Breaking Down the Otherness of Applied Sociology

By Zuleyka Zevallos [1]

This series on Doing Sociology Beyond Academia focuses on the dis/connections between academia and applied sociology, with a view to breaking down the divide between these complimentary spheres of sociology. The authors discuss the production of specialised sociological research for specific interest groups, primarily in regards to different social policy contexts, and how their position as ‘other’ shapes their professional practices.

The application of sociology outside academia has significant benefit to sociology's significance to the general public.
The application of sociology outside academia has significant benefit to sociology’s significance to the general public.

I consider the conceptual distinctions between applied and academic sociologies. I provide a framework for situating applied sociology, drawing on Burawoy’s (2004) theory of public sociology, and I discuss my work on national security as an example of public/policy sociology.

Bruce Smyth (forthcoming) shares his new experiences of working in a university, after having previously established his career with a government-funded research organisation. He sees that the divide between academic and applied sociologies is not so distinct, given the changing nature of Australian universities.

Joy Adams-Jackson (forthcoming) provides a case study of how academic and applied sociologies intersect for clinical sociologists, given her experiences as a registered nurse working in the mental health system. Her paper shows that being an ‘other’ both within the discipline of sociology and in her occupation is advantageous. First, her work simultaneously challenges ideas of where and how we do sociology outside academia, and second, it also highlights the potential for sociological theory to transform existing professional paradigms (in this case, a biomedical/psychiatric discourse).

The authors exemplify that, while there may be a divide between sociologists in and outside of academia, the intersections between our work strengthens the value of sociology to a broad range of audiences. The application of sociology outside academia therefore has a significant benefit to sociology’s scientific influence and its significance to the general public.

Intersections of Applied and Academic Sociologies

In some ways, applied sociologists are the ‘other’ of academic sociologists, primarily because they have different requirements of their research output due to funding and client interests. At the same time, our otherness is not so absolute because there are intersections between the demands of academic and non-academic sociological work. This paper discusses the connections and intersections between applied and academic sociologies, and it provides a brief case study of the applications of sociology towards national security research and policy.

Situating Applied Sociology

Last year’s combined Australian and New Zealand Sociological Associations (TASA/SAANZ) conference in Auckland was themed around issues of ‘Public Sociology’ and the plenary guests discussed how to best make sociology more visible to broader audiences. Burawoy presented his typology of sociology that he has also discussed elsewhere (for example, see Burawoy 2004 ). Burawoy (2004) argues that there are four ideal sociology types. First, there are two sociologies that speak to an academic audience. Professional sociology deals with theory and empiricism. Critical sociology is concerned with interrogating the value assumptions of intellectualism, with the aim to generate internal debate about the discipline.

Second, there are a further two sociologies that are aimed at an audience beyond the academy. Policy sociology is focused on social intervention through social policies, and it also aims to find solutions to specific problems of interest to particular client groups. Public sociology aims to communicate ideas about social problems to different types of audiences in order to stimulate community dialogue at the local, national and global levels.

All four sociologies are interdependent, although they are sometimes positioned as being ‘antagonistic’ (Burawoy 2004: 9).

The Applied Sociology Thematic Group within The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) encapsulates both the policy and public sociology types proposed by Burawoy (2004). Within TASA alone, members are employed in almost 50 non-university groups and organisations or in self employment ventures. There are also an unknown number of sociologists who do not belong to TASA, but who work in diverse environments.

Nevertheless, Applied Sociology is perhaps the least visible aspect of sociology, even within the boundaries of TASA.

By way of providing an example of applied  sociological research, I give a brief overview of how my role as a sociologist contributes to national security policies and research.[2]

Making Applied sociology Visible

Doing Sociology Towards National Security

Data on terrorism are difficult to obtain; there is a breadth of publicly-accessible data that seem prolific, but these data are limited on what it can comment. A small proportion of researchers produce much-needed empirical data, including interviews with terrorist groups or other forms of ethnographic analysis. The overwhelming majority of researchers conduct analyses using media reports on terrorist events, such as the number of  incidents in various countries, the number of casualties, the types of weapons used, and the individual terrorists’ characteristics, such as their age, gender, religion and education.

Academics are not privy to the specific security questions of intelligence analysts, and they do not have access to the same types of data. Understandably, they ask questions that are scholarly and, more to the point, that their data can answer.

The literature therefore tends to conceptualise terrorism  within a particular discourse – it is seen primarily as an effective political tool (for example see Kruglanski and Fishman 2006; Schmid 2004: 199-202). This argument has its merits, but it only tells us about the strategic aspect of why groups engage in terrorist activities. It tells us very little about other sociological conditions of which policy makers need to better understand, such as the historical relations  between different social groups, and the culture, structure and agency issues that may influence political violence in different contexts.

For example, rather than using media reports to propagate the idea that terrorists are motivated primarily by political ideologies, sociology can help analysts to think more critically about the construction of media discourses. In another, more specific example, I have used Durkheim’s typology of suicide to explore the role of social structure in shaping the social motives of suicide terrorists (for one aspect of this research, see Zevallos 2006).

My role is to bridge the gap in between academia and the national security community. In Burawoy’s (2004) terms, I perform policy sociology. I develop a range of sociological conceptual frameworks to rethink dominant ideas about terrorism and national security issues. For this, I rely on professional/critical sociology to provide the toolkit so that I might help non-sociologists understand complex social problems in a basic way.

Sociology’s public engagement in society is enhanced  by its application outside academia, and academic sociology would better thrive if applied sociology was more widely understood by all sociologists. For example, the work of applied sociologists provides ‘real world’ examples on how sociology can answer specific questions for various audiences.

Both the academic and applied spheres of sociological work stand to benefit from a fuller appreciation of their intersections. Hopefully, this edition of Nexus will open up further dialogue on how to make this happen.

Across the Divide

In order to break down the divide between academic and non-academic sociologies, our discipline needs to better understand the contributions of app lied sociology and its synergies with academia. To ensure that sociology’s public engagement continues to grow into the future, we need to re-position applied sociology not outside academia, but as complementary and central to the long-term efforts of academia.

References available from the author.


[1] Original Citation for this article: Zevallos, Z. (2008) Nexus, June 20(2): 7-8.

This article was republished in June 2014 by Sociology at Work. The introduction has been slightly altered from the original. For example, the first section was written in the third person, and the latter in the first person. I’ve made this uniform to the first person to publish as one article. I expanded the acronyms and added formatting and hyperlinks to better suit a blog format. I deleted a line about my previous employer as I no longer work in the public service.

[2] I left this position in 2011.