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Towards the Socially Engineered, Brindley Fortuin

10 Jul 2018 - 13:30

Towards the Socially Engineered - Brindley Fortuin

Whoever is schooled in social theory would remember well that there is often a distinction between the paradigms of inquiry into the natural sciences and the social sciences. The natural sciences are founded upon an epistemology and ontology of observable facts. While the social sciences welcomes a broader spectrum of epistemic interpretations of the world. However, the fact remains that there is almost this unmovable line that distinguishes us (social scientists) from them (natural scientists).

This distinction I would argue is very much perceived and blurry, like all things binary. Unfortunately, the world is not a dichotomous reality and the engineering environment knows this. The engineering profession is driven by values of innovation and change. It is one of the most robust fields for research and practice. They are also valued members of society. They make sure that the infrastructure we use actually serves a purpose. We can even blame the chemical engineers for our fuel increase or wait, maybe blame the economists and politicians? The reality is the engineering profession is important in shaping all our lives. Much like the engineering profession, the social sciences are also innovative. Social sciences, broadly speaking, offers systematic inquiry into the social world i.e. our interactions with our communities, institutions, the state, economy and etc. In hindsight, we do not see similarities between these two fields. But the reality is undeniable: engineering and the social sciences should be a perfectly oiled machine.

At the University of Cape Town (UCT), the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment (EBE) has bought into this reality. Academically requiring their students to enrol for a humanities elective, they have realised the importance of producing engineering professionals that are conscious about the communities and societies that they would one day work in. One of these humanities courses offered to students in EBE is titled Social Infrastructures (SI). The course is developed and taught by staff of the Global Citizenship Programme (GC) at UCT. The GC programme is a champion for raising social responsiveness within students through creating citizens that can engage the social, political and economic dimensions of life. The course, that runs during the winter term of UCT, centres the student’s lived experience and locates it in debates that one would usually find in the social sciences. SI, however, is not a generic social science or humanities course. It is unique in the sense that it uses alternative pedagogies that stems from popular education paradigms, in order to teach. Many times, the classroom becomes  a transformed space whereby lecturers become facilitators and students become co-facilitators. This encourages student participation, but also extends a hand of agency towards vocalising various lived experiences. The student can thus relate specific social science content-matter to very familiar realities. The last thing that makes the SI course distinct from other humanities courses are the emphasis on Community Engaged Learning. Every student gets an opportunity to understand the social world and the challenges that communities around UCT face, through Community Based Organisation (CBO) engagement. Students are then able to reflexively engage the learning process through various online platforms such as blog-entries and physical learning spaces.

Below is a quote from a student who is currently enrolled in the Social Infrastructures course:

The Social Infrastructures course has been incredibly eye opening for me. From the interactive class sessions to the invigorating off campus classes. I consider every experience I’ve undergone in this course to be incredibly valuable. We’ve dived into the complexities around the notion of community and are currently interrogating the role of perspectives in shaping our beliefs and outlooks on certain things. I am glad that I chose the course and I can’t think of a better way to have spent my June/July period. I feel as though this course is vital for the development of any future professional as it develops critical thinking skills and it really gets you to reflect on your experiences and come up with a way forward. I would encourage anyone to take this course. A special thanks to the facilitators and community partners for always being so ready to accommodate us. This has truly been unforgettable. - Daniel Okoh

The need for engaging the social within academic spaces and natural science orientated professions are not only important so that we can at face value call institutions transformed. Many of modern societies issues stem from the arrogance and inability of our infrastructure to accommodate and serve our very different needs. Within the social sciences we have long argued that physical spaces are exclusionary to differently-abled peoples and that this exclusion is based on an uninterrogated Western construct of able-bodied peoples. We have also argued that to subject everyone to a standardised tests and examinations are flawed and unjust as not all are of the same learning ability and we do not all receive education and its resources at an equal level. South Africa, with its history of bantu education, is a prime example. Therefore, the need to consciously and socially engage have very practical and real implications for all of us in the world. It is my hope that many other faculties develop and engage platforms for constructive engagement with the social sciences. There is still so much work to be done.


Brindley Fortuin: Honours student in Sociology, focusing on race and identity construction. Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and MasterCard Scholar. Intern at the Global Citizenship Programme at the University of Cape Town.

Twitter: @FortuinBrindley

Photo and quotation acquired with informed consent from parties involved.