What is our role in social justice as applied sociologists? In this great debate from 1971, Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky disagree about the fundamental qualities of “human nature” and the key task of social science in helping humanity achieve its collective potential. Chomsky believes that the social sciences should draw up a framework for an ideal society where creativity, freedom and scientific discovery will flourish. He sees it is our task to help to put this plan into action.
Foucault argues that there is no ideal concept of social justice that can be universally applied. Instead, he sees that social scientists are tasked with critiquing social institutions and relations of power in different societies.
Interestingly, Foucault’s perspective reflects academic sociology (with an emphasis on critique of social institutions), while Chomsky’s argument is closer to applied sociology! Applied sociologists work with policy and community organisations to affect justice organisations and practices.
“In their active engagement with various publics, sociologists become more aware of emerging issues and responding to those issues in their research. This elevates the field of sociology in the eyes of the 99.99% of the world outside of our field…. Because of their direct and immediate proximity, collaborative partners often raise questions and concerns based on local knowledge that the researchers may not even know about. Making these adjustments strengthens the research by making it more relevant to the publics involved.”
Sociology not only offers us the tools to analyse and assess the society around us but, in addition, it allows us to consider our own experiences and assumptions. Because of its wide focus on the relational dynamics within society, sociology provides the opportunity for a broad range of app roaches to understanding life, promoting inquisitiveness and innovation by integrating both “theory” and “practice”. Sociology not only studies dynamics, it is dynamic. Thus, sociology is often delivered by engaged teachers who ask their students to analyse the society around them and (re)consider their assumptions: promoting analytical thought that is creative and meaningful. The following discussion outlines the context of teaching sociology “outside” academia. It considers the benefits for both students—in terms of fostering the development of analytical skills and opportunities for achievement—and for teachers, in providing a rewarding and enriching environment. This work takes my recent experience of teaching within an enabling course as a case in point.
Participant observation has long been an important social inquiry tool in sociological investigation of the social world and in applied sociology. It is a complex blend of methods and techniques of observation, informant interviewing, respondent interviewing, and document analysis. Researchers and social science practitioners use participant observation to gain a meaningful knowledge about the existence of a specific social world through experiencing “real” social milieus or through lived experience. The purpose of this paper is to offer a practical demonstration of the utility of participant observation as a method of social enquiry. I argue that, given the ‘religious’ nature of the Tablighi Jama’at, no other research method, whether qualitative or quantitative in nature, would have proven more useful and applicable other than participant observation. Only participant observation allowed me to enter the world’s largest Islamic revivalist movement through its Sydney group and gain an understanding about its social and cultural world – an understanding useful for sociology of religion and applied sociology.
Also, I want to argue that applied sociological research methods have the power to affect social change, including the researcher, and sociology as an academic discipline and practice needs to appreciate that ‘doing’ sociology has the power to change not only society, but ourselves as sociologists. Sociologists’ role then is not only to interpret the world but wherever warranted to change it including him or herself. In this light, this paper therefore discusses participant observation as a reflexive methodology that shows how the application of sociology can positively affect the researcher’s identity and worldview.
Throughout my postgraduate experience I have operated within both the worlds of academia and commercial enterprise. I am perhaps a strange hybrid because I have entwined my ‘sociological imagination’ with my interest in a movement referred to as ‘positive psychology’ – in lay terms: life coaching. As I have worked through the various stag es of my PhD, I have also baby-step by baby- step, built a corporate wellbeing business, which is (I hope) positioned to take some thing of a quantum leap now that my thesis has been submitted. In this article, for ease of reading, I will refer to my research and teaching work as my ‘academic’ work and the work I do running my business as my ‘commercial’ work.
Until recently, I worked at the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) as a researcher in the area of family law and post-separation parenting. I am now at the Australian National University (ANU) building a research program around family law issues. While both workplaces have very different cultures with respect to collegiality, intellectual property, and bureaucratic process, the reality is that not much has changed. In essence, I continue to work as an applied sociologist conducting specific ‘problem-focused’ research directed at pressing policy problems (e.g. Why after divorce do one in four children in Australia have little or no cont act with their father?) Read more →