It’s Time to Bring Academic, Applied and Public Sociology Together

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

Below is a great interview with sociologist Dr. Tina Uys, who talks about the urgent need for sociology in South Africa (where she lives). Inequality is shifting rapidly in many ways, for example in education, but it does so without adequate institutional support. Uys discusses the problems facing South African sociology, such as funding cuts. Uys then talks about her journey through her sociological career, one which did not begin with sociology in mind. I see that Uys’s story may be common. It certainly echoes my own career.

Today’s post is about the pressing need to better market a unified vision of sociology to our students. Academic, applied and public sociologies serve different interests: one is about theoretical development, the other about serving government and community services, and the latter is about engaging the public’s imagination. Elsewhere, I’ve shown that applied sociology is poorly understood by academics. It’s like we’re a collective of practitioners working adjacent to one another, without a broader external view of how we fit together. It’s time to bring our various sociological approaches together.

South African Sociology

Uys teaches at the University of Johannesburg and she is also the Vice President for the National Associations of the International Sociological Association (ISA). She talks about the ‘survival strategies’ of students in higher education in South Africa. Uys says the student body in the University of Johannesburg has become ‘80% black’ and most are ‘first-generation’ students who do not have much financial or academic support. This has made it difficult for students to adjust to the academic demands of university life.

Sociology clearly has an important role to play in shaping South African education. Sociology provides a framework for understanding the economic and social forces that limit the ability for students to become upwardly mobile. Sociology puts these struggles into historical and comparative perspective in relation to other nations. Yet as Uys notes, sociology itself is suffering from systemic educational processes. Uys argues that lecturers are over burdened. Funding cuts makes it harder to teach effectively. This is a common problem experienced by higher education departments around the world.  (For a comparison, see the British Sociological Association’s Sociology & The Cuts series and the Campaign for Public University.)

Sociology by Accident: Integrated Vision & Marketing

Uys then goes on to discuss her journey through sociology. Uys says she became a sociologist ‘by accident’. She came to university to study psychology, but she became drawn to the issues in sociology.

This is the story of my life and that of a few sociologists I know. I went to university to study literature and my back up was psychology… and yet here I am 12 years later, an applied sociologist (I’ve shared my story out of academia on Sociology at Work).

It would be good to see our discipline to start addressing this common story – that many of us find sociology by accident due to poor marketing. The Australian Sociological Association, The American Sociological Association and various sociology journals have identified this as a problem with the way we publicise our skills and knowledge to students and to other publics. This has also been addressed as a major stumbling block in getting our professional identity recognised.

The challenges facing sociology as a profession are addressed separately under the rubric of public sociology, such as through the work of Michael Burawoy and Duncan Watts. Burawoy argues that sociology treads a fine line between being at the mercy of market forces and being left behind because the public is disengaged with what sociologists offer:

When society is threatened so is sociology. We can no longer rely on the state to contain the market and so sociologists have to forge their own connections to society, i.e. to develop public sociology. We have to do more than passively serve society, but have to conserve and constitute society. In this sociology has many potential allies and partners within society as they too come under increasing assault from state and market. That is the broader contemporaneous context within which sociology operates.

For many years, I have been arguing that sociology needs to break down the divide between the intellectual work of academics and the practical work of applied sociologists. One of the main rationales that governments and universities use to cut back on funding and resources in sociology departments (and other humanities and social science departments) is that we do not attract as many students as other more applied fields. Social science is not as highly valued as it should be as a result.

The struggles sociologists face outside academia is that people don’t know what we can do. If we can’t market ourselves properly to our own students, and we continually rely on people ‘discovering’ sociology through a sense of curiosity and wonder, sociology is never going to reach its true potential and meet the challenges of the future.

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