Everardo Minardi and Gianluca Piscitelli describe the development of an Italian applied sociology lab, and impacts of the pandemic on applied sociologists.

The Applied Sociology Laboratory

The Laboratory of Practical, Applied and Clinical Sociology (Lab-SPAC) was launched a few years ago, with the specific intension to promote practical sociology and extra-academic sociological professionalism through the production of study tools and professional courses.  It involves more than 200 people, including academic sociologists; professional sociologists, psychologists and educationalists, as well as university students in sociology and social service.

Its work are collected in the two editorial series: QSC-Quaderni di Sociologia Clinica and Sociologia On the Road.  You can find the lab on the web at www.sociologiaclinica.it.   

To achieve this goal, Lab-SPAC relies on important academic and extra-academic collaborations at an international level (especially with South America), and works closely with ISA RC46 Clinical Sociology.  Networking activity is intense and, thanks to opportunities for discussion and exchange of experience via the Lab’s Incontri web di Conversazione (online discussion forum), has attracted the attention of individual sociologists and other associations of Italian sociologists.

Who is a clinical/applied sociologist?

We are aware that what is most disturbing is the word ‘clinician’. If you are a clinical sociologist, in fact, someone can tell you: then what do you do?  Therapy for whom? So are you a psychologist? But if so, then you are no longer a sociologist!

At the Lab-SPAC we propose an applied, practical and therefore clinical sociology, because it focuses not on the structural-functional systems of society, but on the social relationships between individuals and different social formations, from families to associations, organizations, or businesses.  Clinical, diagnostic and practical attention focuses on the social and relational problems that arise in the relationship between micro and macro social, and within the micro level.

Hence the need to highlight the knowledge, skills and abilities of the sociologist which are translated into the set of social diagnosis activities (problem setting) and into the set of activities aimed at solving problems and therefore social change (problem solving).

So sociologists do not cure, they do not do psychological therapy. Instead, they aim to solve social problems in which people, communities, organizations are involved.  Their task is not to photograph, quantify or classify the complex social world, but to pursue social change.

A call to action

Recently, our laboratory has also promoted a ‘Call-to-Action’, that aimed to gather the contributions of all its members, in order to move from theory to practice, and implement concrete measures to promote the sociological profession and provide relational support during the current emergency.  We distributed a questionnaire and organized a webinar, and developed on-line listening and individual support sessions. Here’s a brief summary of what we found.

Predictably, the current COVID-19 pandemic has been and still is a problem; principally for freelancers, but also for members the laboratory who carry out activities as paid employment.  These latter are mostly working at senior/managerial level in the public health sector, and hence are facing pressures to sustain management processes imposed by the current health emergency.

Key points were:

  • Sociologists who perform key roles as university professors or high school teachers reported significant increases in stress associated with their professional roles.
  • The interruption of relationships with clients has had an impact on freelancers’ lives, both in economic and in relational terms, and due to the difficulties imposed by physical distancing.  This affected both interpersonal business relations and members’ need to maintain their professional profile within the labor market.
  • However, almost all freelancers said they took advantage of work inactivity to pursue continuing education: by participating in webinars or by reading.
  • Communication technology is an essential resource, but has not adequately replaced direct human contact, and has blurred boundaries between work time and time allocated for leisure activities, relaxation and friendships.  
  • People also said they find a lack of structure to the working day makes the organization of working and social activities problematic.
  • Students in particular have struggled as working/studying spaces merge with or overlap spaces dedicated to personal life.
  • Video-conferences tools such as Zoom have eased these problems, but one respondent described online meetings as ‘chaotic’.  Also, contacts via a device’s screen constained the quality of interactions.  ‘One cannot look everybody else in the eyes, silence and gesture are less used’. 
  • People also missed the physical aspects of human interactions and ‘hugs’.

Next steps

Social and interpersonal communication has been one of the main ‘strong themes’ raised in this study and relational support operation, which represents a problematic set of issues. In fact, the lack of attention to a socially responsible use of communication has weighed and still weighs in terms of the credibility of the institutions that give specific indications of behavior (one thinks of those many controversies and debates emerged between epidemiologists and various supposed experts) and the resulting assumption by all citizens of responsible behavior for health protection.

Our Laboratory is now also collecting personal stories of life during the pandemic, in the series called Memorie di Pandemia.  This is available free from our website, and provides testimonies from both academic and non-academic sociologists.  These perhaps represent expressions of the sociological imagination that can be used to overcome, and give practical advice on, the present global health, economic, and social crisis.

Everardo Minardi is full professor of general sociology and development studies and former Dean of the Department of Systems and Organizations Theory at the University of Teramo, Italy.  He is scientific director of the Italian Laboratory of Applied and Clinical Sociology (Lab-SPAC).

Gianluca Piscitelli PhD, is a clinical sociologist with almost 30 years of experience in the field of social services, cooperation and social enterprises, and as a socio-sanitary district planner. He is editorial coordinator for Lab-SPAC.


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