An Invitation to Practical Sociology

How come – at least in the UK –you don’t come across people working in industry, business, the civil service, or pretty much anywhere outside academia or independent research organisations, who have ‘sociologist’ in their job title?  Sociologists seem to all reside in universities, unlike psychologists and economists, who have colonised all kinds of settings.  There just don’t seem to be any practical sociology jobs out there.

And yet most sociologists believe our subject is essential for understanding the world around us. Or to resolve contemporary problems, from gender violence to climate change.  We have the concepts (like ‘cultural capital’ or ‘moral panic’) and the theories (social mobility, socialisation).  But where are the practical sociology jobs?  Why do so few of those ideas in the sociology journals get applied on a daily basis?

Of course, sociology graduates work in all kinds of jobs, using their knowledge to greater or lesser extent.  And some do make a living as independent ‘consulting sociologists’.  In the US, people have jobs as ‘clinical sociologists’, addressing problems for all sorts of organisations and corporations.

But what would it take to establish a ‘practical sociology’ in the UK and elsewhere, with sociologists employed to use sociology concepts and models to address problems in industry, business, government, education or health?

In 2016, we’re planning an event that aims to establish an agenda for practical sociology.  These are some pressing questions to answer if sociology is to break out from the academy into the outside world.

What has prevented the emergence of practical sociology in the UK?

What are the core knowledge and models that are needed to solve the problems that organisations, businesses and the public sector face?

What kinds of skills would be needed to work as a practical sociologist?

How would a practical sociology career pan out?

We’ll keep you posted. If you’d like us to contact you directly with updates, please e-mail mark@markcarrigan.net and n.j.fox@sheffield.ac.uk with the e-mail subject “subscribe to practical sociology”.

Nick J Fox, BSA Sociologists outside Academia

Mark Carrigan


Categories: Committing Sociology

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6 replies »

  1. At the risk of stating the obvious, it seems to me an important reason for the lack of development of a practical sociology is that industrial, business and civil service organisations involve power structures. An important objective of sociology has always been to expose/reveal these structures. Given that it is usually the powerful within organisations that pay the salaries and fees there would seem to me to be an inherent resistance in these organisations to hiring anyone who specialises in understanding power structures and consequently to the development of a practical sociology. Psychologists and economists on the other hand tend not to be concerned with power structures.

    • As enthused as I am about the idea of practical sociology, I think the idea that sociology’s lack of purchase is because the powerful are scared of us verges on self-deception.

  2. Before I started working on my PhD, I spent 20 years in Human Resources with a Sociology undergraduate degree. I could think of no better application of Sociology that HR. Then it became about economics, and the psychology of labour economics. Today, Human Resources have very little to do with actual “humans,” and especially in social conditions. All humans are independent representative agents of an aggregate labour force.

    My having a front row seat in the rise of Neoliberalism, I think it’s worth critiquing Sociology as a discipline on this front. While Economics and Psychology were doing push-ups in Neoliberal boot camp, developing what would become “behavioral economics,” Sociology was distracted by the shiny objects of post modernism. When Sociology finally got around to critiquing things like workplaces and neoliberal takeovers of social institutions, the only thing they could offer was Marx – the very thing that Neoliberal movements were fighting against. Sociology provided no alternative, and failed to add anything useful to the transformations taking place in the 1970s & 80s.

    Instead, Sociologists in the late 1970s told us that “latch key kids” was the new social problem as more women entered the workforce to supplement falling incomes from union disintegration and stagflation – suggesting that women NOT enter the workforce. Sociologists warned us of Malthusian overpopulation in the 1980s, instead of seeing that resources weren’t all that scarce anymore – they just had an unequal distribution. When everyone’s workplace retirement funds disappeared in the G7 countries in the 2000s, there was almost nothing from Sociology on it.

    Even today, more papers on inequality have been published by economists than Sociologists. John Myles’ paper “Where have all the sociologists gone” noticed this in 2003. Mitchell Dean’s 2014 paper “Rethinking Neoliberalism” notes that Sociology has largely sat on the sidelines, calling the plays of the game, but left the heavy lifting to economists.

    So the answer to the question of why there are no Sociology professions has to start with looking in the mirror. How do we get back our seat at the policy table, the labour table, and gain legitimization overall? I don’t know. I think it starts with a return to science & scientific thinking on Sociology’s part. As long we keep screaming things in public that have nothing to do with people’s everyday life, or the practice application of solid theory (as opposed to creating theories that have no practice application in the public’s everyday life), we’re shooting ourselves on that front. As Sociologists, we have to legitimize sociology – and we’ve just been derelict in that for the past 40 years.

  3. My feeling – and I am not a sociologist by training but an interested observer with a little bit of experience researching this area – is that ‘the business world’ (to rather absurdly assume a unified field for a moment) is sympathetic with sociology as a discipline but unsympathetic with the academy as an institution. It is more about being ‘out of touch’ with ‘the real world’ than being threatening, as such. The university is a assumed to be a place for Mode-1, or ‘theoretical’ knowledge, model-building, where we need more Mode-2, contextual, applied knowledge. This is clearly insensitive to the long history of interaction between these modes but it is the assumption, I think

    Business has its indigenous sociologists: market researchers, HR, management consultants, “thought leaders”. Academic sociological, even critical, concepts and methods circulate widely in these disciplines – but typically isolated from the broader framework in which they reside (or sociological imagination, perhaps). Indigenous sociologists are legitimate because (and only as far as) their knowledge is pitched primarily at – or, at the very least, is compliant with – the pursuit of competitive advantage and, secondarily, other industrial or civic norms that are important to the particular context of application.

    An insightful article from Martin Parker on sociology and business schools:
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-954X.12166/full

    So I think the question ‘where are the sociology jobs?’ is an existential one that needs a two-pronged response. The first is about convincing the wider world of it’s worth; getting a seat at the table(s). This isn’t really a disciplinary argument, it’s an institutional one. So perhaps the question should be rephrased in terms of what role sociology might play in the academy’s broader transformations: the expansion of higher education, not just in student demographics but also impact agendas and the possibility of ‘alternative providers’ on the horizon; and, outside the university, the role of vocational education, professional training and accreditation, internships and so on.

    The second’s more about the methods and institutions of pedagogy in light of those changes, as they play out on the ground. It’s almost a Gramscian question. How do you retain not just the “useful” concepts but the need for theory and a sociological imagination? This will be a more fruitful line of inquiry for sociologists, I think. But the two are obviously mutually interdependent.

  4. I became a documentary filmmaker as an alternative way of doing sociology. I guess what I do is therefore a form of Practical Sociology.

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