What is Clinical Sociology?

Clinical sociology is an applied practice that focuses on health intervention, such as working with medical practitioners, community health services, social policy and public health campaigns.

In this post, we’ll take a look at a definition of clinical work, as well as two case studies. First, we’ll see how clinical sociology is used in health and policy work by Work Cover, Australia’s federal medical program for industrial claims and workers’ compensations. Second, we’ll look at a clinical sociologist who provides career coaching through physical therapy. Finally, there’s a discussion of how you might forge a clinical sociology career.

Clinical sociology delivers health intervention.
Clinical sociology delivers health intervention.

Clinical Sociology Work

Clinical sociologists work in hospitals and they deliver community services, often carrying out social work. Their jobs might involve drawing up physical rehabilitation plans; they provide wellbeing and self-help coaching; they provide crisis housing and trauma services; and administrate group therapy. They will work on public health campaigns; they mediate conflict; they facilitate local council policies; they work on issues of sustainability; and they carry out action research (research that involves participants in every step of the journey, including commenting and editing drafts). John Bruhn and Howard Rebach describe clinical sociology as an active process of intervention:

Though the activities of clinical sociologists are diverse, their active interventions as change agents sets them apart from other practising sociologists. Like other disciplines that are engaged in intervention, clinical sociology is active, humanistic, and change orientated… Clinical sociology is distinctive in that it relies on sociology for its perspective and knowledge base.

Below are two case studies demonstrating the ingenious clinical practices of sociologists. The first provides a community and policy focus, the second is focused on individual therapy.

Case Study: Health Policy & Intervention

Australian clinical sociologist Les Spencer details how the work of psychiatrist Neville Yeomans has impacted clinical practice. Yeomans developed a program of community mental health practice in his work with Fraser House, a facility that included clients with mental health problems, addictions and people released from prison. It was a pioneer facility in the way it allowed family members and friends to visit, as well as allowing current, past and out-patients to join in on monthly staff meetings.

Yeomans also led a Study Group that worked as a liaison network including psychiatrists, psychologists, educators, prison and corrective service workers, criminologists, as well as sociology and medical students. This community framework is influenced by the sociology of action research. It challenged clinical practices of the time, which largely separated patients from their communities, and which limited dialogue and collaboration between therapists and other service providers.

Spencer is influenced by Yeomans’ approach in his own work as a clinical sociologist working to reform WorkCover, the Australian Government’s healthcare delivery system for administrating and delivering assistance to people who have been injured at work. In 2004, WorkCover expanded its framework to include stronger social measures of wellbeing in addition to the biological and psychological measures. From this point, injury management also included evaluation of a patient’s personal support networks, their enjoyment and satisfaction at work as well as the types of demands they face at work. Other sociological factors included financial security and other economic stress.

Spencer’s job involves working with patients and other professionals to better inform how experiences of pain, treatment and healing are influenced by sociological relations. He proposed a working group of clinical sociologists who might collaborate with WorkCover, as well as other health and government agencies and private health insurance organisations much in the manner that Yeomans’ Study Group facilitated patient, community and professional networking.

As Spencer sees it, clinical sociologists could have a larger role to play in health delivery. This might include assessing how an individuals’ health and “wellness” may be impacted by their personal living situation, such as their “social resources and resiliency.” The clinical sociologist could also implement an intervention plan aimed at addressing recuperation and meeting the sociological needs of the clients. Spencer’s vision provides one view of clinical sociological practice. Below I show another more individualised approach.

A Case Study: Career Coaching & Physical Therapy

Kathryn Goldman Schuyler provides a case study of her work as a clinical sociologist. Her work revolves around physical therapy as a way to provide insight on patients’ lives, as a means to deliver holistic healing. Her research and practice emphasise the sociology of touch. Physical experiences are more than just biological expressions and movement; they involve emotions and thoughts that must be processed. She writes:

One way of describing the work is that it resembles applying archaeology to ourselves:  exploring and digging away all the layers hat have come to form us as adult beings, incorporating mental and cognitive functioning, emotions and also al the deeper structures of the self that are literally embodied in the way we hold ourselves and move physically through life.

Schuyler describes her work as a career consultant with one client who wanted to figure out the new direction for her career. They would meet for two hours at a time. Schuyler worked with the client to help her become more aware of her movement, and how she carried stress in her body. At the same time, they would talk about the client’s personal interests, passions, family, work history, and life in general. The combination of talk and physical therapy helped the client explore the connection between career, health and happiness, by making them more aware of their body’s physical responses to their own thoughts and aspirations.

Schuyler provided the client “homework” that included listening to tapes and participating in classes designed to get the client into a habit of reflexivity. The purpose was for the client to be able to answer:

How have the patterns in my life shifted over time?

The client was able to develop a better understanding of their individual biography and decision-making processes. They became more aware of how their particular idea of work (being busy and on the go) had taken its toll on her body. The client became more aware of how social relationships can affect health. Moreover, the career coaching and physical therapy helped the client come up with a plan for the future, one which involves a career change that balanced her need for creativity and for better health management.

Schuyler concludes:

Learning how to be aware of one’s own self as a being in motion, to sense such motion at both physical and less tangible levels seems to be powerful in lessening the hold of some aspects of societal conditional that cause distress…

Most people think of Karl Marx, Comte and Weber when they think of sociology. Their image of a sociologist is not one of someone to whom they would go to for personal assistance. If this were to change – so that people’s concept of sociology encompassed a full range from theoretical writings, to applied surveys, project evaluation and practice – it would gradually shift their sense of that sociology can contribute to their lives in particular and to society in general.

Finding Work as a Clinical Sociologist

You won’t find jobs for “clinical sociologist” listed by employers, but if you use the keywords health, career coaching, physical therapy, and the other descriptors in the introduction of this post, you will discover a world of new sociological opportunities. The key with these types of jobs, as with all applied sociology careers, is understanding how sociology can make a unique but vital contribution to the field. Here you have learned how a sociology of touch can improve career coaching and physical therapy. You’ve also seen how clinical sociology can help to introduce health policy reform and improve service delivery by bringing together patients, medical practitioners, community workers and other stakeholders.

What other clinical sociology applications might there be out there? Can you think of other ways you might use sociology in the clinical sphere? Tell us in the comments below!

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