Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Social Sciences in Oman...

“The Arts’ Stream is for those who choose the easy path” would say my mathematics teacher in high school. I was in the Science Stream not because I am more interested in science; on the contrary, I’ve always been more inclined towards Arts. But anyway, that’s beside the point. My point is: this kind of attitude about arts and social sciences in general is very common in Oman and indeed the Arab World. We are constantly told that the ‘big’ sciences like medicine, engineering, IT or even business is what helps a country to grow, develop and prosper.
To me these sciences are robotic. One plus one is two, got it? Very factual and hardly opinionated. Everything is proved. And if it’s not, then there’s something wrong. Everything has to be physically proved. Solid facts and answers… is that all we need to build a strong society?

As a person who respects other disciplines, I have nothing against these so-called “big” sciences; in fact I support and like to see Omanis who are enthusiastic about them. My point is, while these sciences are indeed important, so are the social sciences like linguistics for example. The fact that social sciences don’t always prove things does not mean that they are useless.  In fact, that’s even more difficult because you have to look for other explanations and argue about a point. This is also useful because you get to realize that there is more than one side to everything. 

The research culture in Oman is far from blooming. People are not used to being approached with a questionnaire or a request to be interviewed, let alone to record their voice to get some spoken data. What is worse is that while they have hardly heard about the field, they judge and question your research; especially if they studied something that is regarded as highly prestigious in the society (e.g. medicine, engineering). This is like a cat that goes to another animal and asks it “why aren’t you mewing?”… Well because not all animals mew; just like not all fields do research using the same tools and methods of a doctor or an engineer. 

My request is to give social sciences a chance. I know a linguist who studied the language between doctors and patients for years. He came to a conclusion that helped the patients make the most of their visits to their doctors, in the sense that they could have all their questions answered. In other words, he came up with solutions to improve the communication between doctor and patient; which in return results in a better patient-doctor consultation. Tell me that it’s not useful to society. Tell me anyone could have done that; of course not. It takes a discourse/conversation analyst to read between the lines of conversation. 

I am not going to list the ways in which linguistics is useful. I will just quote the American linguistic anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf:  Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” Language is one of many phenomena that we have taken for granted.

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