Introduction to Sociology/Sociological Practice
Sociological practice is an umbrella term that encompasses the different forms of sociology: basic, applied, clinical, and public. Each of these are ways people can do sociology.
One example of how people do sociology is Hull House. Hull House was a settlement house in the United States that was co-founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Located in Chicago, Hull House opened its doors to recently arrived European immigrants. The mission of Hull House was to provide social and educational opportunities for working class people in the surrounding neighborhood. The "residents" (volunteers at Hull were given this title) held classes in literature, history, art, domestic activities (such as sewing), and many other subjects. Hull House also held concerts that were free to everyone, offered free lectures on current issues, and operated clubs for both children and adults. Its facilities included a night school for adults, kindergarten classes, clubs for older children, a public kitchen, an art gallery, a coffeehouse, a gymnasium, a girls club, a swimming pool, a bathhouse, a book bindery, a music school, a drama group, a library, and labor-related divisions. Her adult night school was a forerunner of the continuing education classes offered by many universities today. In addition to making available services and cultural opportunities for the largely immigrant population of the neighborhood, Hull House afforded an opportunity for young social workers to acquire training.
In 1892, Addams published her thoughts on what has been described as "the three R's" of the settlement house movement: residence, research, and reform. These involved "[c]lose cooperation with the neighborhood people, scientific study of the causes of poverty and dependence, communication of [these] facts to the public, and persistent pressure for [legislative and social] reform..." Hull House conducted careful studies of the Chicago community. These studies enabled the Hull House residents to confront the establishment, eventually partnering with them in the design and implementation of programs intended to enhance and improve the opportunities for success by the largely immigrant population. In combining research with action, Jane Addams and the other members of Hull House illustrate the practice of sociology.
The goal of this chapter is to introduce different forms of sociological practice. While all sociologists utilize and draw upon methods and theories discussed in the previous chapters, they often do so in distinct ways. Sociological Practice thus refers to the ways people do sociology in the course of their lives as well as the ways they approach sociological research, theory, methods, and knowledge. In this chapter, we thus explore the three primary ways sociologists approach their work - basic sociology, applied sociology, and public sociology.
Forms of Sociological Practice
While there remains considerable debate within sociology about the best function or purpose of sociological practice, three primary approaches provide the foundational cues for contemporary sociological practice. Despite the fact that each of these views has been evident within sociological practices throughout the history of the discipline (as well as within and between other academic disciplines), they have become the source of heated debates throughout the last three decades. Rather than taking sides in these debates, we thus provide introductory descriptions of these three major approaches to sociological practice, and encourage students to consider the pros and cons of each approach.
Basic sociology - sometimes referred to as professional sociology or pure research - refers to a form of sociological practice that is primarily concerned with addressing other professionals (especially other professional social scientists) through the production of academic knowledge, publications, associations, and insights. Specifically, basic or professional sociologists typically conceptualize research as the production of knowledge and empirical insights as an end in themselves. As such, basic or professional sociologists typically advocate sociological practice that builds our existing knowledge base without necessarily engaging with the rest of the world. This approach is often referred to as "basic" or "academic" sociology because it does not require public or practical engagement by or with scholars working in the field, but rather advocates the pursuit of knowledge as a goal in and of itself, which does not necessarily need to find practical use or consumption in the wider world.
Examples of Basic Sociology
An example of basic sociology is Ryan T. Cragun and Ronald Lawson's work on the worldwide growth of Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists. In that work, Cragun and Lawson, found that Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses were growing more rapidly in countries that were developing, while Seventh-day Adventists were growing faster in largely undeveloped countries. However, once countries reached a certain level of economic development, growth of all three religions declined substantially. They described this as "The Secular Transition." While the religions investigated in this research could potentially draw upon the research to refine their missionary efforts and outreach, the motivation for undertaking the research was not to help the religions but rather to better understand the factors that contribute to their growth and decline. In other words, the research was motivated out of academic curiosity rather than a desire to apply the research findings to the proselytizing efforts of the religions.
