Applying the Sociological Imagination: A Toolkit For Tomorrow’s Graduates

In April 2018, at the British Sociological Association conference, a group of UK sociologists launched a curriculum in ‘applied sociology’.  They want to tool up new sociology graduates to use their degrees to improve workplaces, organisations and communities, ensuring the undergraduate curriculum has an applied component. Professor Nick Fox, co-convenor of BSA-SoA, explains…

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. 

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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 are 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 30,000 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 needs to get 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.

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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. 

Applied sociologists also need a wide range of skills, some of which are generic and transferable, such as communication, problem-solving, observation and listening.  Others are more specific to sociology, including the capacity to appraise evidence critically and design and conduct research.  They will also need to be able to work independently to seek to address, understand and resolve a wide range of situations and problems in work or community settings.  Considerable self-awareness and emotional maturity will also be required. 

Then they will require resilience and resourcefulness to establish and sustain a career as an applied sociologist.  For this reason, we include materials on employment, careers and the ethics of applied sociological working.  Applied sociologists need to understand different models of working, career development and the ethics of working as an applied sociologist in a variety of social contexts.  That’s what the ‘employment’ component explores.

Finally, because applied sociology is a practical activity, we also emphasise the need to provide students with practical experience as part of their introduction to applied sociology.  A practice component supplies the means to deepen understanding of work as sociological practitioners, and try out the concepts, theories and project management and research skills developed earlier in their degree.  It will help students gain insight into what it means to actually do applied sociology.

Our curriculum doesn’t attempt to timetable lectures, seminars or placements: that’s up to each university to decide, based on their exiting course structure and their style and orientation toward learning.  But we do offer some suggestions for learning activities and assessment of this curriculum; resource material for staff adapting the applied sociology curriculum for their degree programme; links to useful website including international bodies supporting applied sociology, and a full list of sociological concepts, theories, and the skills with which applied sociologists need to be familiar. 

We are offering the curriculum pack free to UK departments of sociology and related disciplines. It will provide an outline for an undergraduate module to be studied in the third year of a sociology degree, though it could also form the basis for a Master’s in applied sociology. 

The curriculum was formally launched at the BSA conference in Newcastle this April.  You can read the entire curriculum document on the bespoke website.  If you work in a UK department of sociology or related discipline you may also download the curriculum document in Word or pdf formats from that site.

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