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 graduate education.
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 "answers" here).
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.