March 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 3

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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

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.

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. small_green

For more information about Arbor Consulting Partners, visit www.arborcp.com, or contact Mindy Fried at mfried@arborcp.com.

 

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