Applied Sociology in Action: Student Protests in Taiwan & Australia

Photo: Jimmy Kang via Flickr
Photo: Jimmy Kang via Flickr

In March, sociology students in Taiwan were criticised for being released from class to attend peaceful protests occupying the Legislature Yuan from the 18th of March 18 to the 10th of April 2014. Sociology lecturers called this “the most practical lesson of sociology.” Since dubbed the “Sunflower Student Movement,” the youth were protesting a trade-in-service agreement with China. On the one hand, Taiwan’s Education Minister said that teachers should support their students’ education rights. On the other hand, he criticised teachers for supporting this through peaceful protest. Instead, he argued that teachers should have done this “through rational debates and discussions.”

Today in Australia, students are being similarly critiqued for protesting the deregulation of university fees as a result of the impending changes to the national budget. Universities Australia told the ABC program Lateline on the 3rd of June that increased fees will mean up to a 60% increase in debt for some university degrees. This translates to an additional 6 years of repayments for full-time workers. For a part-time worker who takes time away from paid work to start a family, the research suggests this could mean up to 20 years of additional debt.

The similarities in the media and political discourses of how the Australian and Taiwanese students conducted their protests are worth exploring further.

Australian Student Protests

Much like the Taiwanese students, Australian students have been criticised for disrupting civil democracy. This is the very point of social protests – to interrupt the status quo. Media groups and leaders have focused on the students’ methods, essentially deemed to be impolite and therefore undemocratic. A group of students demonstrated on a popular ABC political program, Q&A, by heckling Christopher Pyne, the Minister for Education, who was a guest on the show, and for holding up a protest sign “unprofessionally.” Broader groups of students participated in several peaceful marches around the country (though the media has been trying its hardest to taint the protests as “violent”).

The student protests have been called “ineffective” and “unproductive” by conservative commentators. Q&A’s host, journalist Tony Jones, said the students’ disruption of the show “is not what democracy is all about.” As the host who facilitates conversation on the program, Jones is well within his rights to steer the dialogue between the guests and the audience as he sees fit. He can even critique the students if he so wishes, for breaking the scripted plan for the program. After all, shows and forums have rules of conduct. Yet as a show that prides itself on offering a unique public platform for democracy, Jones’s attitude is grossly off point about what democracy means. In fact, Q&A describes itself thus:

It’s about democracy in action – on Q&A the audience gets to ask the questions. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from – everyone can have a go and take it up to our politicians and opinion makers. Energetic and opinionated – Q&A brings Australia’s egalitarian and larrikin spirit* into the studio. Q&A is about encouraging people to engage with politics and society. (My emphasis)

Q&A has continued to lampoon the student protests since, inviting older guests to comment on the students’ action, which continue to focus on the idea of manners and polite debate. All of these guests, Jones and the politicians who are pushing for this reform are old enough to have benefited from Australia’s former policies that supported free education. For example, two guests on Q&A on the 26th of May, comedienne Jean Kittson and artist Tim Storrier, painted a picture of a by-gone golden era of student protest in the 1960s and 1970s, which Kittson specifically characterised as mostly a bit of sexy fun that was derailed by political agendas. The current-day protests are neither fun nor sexy to Kittson, from her privileged position in the present day. Nor should they be. If protests were agreeable to those in power, there would be no point in having them.

Revolutions Are Not Meant to be Quiet

Protests happen when some groups are fed up with being ignored, abused and denied their rights. For those in safety, whose lives will be largely untouched by reforms; for those in power who don’t like seeing these protests play out; the question is not about the mechanism of protest, but rather the policies that led to the political rallies in the first place.

It’s clear that class and power play out in similar ways in these two very different democratic contexts in the Asian-Pacific region. The idea that students should be relegated to quiet debate behind closed doors is the antithesis of social justice movements and civil rights action. Only people who are comfortable and not at risk by new laws would argue that students should relegate their political debate to the classroom.

Democracy is not about waiting to be heard. Peaceful social protests and other forms of social activism represent sociology in action. Last year, I spoke with sociologist Dr Dan Brook, who talked about how students’ activism is a form of applied sociological practice. He said:

“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.”

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

Read my other related articles on the sociology of social protest and activism:


*Larrikin is an Australian term for a unique form of dry, loud and anti-authoritarian humour.

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3 thoughts on “Applied Sociology in Action: Student Protests in Taiwan & Australia

  1. Great post, Zuleyka. I have been so disappointed with the way the student protests have been written off. One of my main goals when teaching sociology is encouraging students to see their own agency, so they leave knowing they can do something about problems in the world. I build social change into my assessments in two classes to highlight its importance.


    1. Thanks for the feedback, Theresa! Your assessment sounds terrific. Student protests have been the catalyst for much social change around the world at different points in time. I’m pleased to read that your students get a chance to see how sociology contributes to social change!


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