The following is an edited amalgamation of two articles Doing Sociology Beyond Academia and Across The Divide. Both articles were first published in the 2008 Special Edition of Nexus, the newsletter for The Australian Sociological Association. This body of work makes reference to a previous job to which I am no longer affiliated.*
There are multiple interpretations of what applied sociology might mean. People work as sociologists without necessarily using the title of ‘sociologist’ – they may be employed within the criminal justice system, in agriculture and planning, or in the health and welfare sectors. They sometimes float in and out of academia: they might start out working in business or government and then go on to work in a university – but they may not teach or do research within a sociology department. Applied sociologists sometimes collaborate with academics on specific projects, and academics sometimes carry out commissioned contract work for clients (typically government agencies or community organisations). Perhaps the very existence of the various Thematic Groups formed by members of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) is proof that all sociologists are applied researchers. TASA currently hosts 12 specialised research committees on topics ranging from migration, the media, and leisure/tourism. The idea of ‘applied sociology’ is therefore quite fuzzy.
Despite the fluidity between the academic and applied sociological realms, the Special Edition of Nexus argues that our discipline needs to better understand applied sociology as a specific sociological practice.
In the introductory edition of the journal of clinical and applied sociology, Sociological Practice, John Bruhn defines applied sociologists as those ‘Practitioners [who] use sociological theory and methods to produce positive social change through active intervention… Therefore, the clinical and applied sociologist is uniquely a practitioner scientist’ (1999: 1). More specifically, Stephen Steele and Jammie Price (2004) define applied sociology as the translation of sociological theory into practice for specific client groups. That is, the use of sociology to answer research questions as defined by clients (rather than the researcher) in the intervention of social life. For the purposes of our Thematic Group, we loosely see Applied Sociology as doing sociology outside of the mainstream, including in non-government organisations, private consultancy, public service, and in other forms of contract (non-ongoing) work. By the same token, however, we have members who work as university lecturers and research fellows, and others who collaborate actively with various academic groups, or who retain some external affiliation with a university. We therefore recognise and welcome the support of academics in advancing the profile of applied sociology.
The Applied Sociology Thematic Group was established in 2007 as a response to the need for professional support both within TASA and our workplaces. There was a feeling among our members that non-academic sociologists practice our craft on the margins: we work in between academia and the public, and yet our colleagues on both sides of the academic/industry divide do not really understand what we do or how we do it. The group is working towards several initiatives to promote the work of applied sociologists and to increase their participation within TASA, including at the annual conferences. A lack of career mentorship for sociology graduates, limited or non-existing funding and access to resources, and a limited recognition of our research activities by mainstream academic publications are all on our agenda in order to increase the visibility of applied sociology. This edition of Nexus addresses one of our Thematic Group’s primary objectives. It aims to give voice to some of the positive and problematic issues that applied sociologists face in their everyday work.
In some ways, applied sociologists are the ‘other’ of academic sociologists, primarily because they have different requirements of their research output due to funding and client interests. At the same time, our otherness is not so absolute, because there are intersections between the demands of academic and non-academic sociological work. This section discusses the connections between applied and academic sociologies, and it provides a brief case study of the applications of sociology towards national security research and policy.
Situating applied sociology
Last year’s combined TASA/SAANZ conference in Auckland was themed around issues of ‘Public Sociology’ and the plenary guests discussed how to best make sociology more visible to broader audiences. Michael Burawoy presented his typology of sociology that he has also discussed elsewhere (for example, see Burawoy 2004). Burawoy (2004) argues that there are four ideal sociology types. First, there are two sociologies that speak to an academic audience. Professional sociology deals with theory and empiricism. Critical sociology is concerned with interrogating the value assumptions of intellectualism, with the aim to generate internal debate about the discipline. Second, there are a further two sociologies that are aimed at an audience beyond the academy. Policy sociology is focused on social intervention through social policies, and it also aims to find solutions to specific problems of interest to particular client groups. Public sociology aims to communicate ideas about social problems to different types of audiences in order to stimulate community dialogue at the local, national and global levels. All four sociologies are interdependent, although they are sometimes positioned as being ‘antagonistic’ (2004: 9).
The Applied Sociology Thematic Group encapsulates both the policy and public sociology types proposed by Burawoy (2004). Within TASA alone, members are employed in almost 50 non-university groups and organisations or in self-employment ventures. There are also an unknown number of sociologists who do not belong to TASA, but who work in diverse environments. Nevertheless, Applied Sociology is perhaps the least visible aspect of sociology, even within the boundaries of TASA.
