Sociologists in Research and Applied Settings
This occasional column focuses on the interesting career paths and achievements of sociologists whose primary work in sociology is not in the academy or whose “extracurricular” work outside academic settings is noteworthy for its societal or policy impact. These sociologists are engaged directly with the public, applying methods of science and their sociological expertise.
The Evaluator in the Field as an Outsider Within
by Mindy Fried, Arbor Consulting Partners
- How can a university-community partnership overcome differences to work together more effectively?
- What role can the arts play in improving student outcomes and school culture?
- How can a foundation-initiated leadership program strengthen the nonprofit sector?
The above are some of the questions I explore as a public sociologist. The primary focus of my work is in the service of organizational change that promotes a civil society. Whether solo or in collaboration with other social scientists—including the partnership to which I now belong—I bring a "third eye" to solve problems in diverse organizational settings, such as foundations, nonprofits, and universities. To these "clients," I am an evaluation researcher, organizational analyst, educator, and strategic planner.
I view problems through a gendered lens, as well as within the context of larger social systems as they manifest in the microcosm of social and economic institutions. The work I did within the academy—studying and teaching feminist theory and research methods and the sociology of work and organizations—is now central to my applied practice. While I spent many years focusing on work and family issues, I have branched out to work on public health issues. I have also returned to my roots as a dancer (with a twist) as I now evaluate arts-education programs.
The following three brief descriptions introduce some of my recent projects, followed by a discussion of their commonalities, apparent differences, and the sociological thinking that informs my practice.
- A large research university, government officials, local nonprofit organizations, and low-income community members are working together to improve the health of residents in low-income communities. The early stage of their collaboration was hindered by misunderstanding and miscommunication, yet they stayed together because of a common goal. How could this unique partnership overcome internal differences in order to work more effectively? With my colleagues in Arbor Consulting Partners—both anthropologists— we helped key players develop a deeper understanding of how power, diversity, and agency affected their organizational dynamic. Through a process-oriented evaluation, involving interviews and focus groups with key players as well as participant observation, we developed an organizational analysis and facilitated strategic planning sessions. This resulted in better communication and better outcomes for this complex, but important, collaboration.
- Across the nation, schools have eliminated or reduced their emphasis on the arts, prioritizing so-called academic rigor and standardized testing. This occurs despite robust research that demonstrates that the arts (i.e., drama, visual arts, dance, and music) result in positive student outcomes in terms of students’ joy for learning and through traditional academic outcomes. A model for teaching "in and through the arts" has been piloted successfully in several states on the East Coast, and is being adapted in a West Coast city. In partnership with a quantitative researcher, I am conducting a four-year qualitative study of the West Coast model, observing four Title I schools as they learn about and gradually implement the model. My research includes participant observation of teacher training, interviews with teachers and administrators at the four schools, and interviews with students. Research findings are being used to identify factors that contribute to the initiative’s success. Ultimately, I will develop case studies that will be used to educate broader audiences about the efficacy of this model.
- Leaders in the U.S. nonprofit sector face great challenges, including raising funds to meet organizational missions, the accelerating demand for services, and the lack of professional development opportunities, especially for leaders from communities of color. A sociology colleague and I were hired by a community foundation to conduct an evaluation of its nonprofit leadership program. The program awards one-year fellowships to professionals who run nonprofit institutions in varied arenas. We conducted in-depth interviews with each cohort of fellows over a three-year period, did baseline and followup surveys, attended leadership training sessions, and ultimately wrote case studies focusing on the impact of the leadership program on individuals, their organizations, and their communities. Throughout the three years, we also provided ongoing feedback to the foundation’s program directors, with recommendations for strengthening the program.
What do these three projects have in common and how are they different? How has my work in these different worlds been informed by sociological theory and practice? Each of these research projects is designed to stimulate and/or support a change agenda. The areas of focus and the audiences may differ, but the goal of change is a constant.
In each case, interventions are mediated through an institutional base, but ultimately they are all aimed at impacting inequities—either directly (e.g., through school reform) or indirectly (e.g., through a nonprofit leadership program or a collaboration that develops programs).
In the above as well as in my other projects, the process of developing and implementing a research plan is guided by feminist principles. This includes working collaboratively with a client, ensuring that the voices of all stakeholders are represented equally in the planning and implementation process, and to the extent possible, mentoring individuals within an organization or institution so that they can independently evaluate their practice after my colleagues and I are gone.
As we carry out this work, we are "outsiders within," individuals who are not emotionally or professionally involved with the on-site cast of characters. While this provides an opening for trust, we still must prove that we are trustworthy. This process involves listening well and reflecting people’s experience back to them. It requires not assuming that we understand what is in front of us until we have heard multiple perspectives. We must frame individuals’ or a group’s perspectives within a broader context, taking into account the effects of social and economic inequities, gender and racial bias, discrimination and inadequate resources. Our status as outsiders within ultimately allows us to interpret multiple perspectives, untangle conflict, and think creatively about how to maximize positive outcomes for an organization. Our analysis of data is informed by grounded theory, which we use to layer our understanding of individual behavior in organizational context. In the end, we hope that our analyses leads to organizational learning, that outcomes are met, that individuals achieve better communication, that programs are strengthened, that better social networks are developed, and that social movements are strengthened.
Many years ago, after running a meeting with people of diverse interests and backgrounds, a colleague asked me if I had "mediated" my parents. I paused not sure whether her comment was intended as an insult or compliment. I hadn’t considered it until that point, but she was right. This was the most comfortable thing I could do in my professional world because I grew up doing it! Sociological theory and methods have helped me to strengthen what comes naturally, providing a powerful framework to better understand complex human relations in the service of creating social change.