Applied Sociology - sometimes referred to as pragmatic or practical sociology - refers to a form of sociological practice that is primarily concerned with using sociological theories and research to intervene in the ongoing activities contained within applied or practical settings, like offices, parks, schools, and other places where daily life takes place. Applied sociologists use sociological theory, methods and skills to collect and analyze data and to communicate their findings and to understand and resolve social problems. Applied sociology meets the needs of persons and groups who want to use the knowledge generated through research to enhance their understanding of an issue and/or to evaluate a social problem. To that end, applied sociologists work with a variety of organizations, such as: government foundations, businesses, educational institutions, and social service agencies. Examples of work applied sociologists do include: investigating the social norms promoting or inhibiting the spread of AIDS; planning medical services and facilities for a target population, such as the homeless; ord carrying out market research for companies. Individuals who do applied sociology differ from those who do basic sociology in that they use their research findings as well as sociological theory to resolve real-life problems. Rather than simply producing knowledge, applied sociologists seek to use sociological tools and insights to help individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions improve their functions, protocols, and/or interpersonal and structural processes of activity. As such, applied sociologists typically advocate sociological practice that produces insights that may be used immediately to improve the social functioning of individuals and social structures. This approach - building on the insights formulated in the 1920's by Chicago School sociologists - is sometimes referred to as practical sociology because it requires theorists and researchers to ground their academic work within material realities and practical concerns within and beyond academic settings, as the founders of Hull House described above did.
Research is the foundation of applied sociology, just as it is of basic sociology. The principles of the scientific method underlie all sociological research and both basic and applied sociologists draw upon the same pool of research methods. In addition, applied sociologists have developed a special set of techniques they use to make observations and recommendations that will be useful to their clients. Below are listed some of the most common forms of applied sociological techniques with basic descriptions. Following each description is a sample question that technique could be used to address from an applied sociology perspective.
While there are wide variety of ways to engage in Applied Sociology, one very common endeavor of this form of sociological practice (found within every major organizational and institutional arena throughout contemporary developed societies) is program evaluation. Program evaluation refers to the use of sociological methods (especially surveys, observational techniques, statistical analyses of records, and/or interviews) to ascertain the value (or lack thereof) of a specific program or pattern of action. In short, program evaluation uses systematic observations to assess whether a social program or practice is achieving its goals. Since organizations (businesses as well as non-profit organizations) often develop programs to handle their needs or promote their services, it is important to know whether or not those programs are appropriate for the task at hand. To this end, sociologists study whether or not established programs are: appropriate for a given task, efficient in producing sought after results, and/or are useful within specific settings or contexts in relation to specific audiences.
There are two primary forms of program evaluation: summative and formative. Importantly, these forms may be practiced in isolation and in combination with one another, and may also be used to evaluate individual pathologies, medical services, counseling and other clinical protocols, and forms of public activity. Summative evaluation seeks to discover whether or not a given program "worked." Specifically, sociologists ask "Did the program do what it was supposed to." Since this requires defining and measuring a specific outcome, sociologists will either (a) work to establish the outcome variable (e.g., what we want the program to do) before the program takes effect, or (when necessary) (b) establish the outcome variable in the midst of program operation. In either case, sociologists then utilize (primarily quantitative or observational) methods to measure changes in the outcome of interest over a given time period. If the changes match the expected outcome, the program worked, and sociologists can then determine just how well it worked and/or ways it might work better. If, on the other hand, there are no changes in the expected outcome or the changes are oppositional to the expected outcome, the program did not work, and sociologists will make suggestions to the organization for either improvements to the program or new program options. In either case, the heart of summative evaluation methods lies in the ability to determine whether or not organizational programs (e.g., procedures, activities, marketing campaigns, interventions, and other endeavors) work or need to be revised.
If a program is shown not to work (or if an organization seeks to establish new programs based on available data), sociologists may be called upon to do formative program evaluations. Formative evaluations are analyses conducted to ascertain new programs that could benefit given organizations. Stated simply, these evaluation studies are used to "form" new programs. Working with clients, a sociologist may utilize focus groups or surveys to gauge the needs of the organizations, the existing programs operated by the organization, the budget available for program development and implementation, and the problems associated with previous practices. In so doing, sociologists may compare and contrast the elements at work in the organization to arrive at potential programs and practices that could best suit the needs and goals of the organization. As a result, the results of this conceptual work will allow the sociologist to suggest what programs are more likely to work within a given organization. In fact, sometimes sociologists do formative program evaluations for an organization, and are later called upon again to analyze whether the proposed programs worked at a later date.
