homeprev issuesexecpublic affairspub forumSTAFF
The Executive Officer's Column

A Walk on the Applied Side

The announcement of ASA's award for a Distinguished Career in the Practice of Sociology to Peter Rossi (see page 1) led me to reflect on an article, "Furthering the Applied Side of Sociology," which Howard Freeman and Rossi published 15 years ago in the American Sociological Review. In that piece, at a time—1984—when the academic job market was particularly tight, they argued that "applied work could mitigate the consequences of the shrinking opportunities for sociologists in the academic labor market." As importantly, they argued that it was intellectually unwise for the discipline to turn "inward"; instead, they maintained that sociology should address a rich array of problems and issues. Yet, before new PhDs and their advisors could simply hop on that bandwagon, they threw in this challenge: ". . . there are qualitative differences between applied and conventional academic work that need to be confronted, including the educational preparation required, the criteria for student selection, the ways faculty are evaluated, and the kinds of work that are valued " (p.571).

Fast forwarding to 1999, the ASA Research Program on the Discipline and Profession is in the midst of analyzing the data from the PhD-tracking survey, a sample of graduates from July 1996-August 1997. First, the data show that in better employment times, sociology PhDs have fairly low rates of entry into applied work, even when the academic positions they hold are non-tenure track. While the PhDs in academic and non-academic positions did not differ on many personal characteristics, their graduate education showed differences. Those employed in academia were more likely to have had teaching assistantships and had more opportunities to present research outside of their universities. Eighty-five percent of all respondents indicated that faculty had not encouraged them to pursue non-academic jobs, and 63 percent reported that they had not had opportunities to interact with non-academic professionals.

Yet, as Freeman and Rossi invoked, "it is not possible to train students in applied sociology without on-going faculty involvement in the work we are training them for" (p.575). To encourage such training, they lay out a list of specific illustrative changes needed in sociology departments to accommodate applied sociology, such as a openness to publications in non-sociology journals as well as technical and proprietary reports; flexibility to allow a colleague to take an applied, public service assignment; and adequate support staff to help to ensure the quick and quality turnaround applied clients require. Their and other ideas for shifts in graduate education will be taken up by an exceptional panel of sociologists at the ASA's Directors of Graduate Study conference in August on "Preparing for Applied Careers."

From where I sit, some progress has been made to prepare intentionally and rigorously a new generation of applied sociologists. A 1998 ASA report on "Applied Programs" profiles a number of MA-only programs that have been particularly creative in addressing actual or simulated client-driven research agendas. Many of these programs include a sociological research center at the hub, where faculty and students engage in collaborative research. Freeman and Rossi made the point, and I concur, that not all sociologists or sociology departments should turn to applied activity, but, as in economics, the strength of our discipline can derive from high quality "training" for and "doing" of both academic and non-academic work.

While many departments may not have transformed themselves as much as they can, or should, or will, professional socialization in and support for applied work can be found in many sociological associations beyond ASA. In certain subfields like rural sociology, public opinion research, or demography, there has been a longstanding and valued presence of professionals doing substantive and methodological work of rigor and significance on applied issues or in applied settings. The legitimacy of these roles can be seen in a "blended" leadership in the Rural Sociological Society (RSS), the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), or the Population Association of America (PAA), which prominently include those in practice (that is, non-academic careers).

This blending and support for applied work can also be seen in the leadership of those sociological associations essentially dedicated to applied work such as the Society for Applied Sociology (SAS), the Sociological Practice Association (SPA), and the ASA's Section on Sociological Practice. Not only do applied sociologists find a network of interested colleagues in a wide range of applied settings, but academics with applied interests are active as well. In summer 2000, SAS and SPA will hold a joint meeting, overlapping with the ASA Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. Within ASA, we have reflected on how to ensure professional visibility and growth for sociologists engaged in applied work, whether in our "Policy and Practice" column in Footnotes, in didactic workshops at the Annual Meeting, or as reviewers of books for Contemporary Sociology.

As someone who has affirmatively chosen professional opportunities outside of the academic workplace, I can attest to the immense challenges and pleasure of using sociological training and insights in venues where our work can make a difference. When I was at the National Science Foundation, my core purpose was advancing basic research in the social sciences, but the mode of the activity was an application. At ASA too, our work is applied even when we are aiming to promote the most fundamental objectives of the discipline.

Over the years, other false dichotomies, such as that between teaching and research, have slowly fallen, by virtue of exemplary instances of colleagues doing their best work across sectors. Rossi and others certainly typify this tradition and, through their words and actions, address some of the stereotypes and distortions between applied and academic sociology. My enthusiasm about the possibilities for our field to be strengthened and to be useful extends not just to students at all degree levels, but to department leaders as well. The structural changes are yet to be fully implemented, but there are enough breakthroughs in the barriers to encourage sociologists to take a walk on the applied side. -- Felice J. Levine