Sociology for Social Activism

Dr Dan Brook is a lecturer in sociology and politics at San Jose State University in the United States, and he is also involved with several social activism communities outside of his academic work. This includes support of social causes such as vegetarianism, anti-smoking awareness, global warming, the promotion of peace, and advocating for an increase in living wages. In this Sociology at Work Google+ Hangout I spoke with Dan about how he uses applied sociology in his social activism. We also discussed how students might get involved in similar activities as a way of practising sociology, and also as a way of thinking about their job options.

Dan argues that social activism is a good way to begin to practice sociology ahead of a professional career. He sees that community work teaches students how to network. This includes learning to work with different types of people – some of whom will agree with their ideas, others who will disagree. Social activism and volunteering also connects students to potential future co-workers and supervisors. Community work helps students interact with people using sociological ideas in an applied way.

At the heart of the various social justice issues that Dan works on, there is a common goal: “A better, fairer, kinder, more beautiful society.” He explains:

I believe not just in going for immediate and obtainable goals, but trying in a larger way to change our culture. I think that’s the special niche, perhaps, of sociologists. We realise how important culture is, and if we can make certain cultural changes – which are not easy, it takes a lot of people and it takes a lot of time – but when we make those cultural changes we find the social and political changes are much easier because we have a widespread support for it. It seems more natural then.

Read more about Dan’s career and his advice on social activism for sociology students below.

A Brief Background on Dr Dan Brook

Like many sociological careers, Dan’s professional journey includes various social and political interests and activities with a common theme of social justice. Dan did his undergraduate degree in socio-political economy before completing a Masters in Political Science. Dan then did a Masters and PhD in Sociology. After his postgraduate degree, Dan taught English as a second language in a low-income school in New York for one year. He did the same after getting married the following year, this time travelling to live and teach in Bangkok, Thailand. Dan has since been a part-time lecturer at various schools.

Being a part-time lecturer means that Dan doesn’t always get to choose the subjects he teaches, but he says it’s been serendipitous that he has been able to focus on the subjects he loves: sociology and politics. Dan says:

I believe sociology, politics and culture are inextricably linked – at least in practice, if not always in theory. I don’t think we can have one without the others. I just try to make those links more explicit.

Social Truths: e-book by Dr Dan Brook. Via Smashwords.
Social Truths: e-book by Dr Dan Brook. Via Smashwords.

Dan uses says he uses his sociological imagination in order to make connections between his political activism and his sociological practice. Dan’s social activism includes a variety of social justice issues, including anti-discrimination, ecological sustainability, and equal distribution of education and welfare. Dan also works to promote vegetarianism. He says: “Animals are a different species, but it’s how we earthlings treat each other in this world. Also how it connects to personal health, public health and planetary health.” Dan goes on to explain that despite his seemingly diverse interests in social activism, “I try to make all sorts of connections”:

The connections are between the micro and the macro. The connections are that we see that things happening in our lives are connected to politics, economics, history and global phenomena. It sort of puts things in perspective when people can see how they can fit into the puzzle… I also believe that when people get involved with issues and try to address any social problem, that even if they can’t solve the problem, merely the process of addressing it makes the social problem more manageable. We find that people tend to be less anxious and less overwhelmed and less depressed because they feel that they’re at least part of the solution and no longer part of the problem because of their involvement.

Dan sees teaching as “another way of organising and doing political work.” Dan has a practical approach to sociological teaching. Dan talks to his students about his volunteering and social activism in order to demonstrate the many uses of sociology in the transformation of society. One of his courses offers the option for students to participate in a community project, either through social service, advocacy or social change. Students then write reflection papers at the end of their community work. Dan sees this is a useful way of bringing sociology to society as well as feeding society back into the classroom. He says: “It’s a dialectical relationship that never should be separated”:

Sociology was invented not just to learn information; not just to better understand the world; not just so that we’ll have party trick to show off to our friends… The whole point of sociology is to learn stuff so that we can make our society better. So that we can reform, or if necessary, revolutionise our society. The whole point of sociology is to bring improvement into people’s lives.

Dan recognises that students undertake a degree in order to get a job, but he likes to remind students that a sociological education provides them a set of skills that have wide application. He says sociology teaches us more than “information and facts”; sociology teaches us “how to think.” This includes “modes of analysis” and “critical thinking.” In other words, sociology provides students with a framework to see “How we and other pieces of society fit together”:

That’s part of the sociological genius in our field. If we can be good thinkers; and know how to find information; know how to link to other people; and try to connect micro and meso and macro and therefore know how to problem-solve, then we can be useful in any field. And there’s no field that a sociologically trained student can’t go into and be very successful.

Sociology, politics and culture are inextricably linked – at least in practice, if not always in theory. I don’t think we can have one without the others. - Dr Dan Brook
Sociology, politics and culture are inextricably linked – at least in practice, if not always in theory. I don’t think we can have one without the others. – Dr Dan Brook

Learn more about Dan’s research and community activism. Read his e-books on sociology, spirituality, poetry and the life of Che Guevara. You can also read Dan’s CV on his personal website. Check out Dan’s activism on vegetarianism and smoking.

Subscribe to Sociology at Work’s YouTube Channel to get updates on our videos, which include discussions with sociologists in different parts of the world, as well as shorter videos that introduce sociological concepts and how they’re applied in different workplaces.