Program evaluation is the most widely used of the applied research techniques. Over the past 50 years many social programs have been developed with the goal of alleviating social problems like poverty and child abuse. The practices designed to implement these policies, like parenting classes to help curb the incidence of child abuse, are generally evaluated for effectiveness. In fact, social programs and practices funded by the government and/or the state must undergo evaluation. Because of this, program evaluation is a prime area of career development for applied sociologists.
|A research question program evaluation may address would be something like:
"Do teens in a program to reduce juvenile delinquency get into trouble with the law less often than do teens not in the program?"
Needs assessment research focuses on collecting data for the purpose of determining how many people in a community will need particular services or products for a period of time. An example of needs assessment research might be to determine the number of Latinos in an area who have could use counseling and education services. Since many first-generation Latino immigrants to the US do not speak fluent English, such a needs assessment could help counseling and education providers staff sufficient Spanish-language programs to provide the necessary services.
|A research question needs assessment may address would be something like:
How many juvenile delinquents are there in the community?"
Social Impact Assessment
Social impact assessment refers to making an estimate of the likely consequences of proposed programs and projects on individuals, groups, neighborhoods, regions and other social entities.
|A research question social impact assessment may address would be something like:
Does the reduction in juvenile delinquency put additional demands on the community for teen employment?"
Social Indicator Development
Social indicators are quantitative measures of significant social phenomena, such as the violent crime or divorce rate. The goal of social indicator development is to develop useful measures of the phenomenon of interest. For instance, if five murders occurred in a city in one year, that is useful information. However, it is even more useful if the size of the city is taken into account, as five murders in a city of 1,000 people is a lot higher rate of unnatural deaths than five murders in a city of one million people. Sociologists try to take into account factors like city size, context, and location when developing appropriate social indicators.
|A research question social indicator development may address would be something like:
How can we effectively measure the rate of juvenile delinquency in the community?"
Cost-benefit analysis involves making a quantitative comparison of the costs and benefits of a program or practice to assess whether the program should be changed or ended.
|A research question cost-benefit analysis may address would be something like:
What are the costs of running the program and are there less expensive ways to reduce juvenile delinquency?"
Examples of Applied Sociology
An excellent example of applied sociology is the research that has evaluated the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education programs in the United States. Numerous studies have been undertaken to determine whether abstinence-only is more effective at reducing sexual activity, at decreasing teen pregnancy, at reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted infections, or leading to emotionally and psychologically healthier sex practices. On almost every outcome measure, abstinence-only education has been shown to be inferior to comprehensives sex education. In other words, comprehensive sex education that teaches young people about forms of birth control and encourages them to think carefully about sex and, if they have sex, to use safer-sex practices is a much more effective program if the desired outcome is lower rates of teenage pregnancies, lower incidences of sexually-transmitted infections, and healthier sexual practices.
Another example is a project undertaken at two universities to help students better understand both applied sociology and homelessness. Laura Nichols (Santa Clara University) and Norma Winston (The University of Tampa) had students in their applied sociology courses engage in applied projects to help the homeless. At The University of Tampa, students worked with homeless individuals to document their lives then created a showcase of the resulting media that was shared with policy makers. At Santa Clara University, students rode with homeless individuals who used the all-night bus line as a form of shelter to get a better understanding of their needs then coordinated with various local agencies to provide shelter options for these individuals.
