Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Taiwanese Sociology’s Road to Professionalisation and Engagement
Chih-Jou Jay Chen, President of the Taiwanese Sociological Association
Looking back at the past 50 years, we can see that the development of Taiwanese sociology has been affected by two contextual factors. On the one hand, under the influence of globalisation, Taiwan’s sociology has been making continuous progress with regard to professionalisation and academicisation; on the other hand, inspired by Taiwan’s unique political and economic context, Taiwan’s sociological community has been increasingly engaged with its society. In 2018, there were more than 300 PhD holders in sociology in Taiwan’s academic sector; 60% of them being male and 40% female. Almost half (48%) of those PhDs were obtained at American universities, 23% in Europe, 27% in Taiwan, and 2% in other countries in the Asia Pacific. According to personal information provided by members of the Taiwanese Sociological Association, from the 1980s to the 2010s, the research areas most frequently selected by members were economic sociology, social stratification, and gender studies. In addition, emerging areas of research that have been on the rise since 2010 are medical sociology and STS (Science, Technology, and Society).
The academic paradigm and professional development of Taiwan’s sociology are significantly affected by foreign (i.e. US) influences. However, an even stronger influence stems from the political and economic development of Taiwan itself. Before the end of World War II, Japan had colonised Taiwan for 50 years (1895-1945), but the post-war development of Taiwanese sociology did not continue the tradition of Japanese sociology. The period from the 1950s to the 1970s can be understood as the burgeoning era of Taiwan’s sociology. The Kuomintang’s authoritarian regime that had come to Taiwan from mainland China restricted the discipline’s professionalism and academic freedom. In the 1970s and 80s, following Taiwan’s economic take-off, authoritarian rule gradually loosened and higher education expanded. Sociology institutes and departments at various universities began to employ academics who had obtained their PhDs at American universities, bringing a new trend of thought back to Taiwan. They gradually turned out to be the pioneers of the professionalisation of Taiwanese sociology.
During the 1980s and 90s, Taiwan’s sociological research topics began to focus on local social experiences, such as social movements (e.g. labour, environmental protection, women’s rights, etc.), nationalism and national identity, and economic development. At that time, Taiwan’s economy developed rapidly, higher education expanded, and the number of faculty positions in sociology increased significantly. The discipline’s degree of professionalisation further consolidated. On the other hand, during this period, civil society’s space for autonomy from the state grew and some sociologists took on the role of public intellectuals. Having great appeal on campus and among the people, they emphasised liberalisation, democratisation, and localisation, challenging the Kuomintang’s authoritarian rule and their pro-China unification ideology while also promoting the development of civil society and public discourse. 
Since the year 2000, Taiwan’s politics, economy, and society have undergone tremendous changes, and the research topics and approaches in sociology have also been greatly affected. From 2000 to 2008 and again from 2016 until today, the anti-unification opposition party DPP (Democratic Progressive Party), which had been suppressed under martial law, defeated the Kuomintang (KMT, or the Nationalist Party) and rose to power. During this period, Sino-Taiwanese economic relations have grown closer and closer, while political relations have become increasingly hostile. In the past, Taiwanese society flaunted its equality. In recent years, however, like other developed countries, Taiwan has been faced with a rapid increase in economic inequality. While higher education has expanded, young people today are earning less than their parents did at the same age. The social changes of this era have inspired research topics in the areas of national identity, nationalism, social movements, and China’s influence on Taiwan.
Over the past two decades, during the process of institutionalisation and professionalisation, several institutional characteristics have emerged in Taiwanese sociology, namely, a small-scale academic community with a wide variety of research interests, a resource management system distributing funds via a centralised approach, and an evaluation regime favoring publication in English-language journals and sometimes emphasising quantity over quality in the assessment of researchers. Although Taiwan’s academic community has already established a professional peer-review system, as a small community of colleagues it must rely on external objective standards so as to establish an evaluation system that fosters trust while also being practical. This is why journal articles indexed in the Social Science Citation Index have become the main basis for the evaluation of academic achievement, and consequently for resources or rewards from the state or other entities. If things continue on this trajectory, Taiwan’s sociological community will surely be faced with many challenges. While the reward system’s overemphasis on English-language publications is blandished as internationalisation or globalisation, it may also divorce academic studies from their local contexts and disconnect them from local empirical phenomena.
In addition to the challenges posed by the professionalising development of the community itself, another challenge facing the sociological community in Taiwan comes from everyday people. “What use is sociology? What contribution is sociology making to society?” are only two of the questions sociologists get regularly asked or ask of themselves. In fact, the pressure of this question on the humanities and social sciences in today’s university landscape is even greater than it was in the last century. In addition to conducting academic research, sociology must also convince students that what they learn will advance their understanding of their communities, enhance their human capital, and help them pursue a career in management, design, data analysis, project planning, etc.
Aiming to strengthen university-community engagement, beginning in 2017, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education launched the “University Social Responsibility” (USR) project, sociologists playing a central role in the process. The USR grant programme attracted applications from 116 universities and 220 individual projects. It supported university teachers and students to form interdisciplinary teams to promote the innovative development of local enterprises and community culture, while also encouraging students and teachers to fulfill their research and learning objectives in the process of practice.
Looking at the future development of Taiwan’s sociology, we expect that professionalisation and localisation will coexist. Taiwanese academia will continue to pursue the accumulation of sociological knowledge, the expansion of the sociological community, and the integration of sociology with people’s lives, work, and innovative development with great effort.
The international participants at the 2019 TSA annual conference. From left to right, Kuo-Hsien Su (TSA), Chong Wu Ling (University of Malaya, Malaysia), Yukti Mukdawijitra (Thammasat University, Thailand), Kwang-Yeong Shin (Chung-Ang University, Korea), Chih-Jou Jay Chen (TSA), Filomin C. Gutierrez (University of the Philippines Diliman), and Hong-Xoan Nguyen (Vietnam National University in HCMC, Vietnam).
 Hsiao, Hsin-Huang Michael. 2014. “The Triple Turn of Taiwanese Sociology.” Global Dialogue, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 19-20.