The ASA and Sociological Practice
ASA’s historical roots in applied sociology
and proposal for the future
by Jay Weinstein, Eastern Michigan University, and Kathryn Goldman Schuyler, Alliant International University
Since its founding, the American Sociological Association has endeavored to make its potential publics aware of what the discipline can contribute to the improvement of the human condition. The ASA’s first president was the avowed applied sociologist, Lester Frank Ward, and several of its early leaders promoted this original version of public sociology. The formation of the first Department of Sociology and the creation of the field’s first U.S. journal at the University of Chicago were substantially influenced by the pragmatist movement in philosophy and by the work of John Dewey, in particular. Dewey urged educators to contribute to the creation of publics: groups of informed citizens who can participate meaningfully in the democratic process. As C. Wright Mills noted, this injunction became a key component of the professional culture for the first generation of ASA members and officers (Mills 1964).
Although a commitment to the principles of sociological practice is lodged deeply in the foundations of the ASA and is incorporated into its bylaws, the record is less clear with regard to the organization’s provision of resources and status to the sociological practitioner, in comparison to the researcher and teacher. As Lawrence Rhoades (1981) noted in his history of the ASA: As the organization grew and matured, public outreach and sociological practice were treated somewhat ambiguously.
Harry Perlstadt’s recent discussion (Perlstadt 2006) provides valuable references on the history of sociological practice. This history includes several ASA-supported initiatives intended to elevate the status of practitioners and their work, including creation of a Section on Sociological Practice (SP) in 1979; the creation of an ASA Committee on Professional Opportunities in Applied Sociology in 1981; publication of the Sociological Practice Review, beginning in 1990; and the creation in 1991 of the Sydney S. Spivak Program in Applied Social Research and Social Policy, which supports the ASA Congressional Fellowship.
Yet, as Perlstadt documents, many of these initiatives—including the Sociological Practice Review—proved to be short lived, or somehow failed to become permanent parts of the institutional framework. Instead, most of the work to promote sociological practice as a profession has occurred in organizations such as the Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology (AACS), its predecessor organizations: the Society for Applied Sociology (SAS), the Sociological Practice Association (SPA), and the Clinical Sociology Association (CSA), and the Commission on Applied and Clinical Sociology (CACS, of which Perlstadt was founding Chair).
As a growing proportion of sociology graduates are employed outside of academe, the time has come to re-examine the commitment of the practitioner to the ASA, as well as of the ASA to the practitioner. Roberta Spalter-Roth’s recent study of sociologists in non-academic settings (Spalter-Roth 2007) provides an important baseline for understanding the demographic characteristics, resource needs, and the sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction among contemporary sociologists employed in applied and policy settings.
A closer and more mutually supportive relationship has been forged between the ASA and AACS than at any time in the past. The Directory of Programs in Applied Sociology and Practice (Breese and Weinstein 2006) lists 27 college and university departments that offer degree specializations in sociological practice, several of which have been accredited or are under accreditation review by the CACS. And AACS has renewed the program, initiated by SPA, to provide certification for sociological practitioners.
Practitioners are in a strong position to help promote more effective application of the field. They can be of great service to the ASA in this cause, and the ASA can be of great service to them to the extent that we can renew the organization’s founding commitment to sociological practice.
Many practitioners view the ASA as less than supportive of their interests. Leora Lawton, President of TechSociety Research and former Chair of the ASA SP Section notes, "I’ve often met PhD sociologists who aren’t members of the ASA. The image is that the ASA is only for academics and that it’s largely irrelevant to their work." In contrast, "When applied sociologists attend meetings related to their field of employment, they network with colleagues and get up-to-date on research about their areas of work, which are very often aspects of policy development or evaluation, or business-related research."
A PhD sociologist who works for an agency specializing in issues of substance abuse expressed even stronger views:
I am disgusted with the approach ASA has taken toward applied sociologists who are not in universities or funding agencies. They call on us to provide them with expertise on rare occasions and do not think of us at other times. For example, when it is time to put together expert delegations to go to Washington to help agencies or Congress set agendas, those of us not in universities simply do not get thought of. Instead, they invite academics with far smaller publication records in the subject fields to do these tasks. There is very little of substantive interest to me at the meetings or in the journals.
At the 2007 ASA Meeting, the SP Section agreed to address these concerns and to develop proposals for "bringing professionals in from the cold," as Spalter-Roth put it. Lawton summarized the initiative: A program should be created to "redefine ASA as the association where any and all sociologists could find value. That means making it known as a place for non-academic training, for helping sections present research about policy, not just peer-reviewed research, and perhaps even a journal about social policy design, evaluation and meta-reviews."
Following a year of conference calls, e-mail exchanges, and informal discussions, the following recommendations emerged:
- The ASA should work more directly, and possibly establish formal relationships, with CACS on program accreditation and with AACS on certification of practicing sociologists.
- ASA meetings should include more professional workshops, especially those organized by practitioners. As Lawton observes, "Over the years . . . there have been more methodological and applied career-oriented workshops. These are the kinds of events that make attendance justifiable…. Making it really successful means promoting it locally, which might mean reaching out to government agencies, non-profits, and others."
- Presentations at all sessions at ASA meetings that are application oriented should be shared with the SP Section and noted as such in the Annual Meeting program. Certain sections should be required to include policy or application-oriented presentations each year.
- Practitioners should be encouraged to run for ASA Council, possibly through designated offices.
- Practitioners should be included in, and play a prominent role on, ASA curriculum and teaching task forces.
One recommendation has already been accepted: The SP Section is now the Section on Sociological Practice and Public Sociology.
To the extent that these and related proposals can be implemented, practitioners will be able to use ASA more effectively for networking, keeping current with research, and helping shape the organization and profession to their interests. Conversely, this benefits the ASA and the profession by making it worthwhile for practicing sociologists to be actively connected to the discipline. The profession can grow by nourishing action-oriented professionals as well as researchers.
Breese, Jeffrey and Jay Weinstein. 2006. The Directory of Programs in Applied Sociology and Practice, 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association.
Mills, C. Wright. 1964. Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America New York: Oxford University Press.
Perlstadt, Harry. 2006 "Applied Sociology." Chapter 39 in Handbook of 21st Century Sociology. Vol. 2, edited by C.D. Bryant and D.L. Peck., Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Rhoades, Lawrence J. 1981. A History of the ASA: 1905-1980. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association. (www2.asanet.org/about/history/index.html).
Spalter-Roth, Roberta. 2007. "Sociologists in Research, Applied, and Policy Settings: Bringing Professionals in from the Cold." Journal of Applied Social Science 1, 2:4-18.
¹We employ the term "sociological practice" here to refer to an approach that incorporates "applied," "clinical," and "public" sociology. The ASA has established something of a standard in this regard by incorporating an official section on Sociological Practice (SP) that includes members who prefer one or more of these other labels and was just renamed the Section on Sociological Practice and Public Sociology. The ASA thereby recognizes—and has recognized for some time—a legitimate role for the application of sociological theory, research methods, and research findings in addressing practical problems that emerge in the community, government, and industry.
Jay Weinstein, Eastern Michigan University, has participated extensively in applied research projects in the United States and several other countries. He is President of the North Central Sociological Association. He has also served as Chair of the ASA Council on Sociological Practice and President of the Society for Applied Sociology.
Kathryn Goldman Schuyler is Chair of the Section on Sociological Practice. She has been an organizational consultant for over 20 years and is an Associate Professor in the Marshall Goldsmith School of Management at Alliant International University. Her consulting practice has focused on executive team development, culture change, and organizational learning.