Clinical sociology is the application of a sociological perspective to the analysis and design of interventions for positive social change at any level of social organization. Clinical analysis involves assessing a situation. This entails examining the beliefs, policies, or practices of both individuals and the groups or organizations to which they belong with the goal of improving the situation. Intervention involves the creation of new beliefs, policies or practices as well as the change of those that currently exist in the situation. It is based on continuous analysis and can include a focus on prevention or promotion (e.g. preventing spousal violence or promoting a non-violent community). Clinical sociologists have different areas of specialization, such as: health promotion, aging, organizational development, or addressing social conflict. Clinical sociologists can work in a variety of different areas. For instance, they can be employed as community organizers, sociotherapists, mediators, social policy implementers, and action researchers. Clinical sociologists often work with intervention teams whose members have a variety of academic backgrounds and perspectives (e.g. psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors). The unique contribution made by sociologists to the analysis and the planning of the intervention in multi-disciplinary teams is the understanding of socio-cultural influences on behavior. Clinical sociologists use a variety of theoretical approaches in their work (e.g. grounded theory, standpoint, conflict theory, social constructionism, symbolic interactionism and/or exchange theory). Some clinical sociologists use qualitative and/or quantitative research skills in assessment and evaluation in their intervention work. In that respect, they are like applied sociologists.
Examples of Clinical Sociology
Michael S. Fleischer has worked as a clinical sociologist helping to guide corporations undergoing cultural and organizational change. He has worked with executives at Aetna and numerous other large corporations. He helps executives recognizes problems and impediments to change and develop solutions to those problems.
Public Sociology refers to a form of sociological practice that is primarily concerned with using sociological theories and research to engage and inform public, political, and policy debates occurring within the larger social world. Echoing and expanding applied sociological practices, public sociologists seek to use sociological tools and insights to promote more equitable political and policy goals for the larger society, and educate the public on the complexities of contemporary social experiences and problems. As such, public sociologists typically advocate engaging in political and cultural debates in order to educate students, mass media audiences, social movement groups, political officials, and other academics about the perils, pitfalls, and potential of various political and policy proposals as well as the needs of varied communities embedded within complex socio-historical structures and patterns.
This approach - building on activist traditions within and between varied social scientific, activist, and public intellectual traditions spanning the past few centuries - is often referred to in political terms because it requires theorists and researchers to utilize sociological theory and research in pursuit of a more just social world. Michael Burawoy (University of California – Berkley) promoted the use of the term “public sociology” in his presidential address at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting in 2004. He distinguished between two types of public sociology: “traditional” and “organic.” The difference lies in the manner in which public sociologists engage in debates. Traditional public sociologists share the results of their work when they deem it relevant to do so through such mechanisms as testifying at government hearings, serving as expert witnesses, speaking at community meetings, writing op-ed columns in local newspapers or reporting through blogs and web pages. Organic public sociology is characterized by collaboration between public sociologists and others, including practitioners, scholars, activists, or community members. There is mutual respect for what all parties can bring to the table – the theoretical and methodological skills of the public sociologist and the practical knowledge and understanding of the workings of a community, organization, or group offered by those who are a part of the social milieu being studied. Through collaboration they can build better research projects and a broader base of support for resolving social problems.
Examples of Public Sociology
There are a variety of approaches that can be included under the broad label of public sociology (e.g., journalism, activism, community organization, etc.), and there are many foci. For instance, Sociologists for Women in Society is a nonprofit feminist organization dedicated to developing scholarship about women and feminist theory, but also wants to use that scholarship to transform academia and advocate for social justice for women. The Society for the Study of Social Problems is another professional organization made up of scholars and researchers whose aim is "the application of critical, scientific, and humanistic perspectives to the study of vital social problems. Another organization, Sociólogos sin fronteras (and its American chapter, SSF-US but also known as Sociologists Without Borders) is a professional organization committed to "Supporting scientific research, educational outreach, and charitable endeavors that alleviate poverty and promote human rights, social justice, and environmental sustainability." 
An example of public sociology is the book, What You Don't Know About Religion (but Should). The book was written by a sociologist and includes a large number of figures based on well-regarded data. The primary argument of the book is that, when compared to religious fundamentalists, nonreligious individuals exhibit a number of characteristics that suggest they may be better citizens. For instance, the book illustrates that nonreligious individuals are less prejudiced toward women and racial and sexual minorities, they tend to employ better childrearing practices, they are less arrogant, and they exhibit less fear of death. This book provides a clear illustration of the approach of public sociology as it draws upon scholarly research but combines it with a subjective perspective.
