­en­ing bar­ranin es­pe­cially suwed or klan­des­tini. This from a Chris­tian na­tion with a long his­tory of em­i­gra­tion. Our am­biva­lence as Euro­peans is also ev­i­dent when we seek to re­sist Euro­pean val­ues or even reg­u­la­tions, em­pha­sis­ing our unique­ness in terms of size, at other times us­ing some other id­io­cyn­cracy such as our tra­di­tions or our Catholic be­liefs as an ex­cuse. This is par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent in how we con­tinue to defy the EU birds di­rec­tive and in our pro­cras­ti­na­tion to im­ple­ment re­new­able en­ergy mea­sures.

Glob­al­i­sa­tion has en­riched our cul­ture in many ways, en­hanced our life­style choices and our ex­pe­ri­ences but it has also brought out in us cer­tain con­trast­ing traits such as our hos­til­ity to­wards for­eign­ers while at the same time be­ing so proud of our hos­pi­tal­ity that we even ad­verise it on our tourism web­sites and brochures. We have en­hanced our en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness, yet we con­tinue to de­stroy our nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, not only as a re­sult of po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions but also through our life­style choices and con­sump­tion pat­terns. We are more health con­scious; yet we have the worst obe­sity fig­ures in Europe and our streets are clogged with traf­fic. We have seen sig­nif­i­cant, even rad­i­cal changes in our fam­ily and re­la­tion­ship pat­terns but we are still strug­gling against pa­tri­archy and its dis­con­tents such as gen­dered vi­o­lence as tra­di­tional gen­dered pat­terns and roles per­sist. We have en­acted civil rights leg­is­la­tion which is among the most pro­gres­sive in the world, yet those who do not con­form to tra­di­tional gen­der bi­na­ries are still mis­un­der­stood and stig­ma­tised. We have set up struc­tures to pro­tect and safe­guard the rights of our chil­dren but we are deny­ing them the open spa­ces in which to play. We spoil and pam­per our chil­dren yet en­cour­age them to be in­de­pen­dent es­pe­cially as dual-earner and lone-par­ent fam­i­lies in­crease. We have be­come a con­sumer so­ci­ety where go­ing to the mall has be­come a leisure ac­tiv­ity in it­self, yet thou­sands con­tinue to live in poverty and ex­pe­ri­ence ma­te­rial de­pri­va­tion. In re­cent years we have seen the de­vel­op­ment of a more vo­cif­er­ous civil so­ci­ety chal­leng­ing the pow­ers that be, not least the once mono­lithic Ro­man Catholic Church which has lost its moral hege­mony over Mal­tese so­ci­ety even as be­lief in God is still the strong­est in Europe. We have seen in­stances where civil so­ci­ety has joined forces across party lines. We are also ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a small but sig­nif­i­cant shift in par­ti­san al­le­giance when it comes to vot­ing pat­terns, in­di­cat­ing a more ra­tio­nal, less pre­dictable elec­torate. Yet, the two-party sys­tem is still alive and kick­ing and the par­ti­san trib­al­ism char­ac­ter­is­tic of Mal­tese pol­i­tics is nowhere near ex­tinct as can be noted even if one just hap­pens to take a cur­sory look at pop­u­lar

com­ments on the so­cial me­dia.

All in all, I be­lieve that this pub­li­ca­tion is an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the de­vel­op­ment of lo­cal so­ci­ol­ogy at a time when the peo­ple on the is­lands are ex­plor­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing new ways of liv­ing and of look­ing at the world in our in­creas­ingly in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic and plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety; new ways of do­ing things such as meet­ing oth­ers, com­mu­ni­cat­ing, learn­ing, work­ing, shop­ping, pre­sent­ing them­selves and do­ing pol­i­tics. It gives a vi­brant im­age of the many facets which make our so­ci­ety unique and yet not so dis­tinct from other mod­ern so­ci­eties. It por­trays the Mal­tese is­lands as they were moulded and changed by their geog­ra­phy, by their event­ful and tur­bu­lent his­tory, by both global and lo­cal hap­pen­ings, by pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tions such as the Ro­man Catholic Church and Pol­i­tics, by their tra­di­tions and be­liefs as well as by the ac­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences of the peo­ple on the is­lands who are af­ter all the main pro­tag­o­nists.

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