Competence embraces key dimensions of a sociologist's research,
teaching, service and practice activities. The issues here range from
the standards we set for graduate training to expectations we have for
sociologists over the course of their career in the face of the
tremendous growth of sociological knowledge and practices. At a
minimum, we can agree that whatever methodology, theory or pedagogic
style we claim as our expertise, that we ought to be current in the
sociological body of knowledge that sustains that activity. We conduct
re-search, teach, practice and provide service only within the
boundaries of our ongoing competencies. Sociologists refrain from
undertaking business, academic, service or administrative tasks when
they know they are not adequately skilled, and cannot reasonably
develop those skills "on the job" without substantial cost to their
clients, students or colleagues. Sociologists have to take into account
the time investments needed to continuously retrain ourselves as the
discipline moves beyond the knowledge base and skills of our own
From the onset of training, the discipline (departments?) identifies
standards for graduate education (?) which are the responsibility of
the graduate program in the training and credentialing of sociologists.
After receiving the appropriate terminal degree, sociologists have a
responsibility to maintain their competence in areas in which they
claim ongoing expertise, and to understand the boundaries of their
competence in the face of new professional assignments, and new
directions in the discipline. In some work-places, annual review of
research, teaching and service activities may be superficial and
uninformative. In some practice settings, it is rare for anyone other
than clients to become aware of our "standards" and the consequences
for the quality of our work. Some sociologists labor in isolation,
others in settings so interdisciplinary that our only colleagues are
outside of Sociology per se.
Competence can be debated from a number of perspectives. At the center
are a series of questions to consider. First, are we as a discipline
satisfied with "minimum competence"? It is unlikely that we would hire
a new recruit who barely meets our standards, yet we might watch a
colleagues' or our own skills erode behind the fast pace of scientific
and theoretical advances in the field. Second, what is the place of
competence in a life-long career as a sociologist? What are our
obligations to re-tool throughout our careers? Can we shift
competencies over the course of that career to better address a "match"
between our sociological roles and our expertise? (Need
Third, what are the boundaries of our expertise, even at present?
Researchers can be called upon to provide methodological expertise in a
variety of settings: the courtroom, the consulting firm, university
administration or as project colleagues. Sociologists have to ascertain
their capacity to fill these roles, to have the skills to conclude the
project goal, and then strive to make our more technical work
understandable to non-sociological audiences. If we are unsure of these
abilities, we should consult with our peers and perhaps make a
referral, rather than take on the role ourselves.
Fourth, faculty members can be assigned to new teaching
responsibilities in areas in which they hold little or no background
preparation. The Code is not meant to be used as a "line in the sand,"
with sociology instructors refusing new class assignments; rather, it
is a point from which to negotiate adequate resources (preparation
time, research materials) to properly meet new teaching assignments in
a changing academy.
Fifth, what are our responsibilities for overseeing the competence of
others? As supervisors of students, research assistants, other faculty
members and staff, sociologists have the professional responsibility to
identify boundaries of competence that are important in creating
realistic job descriptions, hiring appropriate candidates, and
preparing supervisees to meet changing conditions in the profession. We
cannot supervise these changes effectively if we are not ourselves
aware of changing disciplinary standards. To expect others to keep up
with "the moving target" without ourselves understanding the nature of
that target is a disservice to the profession.
All of these situations represent a challenge to maintaining or
establishing competence. It is in the intellectual exchange of national
or regional professional meetings, through the comments of journal
reviewers, or the peer review of teaching strategies, that our
competencies are challenged and honed. The ethical practice of
sociology hinges on our ability to conduct our work competently.