Miller S. M

Which Applied Sociology?3

In the early 1960's, I co-edited an anthology called Applied Sociology (AlvinW. Gouldner and S. M. Miller, New York: Free Press, 1965) and soon regretted the use of that term for two reasons.

One reason is that the term obscures important differences among its purported practitioners. For many, applied sociology refers to people who are employed in sociological work (broadly defined) in non-academic organizations (e.g. in market-research firms; opinion survey units; nonprofits). The emphasis is not on what they do but where they work full-time and what employer pays directly their salaries.

Applied sociology may also include a much wider number of sociologists if it does not assume full-time, paid employment. Many sociologists help nonprofit organizations and voluntary associations by engaging in research or advice that enhances the work of these outfits. The sociologists may have full-time academic or other jobs but may contribute their services or get paid for them. They see their work as directly benefitting the organizations for which they work. They are academic/ applied sociologists.

Another group of sociologists are applied in the sense that they are activists even when they are full-time academics. They support a cause because they believe in it; their specific sociological expertise and skills are not their primary contribution to the cause. Rather, they contribute their name, affiliation, time and often their general sociological savvy. I would call them activist sociologists.

Some sociologists have moved in a different way to become public intellectuals. They are usually academics or full-time members of research organizations and they seek to have their views known to the general public through articles, op-eds, interviews and the like. They may testify in court trials. They speak in their own names to the reading, listening and court publics.

All of these four types of applied sociologists have a characteristic stance: their audience is not sociological colleagues. That blanket statement is perhaps too sweeping since occasionally the fruits of their work in one or another of these applied roles is presented to the sociological community. (That is notably the case for those in non-commercial survey research). But the primary orientation of much of applied work is not to fellow sociologists.

That outlook leads to my second objection to the term applied sociology. Little applied work enriches directly sociological study. The very use of applied sociology implies that some sociological knowledge, technique and lore are to be used in some activity but that the body of sociology is unaffected by this application. Unlike most sociological endeavors which aim to clarify, deepen, test, widen or differentiate theory or research, applied sociology does not come back to affect sociology... Its practitioners think of themselves as users, not developers of sociology. One reason

3 -: http://itc.utk. edu/sssp/newsletter/39-2/30-2applied.htmi S.M. Miller was the 1975-1976 President of SSSP and is currently a Research Professor of Sociology at Boston College.

for this narrowed outlook is that academic sociologists believe that only they can develop sociology. Unfortunately, practitioners often absorb this perspective.

This stunted role inflicts a double injury: it weakens applied sociology; general sociology loses as well. General sociology does not learn from the vast amount of relevant work that goes on in its less-valued precincts of applied sociology. Applied sociologists seldom think about the broader implications of their work and how it challenges or enriches established sociological precepts and findings.

An example: a few sociologists appear as expert witnesses in court trials on employment discrimination and other issues. As a sociological community, we seldom learn anything from these involvements of our colleagues. What does this experience clarify or question in the sociology of law? What is the significance of different discourses in presenting information and analyses? How do the questions of opposing attorneys raise issues about research and conclusions? In turn, sociological witnesses might do a better job if they felt obligated to analyze their experiences in terms of their professional colleagues.

The term applied overly narrows the contribution to sociology of work done outside academic or pure research settings. The feeling tone of the term not only tends to cut off those in applied work from so-called mainstream academic sociology but it severely limits the benefits to general sociology of the work that takes place in other than mainstream habitats.

Alvin Gouldner uses the term clinical sociology in analyzing the work and role of Durkheim and other early sociologists. (2) He saw them as stimulated by issues in the larger society, dealing with them in a sociologically relevant and rigorous (a term not restricted to the quantitative) manner which both enriched the field and sought to influence public discussion. That outlook does not release all the tensions of applied sociology but it would go a long way.


(1) The volume was based on papers given at the 1961 meetings of the SSSPin St. Louis. Alvin Gouldner was the president of SSSP that year and I was the program chair. I wish that I could blame my co-editor for the title but I do not recall how we came to use Applied Sociology. The meetings were especially notable because the hotel barred Charles V. Willie from using the hotel pool because he was African American. SSSP's threat to withdraw from the hotel resulted in a change in hotel policy. That was applying sociological power! The publication of the papers in a volume may have been the first time an American sociological organization published a volume from meeting papers, the current custom of the American Sociological Association.

(2) Currently, clinical sociology is used in ways which differ from Gouldner's intentions. Its most common employment refers to those involved in counseling, training and applied work where there is personal contact with clients. (I often like to think of myself as an organizational doctor helping organizations to understand better their problems and to work out ways of dealing with them. But I would not use clinical sociology to refer to these efforts- though I would like to- for the term mainly connotes today activity at the individual level.


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