So Social Science Degrees are in Decline? How Applied Sociology Can Help

The graphic below has been going around for a few weeks yet surprisingly with little analysis. A Backstage Sociologist first published it in late April, writing only:

Teaching and learning are not market transactions: They are sacred encounters of soulcraft. This graphic leaves one who teaches social science and the humanities with a heavy heart and despairing about the eventual extinction of well-educated citizens.

Distribution of bachelor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by field of study. 2011-12 compared to 1970-71
Distribution of bachelor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by field of study. 2011-12 compared to 1970-71. Via A Backstage Sociologist

I will reproduce and extend the comments I made on the original blog post to make a point about what meaning sociologists might draw from this graph. In particular, I see that applied sociology can put this into perspective.

First let’s take a step back: from where are these data drawn? I presume the dataset represents outcomes from the USA? Are these comments of despair about the “eventual extinction of well educated citizens” specifically about the decline in the social sciences, or the fall in all the sciences represented in this chart?

I suspect there is more to this chart and part of the soul searching should happen within sociology itself. I see the steep rise in business graduates and perhaps to a lesser extent in the life sciences and communications are partly a development in technology and the reality of the job market. Education is expensive. Australia and other parts of the world face severe funding cuts and policy changes that will further undermine education in most fields outside of medical professions.

One way that sociology might address a decline in graduates is through a stronger focus on applied sociology. Without question, developing the sociological imagination has many personal and professional benefits, as critical thinking can help to improve civic participation and empower us to understand our lives in a broader context.

Then again, if you are a poor or otherwise disadvantaged young person thinking about the debt and other commitments you need to balance, pursuing a degree in sociology can be daunting. We are largely positioned as an academic discipline. There are few academic jobs for our graduates. Market forces may be driving graduates away from social science, but our discipline can be doing much more to demonstrate the applicability of our theories and methods to specific jobs and industries.

It is not enough to simply say that we can use the sociological imagination in infinite ways; students should be given concrete examples in the classroom of how they will use sociological knowledge to answer specific questions for particular clients and audiences. Not all students have the luxury to study sociology without a clear career path in mind, regardless of how passionate they feel about our subject matter. We shouldn’t despair that less people are studying social science if we are not adequately preparing our graduates for the realities of the job market. We can’t simply expect students to continue to pursue a social science education if their social and financial situation cannot support an aimless vocation.

We teach sociology as if it is applicable to everything – and yes it can be – but we can’t rely on students filling in the career gaps themselves. “Translating” sociology to real world problems takes more than just the sociological imagination. It’s tough work. We need to demonstrate the worth of a sociology degree rather than simply expect that its heyday of enrolments will continue, even as the world changes.

For some examples of how applied careers actually work, see our Working Notes section as well as our articles and videos that profile applied careers. Our Students page also has other resources that might help.

Got questions or comments? Pop them in the comments section below!