A group of UK sociologists believe their subject is just too important to hide away in academic departments. They want to tool up new sociology graduates to use their degrees to improve workplaces, organisations and communities, ensuring applied sociology is a part of the undergraduate curriculum. Nick Fox explains, with an introduction from the LSE Department of Sociology’s Dr Tina Basi.
Students often come to talk to me about the work I did at Intel as an industrial ethnographer. Though I’d love to think they are interested, as I was, in how to influence a corporate machine like Intel from within, they are in fact looking for inspiration with job searches. Back then, 2005, industrial ethnography or corporate ethnography felt very new though in truth, social scientists had been in industry for quite some time with Lucy Suchman at Xerox Parc in 1979 (Suchman, 2011). Fast-forward and we can find all sorts of roles in corporates that are based on social science knowledge: user experience (UX), design research, human factors, human-centric systems, human computer interactions (HCI), etc. etc.
Sociologists have been out of universities and in the big wide world for quite some time. So why aren’t we getting noticed? Why don’t we get as much attention as the economists?
In a recent essay for the London Review of Books, John Lanchester argues for more sociology in the world. Writing about the credit crunch of 2008 and the recession that has followed, Lanchester writes:
“Sociology would have been a better social science than economics for understanding the last ten years. Three dominos fell. The initial event was economic. The meaning of it was experienced in ways best interpreted by sociology. The consequences were acted out through politics. From a sociological point of view, the crisis exacerbated fault lines running through contemporary societies, fault lines of city and country, old and young, cosmopolitan and nationalist, insider and outsider. As a direct result we have seen a sharp rise in populism across the developed world and a marked collapse in support for established parties, in particular those of the centre-left.”
I agree with Lanchester and since I finished my PhD, I have devoted my career to sociological practice or applied sociology – a sociology that happens outside of classrooms and universities. I am part of a group in the British Sociological Association (BSA) called Sociologists Outside Academia (SoA)and in April of this year at the BSA conference in Newcastle, we launched a curriculum on applied sociology.
Here, my co-convenor of SoA Professor Nick Fox, writes about why and how we decided to write this curriculum. This piece was originally published at Real World Impact.
Applying the sociological imagination: a toolkit for tomorrow’s graduates
Sociology is a subject that works best when it faces outward, towards the world of people and their social groups, organisations and institutions. Toward the natural and built environment that people inhabit. Toward the ideas, beliefs, values and norms that people use to constitute their social worlds on a day-to-day basis. And toward the processes of power and resistance that mark out both divisions, stabilities and continual change within society.
Sociologists have much to say about the grand problems facing contemporary society, from climate change and migration to wealth and health inequalities. But their concepts, theories and perspective can also be applied to the smaller problems of everyday life, ranging from improving urban spaces to enhancing work and productivity.
So it’s odd that the majority of sociology done in the UK happens not in workplaces or communities, businesses or local government, but behind closed doors in lecture rooms, academic libraries and conference halls. Overwhelmingly, people with the job title ‘sociologist’ work in universities and research centres. The British Sociological Association (BSA) – UK sociology’s professional body – has few members outside these academic circles.
That’s not the case everywhere. In the US and a few other countries, sociology is flourishing in all kinds of workplaces: in business and industry, local and national government and in charities. They often call it ‘clinical sociology’, maybe because people consult sociologists with work or other problems the way you’d consult a doctor, a therapist or a counsellor. Though in clinical sociology, the patient will be an organisation or a company rather than an individual.
Here’s a couple of examples. Applied sociologists from Bentley University, Massachusetts analysed how medical records are produced, to help the transcription industry develop better documents and use speech recognition technology effectively. A university sociology department in Norway established an applied sociology clinic in Trondheim shopping centre, and worked with urban planners, businesses and community bodies who approached them to address local issues and challenges.
Those are the kinds of projects we’d like to see UK sociology doing too. After all, every year, there are 30 thousand new sociology graduates in the UK. That means about half a million citizens in Britain have a sociology degree! That’s a lot of expertise going to waste, when there are so many problems that could do with a sociological insight.
Since 2016, I and my sociological colleagues outside academic institutions have been asking why UK sociology is so far behind that curve and what can be done about it. Part of the problem is demand: maybe UK businesses and public sector bodies just don’t know what sociology can offer. That means sociology getting a lot better at explaining what it is and what it does.
Developing a new job role is a big ask, of course. Which will be the first UK company to employ a sociologist and put that job title on their office door? Who will invest in a sociologist when they may be more familiar with economists and work psychologists? But if demand is part of the challenge, then too is supply, and perhaps that’s a good place to start. We need sufficient sociologists with the skills, knowledge and as importantly the professional outlook and demeanour to fill the jobs when demand gets going.
That’s why in 2017, the BSA’s Sociologists outside Academia group decided to stop moaning about the lack of applied sociology and do something about it. They launched a major project: to develop a curriculum in applied sociology that can be rolled out to all sociology undergraduates in UK universities. That way at least, a graduate with a degree in sociology will have the tools to use her or his sociological knowledge and skills to make a difference in a workplace or a community, not just as a meal ticket into a generic graduate job.
A team of ten academic and applied sociologists agreed a definition for applied sociology. We defined it as ‘solution-focused sociology, analysing and intervening to address, resolve or improve everyday real-world situations, problems and interactions practically and creatively’.
With that definition in mind, what is involved in becoming an applied sociologist? We set about identifying the learning outcomes necessary to work as an entry-level applied sociologist. We organised these outcomes into four key themes – knowledge, skills, employment and careers, and practice.
First and foremost, an applied sociologist needs the sociological knowledge to be able to work independently to analyse a situation and offer a workable solution. For instance, how might a concept such as social control or a systems approach to organisation help address how a business operates smoothly? So the ‘knowledge’ component encourages students to integrate and synthesise what they’ve learnt during their degree, enabling them to gain insight into the practical relevance of sociological knowledge, as opposed to its theoretical deployment in academic research.
Lanchester, J. (2018) “After the Fall,” in London Review of Books, Vol.40(13), pp 3-8, 5 July. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n13/john-lanchester/after-the-fall
Suchman, L. (2011) “Work Practice and Technology: A Retrospective,” in Making Work Visible: Ethnographically Grounded Case Studies of Work Practice, eds Szymanski, M.H. and Whalen, J. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 21-33.
Nick Fox is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield, based in the School of Health and Related Research. His work as a sociologist addresses a number of key issues in the study of social processes, in health and health care, sexuality, technology and the environment.