7 April 2017

A Master's in Sociology with real impact

No ivory towers for policy sociologists in the making – but real-world sociology that matters. The fifty students on the Master's programme in Contemporary Social Problems have interviewed people in need in Amsterdam, will soon visit official city authorities to find out how successfully or not services are performing and will ultimately hand over a report to the Amsterdam ombudsman. Master's student Stefanie de Kleijn: “Yes, with this Master's, I really feel I am making a difference in society.”

Stefan Soeparman, the Master's programme coordinator, is delighted to see that this student feels this way about her Master's programme. “It is important to me that our education has an impact on society. Sociology is all about studying society. That is why you should educate for that society.”

Students on the Master's programme in Contemporary Social Problems

Slightly too far

This unique project as part of the Master's programme was set up in alliance with the Amsterdam ombudsman Arre Zuurmond. Soeparman: “I was actually one of his students when he worked at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. In recent years, we have bumped into each other in a professional context on repeated occasions. I invited him to give a guest lecture last year. He suggested giving all my students internship positions in Amsterdam. Although that was going slightly too far, it ultimately resulted in this project.”

Bureaucracy

Zuurmond has regularly been receiving reports from people in need in Amsterdam who are not given the support to which they are entitled. Soeparman: “More than two years ago, some government activities were devolved to the municipalities. The process has not always run smoothly. In his position as Amsterdam ombudsman, Arre has encountered this problem and notices that people regularly become bogged down in bureaucracy. The authorities responsible for supporting these people may have the best intentions, but there is still no solution to the issue of bureaucracy.”

Visiting someone on the eighth floor of an apartment block in Amsterdam Noord makes you realise that student life can be like living in a bubble.

Eighth floors up in Amsterdam Noord

In order to help solve this problem, the Amsterdam ombudsman has called on the assistance of Utrecht University students on the Master's programme in Contemporary Social Problems. By interviewing almost fifty people in need in Amsterdam, the students have gained insight into the lives of these Amsterdam citizens. De Kleijn: “I am not totally naive. But visiting someone on the eighth floor of an apartment block in Amsterdam Noord makes you realise that student life can be like living in a bubble. I would never normally come into contact with these people. It is good to see the lives that they lead and to gain an insight into their experience of the services the city provides.”

Fresh and impartial perspective

In the next phase of the project, the students will visit the authorities with which the people in need in Amsterdam have had the most problems. Soeparman: “The students will be observing services on the work floor. They will organise focus groups to discuss with the organisation the problems that people are facing.” He suspects that the authorities will find this working method interesting: “It makes a great change from a critical report only. Students are now coming to the problems with a fresh and impartial perspective and contributing potential solutions.”

Project may continue next year

Eventually, there will be a report and it will be presented to the Amsterdam ombudsman in June. Soeparman: “We will then be able to see what the impact of our project really is. More than that, next year we hope to take a new group of Master's students and investigate whether our findings are achieving results.” Since all parties involved see this project as an opportunity to learn, the willingness to continue the partnership next year is strong. “Our hope is that we can make a contribution to achieving better services for this group of Amsterdam citizens. For them and the official authorities, there really is something at stake. Stefanie is right to say that she is achieving something useful on this Master's programme. It really does have an impact.”