By Daniel PS Goh
TCJ (Tan Chuan Jin) is getting a lot of flak for his FB post, “Have you ever spoken to a Cardboard Uncle or Aunty?” But I don’t think the minister and the Youth Corps volunteers are being malicious or insincere. They are not trying to whitewash the poverty issue. The problem is this. They committed the basic error sociologists would warn our students against in social research: accepting what people say in surveys or interviews as representing the truth without contextual and deeper interpretation.
People give meanings to their actions. These meanings are cultural and laden with values. So even if the actions were primarily driven by economic circumstances, due to poverty for example, people would give cultural meaning to their actions beyond instrumental reasons of survival or profit.
For the cardboard-collecting seniors, it is apparent from TCJ’s post that they value dignity. This is very much in tune with our Singaporean culture, which treats begging as humiliating and values independence and hard work. Few Singaporeans would be okay with seeing themselves as poor. So when they come face to face with the young people taking a strange sympathetic interest in them, what more would they say if they were to keep their sense of dignity?
Also, because we are meaning-bearing animals, people are complex. Actions cannot be often reduced to just one reason. Many seniors are likely collecting cardboards because they want some exercise, desire independence AND so they can survive. That seniors collect cardboards because they seek exercise does not mean that they are not driven to it by poverty.
Social researchers have to interpret their findings, not take responses at face value and jump to conclusions. We often employ other methods in conjunction with interviews to understand the complexity of meanings. In this instance, speaking to the cardboard seniors is not enough. It would have been good if, using ethnography, a young researcher followed a cardboard auntie for a week, be her assistant, to find out how her world looks, feels, means from her point of view.
Daniel PS Goh is an associate professor of Sociology at National University of Singapore. This post was first published on Mr Goh’s facebook account.