I’ve been thinking about the pain that applied social scientists carry around with them.[i] I’ve recently reviewed a colleague’s paper where they[ii] reflected on what it is like to be an applied sociologist. I don’t think I am stealing their thunder to say that I feel like I’ve read this paper various times over the years. Don’t get me wrong – there are parts of this paper that are truly outstanding. This researcher has had an interesting and varied career. They have worked on diverse social issues with lots of different community and government groups. They have achieved very useful things that have had a real impact on social policy in Australia. But when their article deviated away from their experience as an applied researcher and floated into a critique about the failings of academic sociology and the evils of the natural sciences… They lost me.
I’ve read many personal stories and analyses from applied sociologists who feel they are marginalised by academic sociologists and professionals from other fields. I feel this pain – I’ve been forced to respond to some truly belligerent comments over the past few years. Applied sociologists often have to fight to have our ideas heard when we work alongside other disciplines that have greater authority in ‘the real world’. Some applied sociologists work in fields where economists have a stronger hold over the way in which social policies are created. Others work in the provision of healthcare, which is an area dominated by medical doctors, biologists, psychiatrists and other natural scientists. Wherever they work, applied sociologists may sometimes fantasise about how much better the world would be if more people understood what sociology is all about, and they may even get to a point where they wish that natural scientists had less legitimacy. Again, I feel the pain… (And it’s just like Dinosaur Jr promised it would be.) But I’m not sure that defining ourselves as the antithesis of the natural sciences is a useful standpoint; because then we are simply accepting our Otherness as if we’ve internalised xkcd’s Fields of Purity comic (above), amusing as it is.
I actually had a print out of this comic hanging over my desk. It did the rounds at my old work and I found it cute how excited and validated all the math geeks felt about it. Because, you know, not all geeks are created equal. Or maybe we are, but Some Geeks Are More Equal Than Others. Plus I choose to read this comic differently than the intended meaning: sociologists are not ‘less pure’ than the other sciences (and the opposite of mathematics). Instead, we turn away from arbitrary hierarchies of scientific purity. Or at least we should…
I used to work in an area of public service dominated by engineers, computer scientists, mathemagicians[iii] and other natural scientists. Many of my colleagues were super cool and they were interested in learning more about social science. They were keen to collaborate on interdisciplinary projects and they looked to me as an expert in my field, as I did them. Some of my other colleagues started off from a less understanding outlook. One of my favourite memories was when a senior researcher (a natural scientist) read over a report that another social scientist and I had produced. We presented a conceptual framework for understanding mass media communication. I can laugh about this now but at the time it greatly increased my blood pressure… I drew on the work of leading cultural theorist Stuart Hall (and Dennis McQuail and other media researchers). The Scientist quizzed me about Hall’s scientific credentials and the ‘validity’ of Hall’s research. Then, referring to Hall’s influential work on semiotics and his theory of encoding-decoding, The Scientist went on to say: ‘I feel like I could have come up with this brainstorming for half an hour’. Hmmm… Because – you know – sociology is soooo easy, you just whip out your Ouija Board, chant awhile, doodle on a whiteboard and hey presto: Social Science Theory in 30 Easy Minutes.
This makes me think of another Mclusky nugget – albeit paraphrased: ‘My Science is better than your science, We’ve got more Science than a science convention, Sing it!’ (It’s better if you imagine me sing it.) Being forced to defend the scientific basis of my discipline and having to convince natural scientists that sociology is not, in fact, Easy Peasy Stuff Anyone Can Do, is highly frustrating. Particularly given that the clients I have worked with have always deferred to my sociological input specifically because they recognise the complexity of cultural processes and societies.
Nevertheless, I am loath to habitually remind my applied sociology colleagues that reproducing scientific divides between sociology and other sciences does not actually advance our cause. This isn’t simply about ‘rising above’ and ‘being the Better Person’ – or the Better Scientist, as the case may be. Cathartic as it is to air out our pain over the misguided put-downs we routinely face about our applied work… Fun as it is to pick at our scars following our jostles with other scientists who think that what we do is easy… It is our honour and privilege to show the relevance of sociology to the uninitiated. Applied sociologists may not teach in classrooms, but we are often thrust into a position of educator when we meet people who are ignorant about what we do. I won’t lie – it always sucks to have to explain that, no, sociology is not Easy Science Whipped Up in 30 Minutes of ‘Brainstorming’. But where there’s pain, there’s pleasure. And for everything else in between – Mclusky will cure what ails ya.
[i] This title is an ode to the musical genius of Mclusky. Their album was actually titled ‘My Pain and Sadness is More Sad and Painful Than Yours’. Get on it if you haven’t already.
[ii] Royal pronoun used throughout to protect the innocent. And the misguided.