Sociology has its roots as a practical problem-solving discipline. It is foundationally a subject that faces outward: toward a world of people and their social groups, organisations and institutions; toward the natural and built environment that people inhabit; toward the ideas, beliefs, values and norms that people use to constitute their social worlds on a day-to-day basis; and toward the processes of power and resistance that mark out both divisions, stabilities and continual change within society.
Sociological research has supplied insights into all these aspects of the world about us, and sociology consequently has much to say about daily life, from social justice to science and technology. Sociologists are surrounded by the subject-matter of their concerns: as researchers, activists, teachers and members of society themselves. Yet few of the 8000 new sociology graduates who every year join the UK jobs-market will end up working as professional sociologists in UK workplaces, whether in business, local government or the voluntary sector. The vast majority of those who retain a professional identity as ‘sociologists’ do so in the offices, libraries and lecture rooms of educational institutions. That’s unlike economists and psychologists, who work in many areas of employment beyond the university.
In the US and some other countries, sociologists are regularly making use of their specialist knowledge to address not only the big problems that face society, but also the daily issues that need addressing at work, at home or in the community. There they call this work ‘clinical sociology’. Here in the UK, we are calling it ‘applied sociology’. This is our definition of this work:
Applied sociology is ‘solution-focused sociology, analysing and intervening to address, resolve or improve everyday real-world situations, problems and interactions practically and creatively’.
This definition differentiates what we call applied sociology from a number of other related activities: sociological research undertaken outside universities, public sociology, social activism, and also the professions that have emerged over the past 100 years to address particular social issues, including social work, criminology and probation work, management consultancy, human relations and market research. The focus here is on specific interventions to address immediate problems or situations in social settings, using sociological knowledge, theories and insights.
We are launching this curriculum in applied sociology because, like most professional sociologists, we consider that sociological research and knowledge transfer projects supply society with essential tools to make sense of daily life. Sociologists have the concepts, the theories and detailed knowledge of organisations and human interactions to both explain and improve many everyday situations, from the gender pay gap to the effects of climate change on well-being and health.
The curriculum pack we provide here is the outline for an undergraduate unit in applied sociology, probably to be studied in the third year of a degree. It is the outcome of six months work by a task-and-finish group established by the British Sociological Association (BSA) Sociologists outside Academia special interest group. There are more details of the membership of this group and how we worked to develop the curriculum later in this pack.
What is involved in becoming an applied sociologist? We suggest that first and foremost, such a person needs the sociological knowledge and subject-related skills to be able to work independently to analyse a situation and offer a workable solution. But they also need some more generic skills – for instance in communication, problem-solving, observation and listening, as well as considerable self-awareness and emotional maturity. Given the current nature of sociological work outside a university, they will require resilience and resourcefulness to establish and sustain a career as an applied sociologist. For this reason, we include materials on employment, careers and the ethics of applied sociological working. Finally, because applied sociology is a practical activity, we also emphasise the need to provide students with practical experience as part of their introduction to applied sociology.
BSA Sociologists outside Academia, and the Applied Sociology Curriculum Development team, April 2018
Using this curriculum
We offer this curriculum free to any institution who would like to develop an applied sociology component of their bachelor’s degree in sociology. There is no reason why it should not also form the basis for a more extended programme in applied sociology: whether at bachelor’s or master’s levels.
This curriculum in applied sociology outlines the content that we consider important for undergraduate students to study as part of an introductory unit. We have not attempted to write a detailed guide to teaching sessions, as different institutions will need to develop units that fit within their existing educational philosophies, teaching resources and timetabling frameworks. Instead we have set out content under four themes: knowledge, skills, employment and practice. Each theme offers an oversight of the content area, and a set of learning outcomes.
Detailed information (indicative lists of sociological concepts, theories, and the skills with which applied sociologists need to be familiar) are included in annexes A and B.
We also offer some suggestions for learning activities and assessment of this curriculum, and some additional resource material for staff adapting the applied sociology curriculum for their degree programme.