By Zuleyka Zevallos
This article was first published by Nexus, the newsletter of the The Australian Sociological Association (TASA), in June 2008 
This special edition of Nexus focuses on the applied work of sociologists. There are multiple interpretations of what this might mean. People work as sociologists without necessarily using the title of ‘sociologist’ – they may be employed within the criminal justice system, in agriculture and planning, or in the health and welfare sectors. They sometimes float in and out of academia: they might start out working in business or government and then go on to work in a university – but they may not teach or do research within a sociology department.
Applied sociologists sometimes collaborate with academics on specific projects, and academics sometimes carry out commissioned contract work for clients (typically government agencies or community organisations). Perhaps the very existence of The Australian Sociological Association’s ( TASA) various Thematic Groups is proof that all sociologists are applied researchers: TASA currently hosts 12 specialised research committees on topics ranging from migration, the media, and leisure/tourism.
The idea of ‘applied sociology’ is therefore quite fuzzy.
Despite the fluidity between the academic and applied sociological realms, this collection of articles argue that our discipline needs to better understand applied sociology as a specific sociological practice.
In the introductory edition of the journal of clinical and applied sociology, Sociological Practice, Bruhn defines applied sociologists as those
‘Practitioners [who] use sociological theory and methods to produce positive social change through active intervention… Therefore, the clinical and applied sociologist is uniquely a practitioner scientist’ (1999: 1).
More specifically, Steele and Price (2004) define applied sociology as the translation of sociological theory into practice for specific client groups. That is, the use of sociology to answer research questions as defined by clients (rather than the researcher) in the intervention of social life.
For the purposes of our Thematic Group, we loosely see Applied Sociology as doing sociology outside of the academe, including in non-government organisations, private consultancy, public service, and in other forms of contract (non-ongoing) work.
By the same token, however, we have members who work as university lecturers and research fellows, and others who collaborate actively with various academic groups, or who retain some external affiliation with a university. We therefore recognise and welcome the support of academics in advancing the profile of applied sociology.
The Applied Sociology Thematic Group was established in 2007 as a response to the need for professional support both within TASA and our workplaces. There was a feeling among our members that non-academic sociologists practice our craft on the margins: we work in between academia and the public, and yet our colleagues on both sides of the academic/industry divide do not really understand what we do or how we do it.
The group is working towards several initiatives to promote the work of applied sociologists and to increase their participation within TASA, including at the annual conferences. A lack of career mentorship for sociology graduates, limited or non-existing funding and access to resources, and a limited recognition of our research activities by mainstream academic publications are all on our agenda in order to increase the visibility of applied sociology.
This collection addresses one of our Thematic Group’s primary objectives. It aims to give voice to some of the positive and problematic issues that applied sociologists face in their everyday work.
The Across The Divide section focuses on breaking down the ‘otherness’ of applied sociology, by focusing on the intersections of applied sociological practice and academia. It presents three case studies that examine the ways in which non-academic research is shaped by the demands of specific work contexts. Zuleyka Zevallos sketches some of the broader issues in doing applied sociology, touching briefly on its applications in national security policy and research; Bruce Smyth discusses his move from producing policy-driven research within a government-funded organisation, to developing a research program within a university setting; and Joy Adams-Jackson provides an example of ‘clinical sociology’, in this case, the critical application of sociology to mental health practice.
Our other contributors discuss their personal and professional journeys as applied sociologists. Anthony Hogan reflects on his career trajectory outside academia and the various policy applications of his work. Scott Burrows shows how social theory can be applied to study social policy issues of youth unemployment in regional Australia. Jan Ali considers the use of participant observation in an Islamic Revivalist movement in Sydney.
Anna Bennett discusses her experiences teaching sociology outside a university as part of an enabling course for youth aged 17 to 20 years who hope to qualify for tertiary study. Given TASA’s initiative to promote sociology in high schools, this paper offers significant insight. Susan Pitt offers an introspection on the importance of peer support and networks for non-academics, and how this shapes her identity as a sociologist. Her paper also provides an example of one career path available to sociology students, within one of the various public service graduate programs.
We are privileged to have Julie Cappleman-Morgan and Annika Couglin contributing to the Across The Border. They share with us their experiences of establishing the Sociologists Outside Academia Group within the British Sociological Association, including their successes,strategies and issues in getting more involvement from non-academic members. Their group objectives mirror those of our Applied Sociology Thematic Group, and we are discussing ways to increase our collaboration, and of applied sociologists more broadly at an international level.
In keeping with our Thematic Group’s focus on supporting graduate careers outside academia, Karina Butera’s article provides some practical advice for postgraduates who might wonder about how to turn their thesis topic into an entrepreneurial business endeavour.
This collection of papers showcases a small sliver of what applied sociologists are achieving around Australia and beyond. Whether we work within a university or in some other context, applied sociologists and academic sociologists need one another in order to ‘do’ productive sociological work. This special on Doing Sociology Beyond Academia aims to develop the links between different sociological practices within TASA, so that we might all better work together to strengthen Australian sociology.
Bruhn, J. G. (1999) ‘Introductory Statement: Philosophy and Future Direction’, Sociological Practice 1(1): 1-2.
Steele, S. F. and J. Price (2004) Applied Sociology: Terms, Topics, Tools and Tasks. Belmont: Thomson/Wadsworth Publishing.
The articles in “Doing Sociology Beyond Academia: Making Sociology ‘Work” were first published in June 2008 as a special edition of Nexus (Vol. 2 No. 2.), which is the professional newsletter for The Australian Sociological Association (TASA). The Special Edition of Nexus was Guest Edited by Dr Zuleyka Zevallos, who manages Sociology at Work. This special edition features present and past members from TASA’s Applied Sociology Thematic Group, as well as members of the Sociologists Outside Academia Group of the British Sociological Association.
This article was first republished on Sociology at Work (S@W) in October 2012 and it’s been updated in June 2014. I have made minor changes, mostly formatting.
Over time, I will be putting up the articles relevant to applied sociology here as blog posts to facilitate access for our S@W readers.