Continuing Questions

By Alan Scott

Egorick People Watching Sunset
Photo: Egorick via Flickr

Alan Scott is the Convenor of the Applied Sociology Group, The Australian Sociological Association (TASA). In this article, Alan poses some questions about how Applied Sociologists carry out their work, whether or not social theory is important to their daily jobs, and the extent to which the training we receive as sociology graduates prepares us for the workplace. Alan invites responses from Applied Sociologists around the world.

Last May, Anthony Hogan, former Convenor of the Applied Sociology Thematic Group of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA), invited members of the group to share what they were working on. This brought a flurry of responses from members.  Some didn’t like the dichotomy that suggested a division between academia and applied sociology.  Some saw the Annual TASA Conference as having meaning, not with respect to the papers they might present, but in the way the conference provides an opportunity for social contact with other sociologists.  Others suggested there were conferences or forums that might provide better input for Applied Sociologists other than the current TASA conference.  As I read these responses, several questions arose in my mind that I thought might help concentrate the focus of Anthony’s original question.  I have set out three questions below and I will be very interested in your responses.

1.    When an employer employs a Sociologist what does he/she expect the Sociologist will do   in contrast to, say a psychologist, an economist, a chemist or any other professional?

My experience tells me that most people in the general public have little or no idea what sociology is or what could be done with it.  This suggests that a massive community education programme is needed on what sociology could do for various community sectors and for different professional contexts.  People may know in a general way what most other professionals do, but it seems that they are in the dark about what sociologists work on.

2.    What does Applied Sociological expertise involve? How do Applied Sociologists relate sociology to what they do?

For example, do applied sociologists use a theoretical base? If so which theories do they use and how are these theories applied?  Do applied sociologists simply use their degree as a general background to their decision-making and to inform their own understanding of what tasks need to be undertaken in their day-to-day work?  For instance Bengtson, Rice and Johnson have argued that ‘many gerontologists have paid little attention to theory at all’ (2000:6). They suggest researchers and practitioners in gerontology appear to be unconcerned about identifying theories of ageing against which their work can be interpreted. Bengtson, Rice and Johnson argue that:

In the sociology of aging there has also been an increase in empirical analyses but a decrease in efforts at theoretical explanation concerning such critical phenomena as the consequences of population aging, the changing status of aging individuals in society, the social processes of aging in complex and changing societies, and the interdependency of age groups in the generational compact (2000:6).

According to Bengtson, Rice and Johnson, the problem with using social theory is that it raises questions about whether or not theories answer all the relevant issues and tasks covered in our daily job (2000: 6-7). I would add to this that another problem for some Applied Sociologists is that in some cases we try to make a theory fit in with what we want to do. This might make sense in some situations but not in others. Many years ago I was privy to a letter from a graduate from an American University whose Sociology Department utilised a dominant theory that the Department argued answered all of the issues faced by developing countries.  This graduate had gone to an Asian country to assist on community development and they sent a letter to the University crying for help, writing ‘These people refuse to behave as the model says they should.  What can I do?’ This example shows that an important question for Sociology to address is how to make a connection between social theory, training and experience in applied contexts.

3.    My third question is: “How well do University Departments of Sociology prepare their students for a career as a Sociologist, outside of university?”

My experience is too long ago to know how things are done today.  I would be interested to know what the experience of more recent graduates has been in answer to this question.

I hope these questions sparks some introspection about what it means to be an Applied Sociologist and I look forward to hearing from you all.  The answers might give us some pointer for future action.  My email address is:

To read more about the Applied Sociology Thematic Group or to join our membership, please visit our homepage:


Theory and training in applied sociology


Bengtson, V., C. Rice, and M. L. Johnson (2000) Are Theories of Aging Important? Models and Explanations in Gerontology at the Turn of the Century. The Program for Research on Social and Economic Dimensions of an Aging Population (SEDAP) Research Paper No. 11. Ontario: McMaster University. Online resource last accessed 20 August 11:

Image credit: Golf CLLS via Flickr, CC 2.0. Adapted by Sociology at Work.