Another example of public sociology is testifying as an expert witness. Given their expertise on society and social life, sociologists are regularly hired or asked to testify or prepare expert reports in court cases. For instance, Ryan T. Cragun was hired to inform a court in Vancouver, British Columbia about the finer details of Mormonism, particularly as relates to tithing and financial affairs as part of a court case involving the finances of a Canadian fundamentalist Mormon group. Sociologists can be very helpful experts in court cases as they bring research and empirical evidence to bear on important social issues.
A Brief History of Applied, Clinical, and Public Sociology
Sociology originated as a discipline with an applied and public focus. For instance, Auguste Comte proposed using the scientific method to reveal the laws of social life with the goal of developing solutions to society’s problems. Similarly, Karl Marx aimed to understand the social ills of the time so as to improve the lot of the socially disadvantaged. Given that these social theorists advocated for improving social conditions, they were doing applied and public sociology. When sociology first developed in the United States, sociological practice was the major emphasis of the discipline. America was beset with the problems of a rapidly urbanizing society. To help address issues related to urbanization, sociologists sought to develop a scientific approach to the study and resolution of the issues of the time, including race relations, poverty, immigration, and urban development. Other early American sociologists went beyond applied research to intervene in social problems through social activism or involvement with clinics or settlement houses. Jane Adams's efforts with Hull House described above are a good example of this.
Several references to applied sociology, clinical sociology, and sociological practice appeared in the first fifty years of American sociology. As early as 1898 Edward Payson differentiated between applied sociology as a body of usable knowledge and the application of theory to the readjustment of social practices. Another early contributor to sociological practice was Lester F. Ward. Ward distinguished between “pure” and “applied” sociology. Ward argued that sociologists should apply these terms as in other sciences; that “pure” science is theoretical while “applied” science is practical.
Clinical sociology came into existence in the 1930’s. It was Louis Wirth who first promoted clinical sociology in an article published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1931. He reasoned that the special expertise sociologists have about the effects of socio-cultural influences on behavior can and should be used in the study, diagnosis, and treatment of personality disorders. For Wirth, clinical sociology would combine theory and practice for the benefit of both.
Factional rivalries between those with theoretical versus applied orientations began to escalate in the United States after World War II when concern heightened among sociologists about having their discipline as a science. This eventually resulted in clinical sociology being largely abandoned to social workers. A separate discipline of social work began to develop. Over time, sociology and social work moved apart and applied and clinical sociology largely disappeared; basic sociology came to dominate American Sociology. In the early 1970’s there was been a renewed interest in sociological practice. Despite continuing tensions between basic sociologists and those working in applied settings, sociological practitioners have come together to promote their professional interests through developing professional associations. This began with the establishment of three sociological practice organizations in the late 1970’s: the Society for Applied Sociology (SAS) to support the interests of those working as applied sociologists; the Clinical Sociology Association (CSA; later changed to the Sociological Practice Association or SPA in 1986) to promote clinical sociologists; and the American Sociological Association Section for Sociological Practice, which was initially formed to identify professional opportunities in sociological practice. In 2005, SAS and SPA merged into a new organization, the Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology (AACS). This is the largest sociological practice organization in existence today. The mission of the AACS includes providing an organization to facilitate collaboration between scholars interested in applied sociology, promoting the application of sociological knowledge broadly, and advancing applied sociological theory and methods.
Czaja, Ronald and Johnny Blair. 1996. Designing Surveys: A Guide to Decisions and Procedures. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Hollander, Jocelyn A. 2004. “The Social Contexts of Focus Groups.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 33:602-37.
Krueger, R.A. 1994. Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research 2nd edition Sage. Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York Basic Books Berry, William D. 1993. Understanding Regression Assumptions. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Best, Joel. 2001. Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press Bruhn, J. G. and H. M. Rebach (1996) Clinical Sociology: An Agenda For Action. New York: Plenum Press.
Burawoy, M. (2004) ‘Public Sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas, And Possibilities’, Social Forces 82(4): 1-16.
