Here, Dr Athanasia Chalari discusses public sociology, and the MSc programme in public sociology that she leads at the University of Northampton.
In all the years I have been teaching undergraduate and postgraduate sociology classes, my first Powerpoint slide always asks students the same question: Why bother?
This is a crucial question for the social sciences. The future sociologist or social scientist who can answer it on their first day at university has probably found the ultimate reason to get up in the morning and attend every class. S/he will contribute to seminars by sharing thoughts; try their best to complete original assignments; talk with class mates and tutors about their views, dreams and ideas; get excited when a new topic is taught; and be curious enough to think about the opposite view.
Most importantly, this future social scientist will probably also be open to new ways of thinking, and will question their own beliefs, values and principles. S/he will possibly feel a constant hunger to understand even better how society works. And gain genuine satisfaction every time they use their understanding to explain their own life, the ways they connect with others, and their own position in society.
The Northampton public sociology programme
Sociology studies, describes, understands and explains how people are connected to each other, to themselves and the social world. Public sociology turns the social world into everyday laboratories; switches social theory into ways of living; and turns methods into the means of transport. It connects the ‘why’ to the ‘how’ in an innovative manner, by bringing meaning closer to reason and theory to application.
The MSc in Public Sociology at the University of Northampton was designed for sociologists keen to share with others the insights and excitement that researching the social world can provide.
We have built a degree that blends theory and research in an applied way, by asking students to work on empirical projects, bring their professional experiences in class and expand their sociological imagination in order to be able to utilise and apply it in their everyday lives.
Some of the taught modules in the programme – for instance, Multidimensional inequalities and spaces of public engagement – provide advanced foundations for public sociology practice. Others, such as Decision-making, leadership and management in complex organisations have been designed to assist students to explore critically different professional settings. Some do both: for example, the module entitled: The ecology of contemporary societies: science, technology, environment.
Our students come from a wide variety of professional and educational backgrounds. Their dissertation topics give a flavour of the range of topics public sociology may address. Some relate closely to students’ current work:
- How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting local provision of family services?
- Child behaviours in the nuclear family, building on knowledge of diversity, equality and comorbidity complexities.
Some others are radical, addressing challenging aspects of contemporary life:
- When ‘everyday life’ stops, which factors are important for our happiness?
- Media portrayal of women who have killed abusive partners.
Our students will join the very small number of UK graduates with a Master’s degree in public sociology, and we want to build on the uniqueness of the Northampton programme. We are using the very unfortunate disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to update its content and further advance its purpose. As the social world changes so rapidly, a degree in public sociology should be able to adjust accordingly and we feel excited being able to do so!
Why do public sociology?
As the social world changes at dizzying speeds, society, organisations and communities desperately requires the knowledge, understanding and concepts that sociology can offer, in order to chart their future paths. Public sociology offers a means to provide those needs.
Public sociology also brings us closer to the ‘sociological imagination’. It suggests the potential to turn sociology into a way of life: exploring, analysing and understanding our experiences every step of our adult lives, and shifting from being ‘the one to whom things happen’ into ‘the one who makes things happen’. For those fortunate enough to do this, this is the way to turn a hobby into a profession (or vice versa).
Such lifestyle transformations definitely require passion, vision and sociological imagination, as well as a belief that the social world can become a better place – if only we can figure out how.
Such exploration, for a public sociologist, is as exciting as exploring the Universe. We can only conjecture the countless ways that people connect to each other, the infinitely-complex patterns and norms people follow every minute of every day, and the many ways in which each individual confronts their limits or expands their own horizons and potentials as they live out their lives.
And being able to figure it all out requires our devoted and unquestionable belief that changing our social world into a better place is a good enough reason to ‘be bothered’.
The British Sociological Association (BSA) has inspired, and keeps on fuelling, our degree with ideas, guidelines, core principles and imaginative applications in relation of public sociology. We hope the emerging field of public sociology will be supported and embraced by the entire UK sociological community.
Athanasia Chalari is Deputy Subject Leader in Applied Social Studies and Sociology at the University of Northampton. She is also a Research Associate at the Hellenic Observatory, LSE. More details of the next presentation of the Northampton MSc in Public Sociology will be released in due course.