I am employed* as a social scientist by the research organisation belonging to the [civilian section of the]* Department of Defence. By way of providing an example of applied sociological research, I give a brief overview of how my role as a sociologist contributes to national security policies and research.
Doing Sociology Towards National Security
Data on terrorism are difficult to obtain; there is a breadth of publicly-accessible data that seems prolific, but these data are limited on what it can comment. A small proportion of researchers produce much-needed empirical data, including interviews with terrorist groups or other forms of ethnographic analysis. The overwhelming majority of researchers conduct analyses using media reports on terrorist events, such as the number of incidents in various countries, the number of casualties, the types of weapons used, and the individual terrorists’ characteristics, such as their age, gender, religion and education. Academics are not privy to the specific security questions of intelligence analysts, and they do not have access to the same types of data. Understandably, they ask questions that are scholarly and, more to the point, that their data can answer.
The literature therefore tends to conceptualise terrorism within a particular discourse – it is seen primarily as an effective political tool (for example see Kruglanski and Fishman 2006; Schmid 2004: 199-202). This argument has its merits, but it only tells us about the strategic aspect of why groups engage in terrorist activities. It tells us very little about other sociological conditions of which policy makers need to better understand, such as the historical relations between different social groups, and the culture, structure and agency issues that may influence political violence in different contexts. For example, rather than using media reports to propagate the idea that terrorists are motivated primarily by political ideologies, sociology can help analysts to think more critically about the construction of media discourses. In another, more specific example, I have used Durkheim’s typology of suicide to explore the role of social structure in shaping the social motives of suicide terrorists (for one aspect of this research, see Zevallos 2006).
My role is to bridge the gap in between academia and the national security community. In Burawoy’s (2004) terms, I perform policy sociology for an extra-academic audience. I develop a range of sociological conceptual frameworks to rethink dominant ideas about terrorism and national security issues. For this, I rely on professional/critical sociology to provide the toolkit so that I might help non-sociologists understand complex social problems in a basic way.
Sociology’s public engagement in society is enhanced by its application outside academia, and academic sociology would better thrive if applied sociology was more widely understood by all sociologists. For example, the work of applied sociologists provides ‘real world’ examples on how sociology can answer specific questions for various audiences. Both the academic and applied spheres of sociological work stand to benefit from a fuller appreciation of their intersections. Hopefully, this edition of Nexus will open up further dialogue on how to make this happen.
Bruhn, J. G. (1999) ‘Introductory Statement: Philosophy and Future Direction’, Sociological Practice 1(1): 1-2.
Burawoy, M. (2004) ‘Public Sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas, And Possibilities’, Social Forces 82(4): 1-16.
Kruglanski, A. and S. Fishman (2006) ‘The Psychology Of Terrorism: “Syndrome” Versus Tool” Perspectives’, Terrorism And Political Violence 18(2): 193-215.
Schmid, A. (2004) ‘Frameworks For Conceptualising Terrorism’, Terrorism And Political Violence 16(2): 197-221.
Steele, S. F. and J. Price (2004) Applied Sociology: Terms, Topics, Tools And Tasks. Belmont: Thomson/Wadsworth Publishing.
Zevallos, Z. (2006) ‘What Would Durkheim Say? AltruisticSuicide In Analyses Of Suicide Terrorism’, in V. Colic-Peisker and F. Tilbury (Eds) Sociology For A Mobile World: Proceedings Of The Annual Conference of The Australian Sociological Association 4-7 December. Perth: University of Western Australia.
*This paper reflects experiences from a previous employer to which I am no longer affiliated. For the purposes of republishing on my website, I’ve removed their name, but you can see the original publication to see my previous affiliation. Also, note the disclaimer on my About This Site page – all observations are my own and do not reflect those of my previous, current or future employers and affiliates.
Read the entire Special Edition of Nexus titled, Doing Sociology Beyond Academia: Making Applied Sociology “Work”, edited by me.
Visit The Sociological Association Applied Sociology webpage within TASA and join us at Sociology at Work, an international network supporting the career planning of sociology students and advocating on behalf of applied sociology practitioners. Academics who share our goals are more than welcome! We have a free online journal, Working Notes, showcasing the activities of applied sociologists from around the world. I write blog articles in support of applied sociological work.