Monday, February 3, 2014

The Applied/Academic Split in Sociology: Part 1

Because, really, we should talk about this.

As a discipline we have set up different spheres of work, and we privilege academic sociology (often referred to just as "sociology") above applied. I am taking this space to explore why and how this separation exists. I'll start by defining the assigned differences between applied and academic sociology and discuss my observations of professional meetings. On Friday I will explain the connection between applied sociology, social work, and women and then offer my suggestions for improving the inclusion of applied sociologists.

The difference between applied and academic sociology.


I can think of no definition which accurately captures the differences between applied and academic sociologists, because the differences are so minute and nuanced. It is perhaps easiest to say that there is an aspect of doing that applied has that academic sociology doesn't. This implies some incorrect things, however. It implies that academic sociologists think, while applied sociologists "merely" do. It implies that academic sociologists never do, and never want to do. It implies that research in and out of the field, and theory creation, are not types of doing. And it implies that "merely doing" sociology does not require the same academic rigor, methods, and knowledge that academic sociology does.

All of these things are untrue. So what are the differences?

The easiest cop-out is to say "you'll know it when you see it." The only true difference is that academic sociologists are employed by a university and applied are employed by, basically, anyone else.

The vast majority of sociology majors will become applied sociologists, if they seek a job in their field. They will use their knowledge of theory, methods, and social interactions in ways that the larger society (sometimes misnamed "the real world") deems "practical."

Part of academic sociology's dislike may stem from a push-back to the near-constant demand for a more "practical" discipline. We have been asked to redefine our discipline in terms of job skills and future money-making potential. So, when we see a student who loves sociology for the reasons we have, and our professors have, and their professors have, stretching back to the inception of sociology as an academic discipline, we are happy. We are happy because they love it just because. They love reading dense articles and writing theory-driven papers. And this pure sort of love is given a higher place in our hierarchy.

This is probably why we don't make a huge effort to include applied sociologists in our professional meetings.

What's the deal with professional meetings?


My state sociological association has an annual meeting that lasts a day and half over Thursday afternoon and Friday in mid-October. They have a place on their board for an applied representative. Sessions take place during the day and evening and cover things you would expect to see at the ASA, only smaller. Sessions on recent research and the state of the discipline abound. They also schedule several talks from book authors on their current work as what we would call applied sociologists.

My regional sociological association has an annual meeting that lasts almost a week and conveniently lines up with when most universities hold their spring break. They do not have a place on their board for an applied representative. Sessions take place during the day and again cover things you would expect at the ASA. Plus, the evenings are filled with attempts to socialize through quiz bowls and dinners.

My national sociological association, the ASA, has an annual meeting that lasts almost a week and conveniently falls when all universities are on their summer holiday. Their board is not structured to allow an applied representative. They hold sessions on the state of the discipline, current research, and plenaries meant to encourage scholarly thought. Evenings are again filled with attempts to socialize, this time separated along the lines of the sections of the ASA. If you care about race, you go to that reception. If you care about bodies, you go to that one. Students have their own reception, but are also invited to others.

It isn't a coincidence that applied sociologists have a bigger impact on local associations. They are less likely to receive funding from their work to travel or pay membership dues, and can take a few days off more easily than a week. It also isn't a coincidence that regional and national meetings fall at times where most academic sociologists don't have to teach. What this means, however, is that applied sociologists are given real barriers to access professional meetings, and no voice in changing that access.

What has lead to the exclusion of applied sociologists from professional sociological associations? I have offered one possible reason: a response to the recent demand for "practical" sociology. On Friday I will discuss another possibility: this stems from early sociologists' views on separate spheres for men and women, and applied sociology was women's work.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely understand what you're saying here. In my master's of fine arts program, everyone sort of knew we'd never get jobs as writers, so we were expected to become teachers. Sociology, at least, has an array of "real" jobs a person can take after graduation. We were/are also expected to publish a particular kind of writing after graduation, which is incredibly difficult if you're not in the academic loop. I wonder if applied sociologists operate in that same kind of space.... Their voices aren't worth as much because their publishing isn't worth as much. On another note, doesn't practical sociology encompass the work of it?

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