DeMartini, J. R. (1979) ‘Applied Sociology: An Attempt At Clarification And Assessment’, Teaching Sociology 6(4): 331-354.
DeMartini, J. R. (1982) ‘Basic And Applied Sociological Work: Divergence, Convergence, Or Peaceful Co-existence?’, The Journal Of Applied Behavioural Science 18(2): 203-215. Freeman, H. E. and P. H. Rossi (1984) ‘Furthering The Applied Side Of Sociology’, American Sociological Review 49(4): 571-580. Steele, S. F. and J. Price (2007) Applied Sociology: Terms, Topics, Tools And Tasks, 2nd ed. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth Publishing. Turner, J. H. (1998) ‘Must Sociological Theory And Sociological Practice Be So Far Apart?: A Polemical Answer’, Sociological Perspectives 41(2): 243-258. Rossi, P. H. (1980) ‘Presidential Address: The Challenge And Opportunities Of Applied Social Research’, American Sociological Review 45(6): 889-904. Bickman, Leonard and Debra J. Rog. 2009. The Sage Handbook of Applied Research Methods, 2nd edition.
- What is the difference between basic and applied sociology?
- Are you, personally, more interested in basic or applied sociology?
- How can sociology be used to change the world?
- Should sociology be used to change the world?
- Wade. Louise C. 1967. The Heritage from Chicago's Early Settlement Houses. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 60:4, 411-441.
- Nyden, Phillip, Leslie Hossfeld, and Gwendolyn Nyden. 2012. Public Sociology Research, Action, and Change. Sage.
- Steele, Stephen F. and Jammie Price. 2007. Applied Sociology: Terms, Topics, Tools, and Tasks. Cengage Learning.
- Cragun, Ryan T., and Ronald Lawson. 2010. “The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists.” Sociology of Religion 71(3):349-373.
- Lee, James, Vera Sanchez, Claudio G. and Yoko Baba. 2013 “Sunday Friends: The Working Alternative to Charity”. Journal of Applied Social Science 7 (2): 148-187.
- Onesimo Sandoval, J.S., Jennings, J. Rataj. M. and E. Klein. 2012. “Engaging Latinos in Access to Counseling and Education: An Applied Research Project to Understand Quality of Life Among Latino Immigrants in St. Louis, MO.” Journal of Applied Social Science 7 (1) 24-41.
- Stanger-Hall, K. F., & Hall, D. W. (2011). Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S. Plos ONE, 6(10), 1-11. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024658
- Nichols, Laura, and Norma A. Winston. 2014. Undergraduate Students as Applied Sociologists: Community-Based Research Addresses Homelessness. Footnotes. April 2014.
- Clark, Elizabeth. 1990 “Contemporary Clinical Sociology: Definitions and Directions.” Clinical Sociology Review 8: 100-115.
- Iutcovich. Joyce, M. 1997 Professionalization of Applied Sociology: The Role of Sociological Practice Organizations. In Directions in Applied Sociology (ed. Steele, S. and J.M. Iutcovich) p. 7-39: Society for Applied Sociology.
- stoecker, randy. 2009. “community organizing and social change.” Contexts 8:20-25.
- Cragun, Ryan T. 2013. What You Don't Know About Religion (but Should). Pitchstone Publishing, Durham: North Carolina.
- Canadian Press. August 28, 2013. Court rules against B.C. polygamous leader Winston Blackmore, issues $150,000 in penalties. National Post. Accessed 7-29-2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/08/28/court-rules-against-b-c-polygamous-leader-winston-blackmore-issues-150000-in-penalties/
- Payson, Edward. 2013. Suggestions Toward an Applied Science of Sociology. S.l.: HardPress Publishing.
- Ward, Lester Frank. 2011. Applied Sociology: A Treatise On The Conscious Improvement Of Society By Society... Nabu Press.
- Wirth, Louis. 1931 (1982). “Clinical Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology 37: 49-66. Reprinted in Clinical Sociology Review 1: 7-22.
- The Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology
- The American Sociological Association's Section on Public Sociology
- Journal of Applied Social Science