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

  1. Student protests of this sort are demonstrably democratic, in that they give students access to media and influence upon the populace that they likely couldn’t afford to purchase outright, unlike their socially and financially empowered lawmakers. Conservative commentators, by their very comments, prove the effectiveness of the students’ efforts.

    Only people in power who are at risk from popular protest would make a contrary argument. Those people inept enough to make such an argument must be removed from their positions of power and influence.

    We see this in the U.S., too, of course, although the last decade has seen authoritarian disagreement escalate from mere argument, isolation, and suppression to threats, arrest, and violence against generally peaceful protesters. I hope for better relations and outcomes for the students of Taiwan and Australia.

    Real democracy speaks aloud, honestly, and in public.


    1. Thanks for your excellent comments Michael Verona. What’s interesting is that some of those conservative critics are hypocritical. On the one hand, we have politicians like Joe Hockey, Australia’s current Treasurer, who protested against the introduction of university fees when he was a student. And yet his budget is now deregulating university fees which will make higher education less affordable and viable for many people! On the other hand, we have conservative commentators who hark back to the “good ole days” when students knew how to protest (a nostalgic, media-driven ideal of how “good” protesters should behave). In both cases, of course, these commentators are defending their way of life and ideals, and dismissing the social action of youth, which threatens them in the present day. Very sad state of affairs when people only want social justice for themselves.


      1. As you point out, Zuleyka Zevallos, these commentators are defending their way of life and ideals that they achieved, in part, by their own youthful social actions. They have come to view social justice not as the achievement of prior protest in favor of everyone, but as a personal reward to be guarded jealously. They have become dragons, curled tightly around the freedom and equity they hoard for themselves.


  2. I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, in which he discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the strong and weak and the relations amongst them.

    The strong of course want the weak to play by their rules, thereby increasing their dominant position. If the weak do so, they are highly likely to lose. If, however, the weak don’t play by the rules of the strong and instead play to to their own strengths, then the strengths of the strong become weaknesses and the weak are much more likely to beat the strong. That is the basis of guerrilla warfare and why small forces sometimes vanquish much larger and more powerful ones.


    1. Veg Nik Good analogy to Gladwell’s David and Goliath and not playing by the rules of the dominant group. Changing the focus of the conversation, or the rules as you put it, from the interests of the powerful to the interests of a vulnerable public or less powerful group destabilises the system, which is why we see so much push back on student protests. Making the discourse about “undemocratic” expressions of political action is about attaching stigma and therefore invalidating the concerns of students. If the students didn’t have a valid point, conservatives would not feel a need to resort to such narratives and they would instead focus on the specifics of the students’ arguments.

      I disagree with the analogy to guerrilla warfare. Insurgency has other political dimensions, such as the fact that it happens amongst civilian groups, using tactics that the international community has not sanctioned (as preposterous as it seems that international agencies need to agree on rules of engagement of war!). My analysis on students is about non-violent protest, which is specifically about not physically hurting the populace, not violent resistance (which does the opposite). 😉


  3. 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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