March 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 3

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Doing Sociology, Practicing Sociology

Henry H. Brownstein, NORC at the University of Chicago

As graduate students, sociologists study the methods of doing sociological research and acquire the skills that we will need to perform that work. We learn to view the world through what Mills called our sociological imagination, and to relate our experience of society to concepts shared by generations of sociologists. We learn to think inductively and deductively so that our methods can shift between and across what we and other people around us experience at the micro- and macro-levels of society.

Graduate sociology programs prepare their students to study society, but how well do they prepare them to practice sociology? A January 2011 article in Footnotes by Spalter-Roth and Van Vooren suggests that sociologists are not being prepared adequately through their graduate education to practice or even think about practicing sociology outside of an academic setting.

Sociological inquiry is the purpose of sociological research. We study so we can learn and understand so we can explain. But we know that the world we study is populated by people whose behavior is guided not only by reason and knowledge but also by belief, opinion, and value. So with respect to Weber’s observations about objectivity and values (Gerth and Mills 1958), when we study what we study we need to be mindful that our explanations are not distorted by those external beliefs, opinions, and values that frame or even support our work.

Sociology for Whom?

When Alfred McClung Lee was President of the American Sociological Association he raised this issue in his presidential address. In questioning for whom we do sociology, he wrote: "The character of any sociological inquiry depends upon by and for whom it is conceived and applied. This means that the credibility, privileges, and opportunities of sociological work constitute a kind of territory over which professional practitioners and, to a lesser extent, politico-economic interest groups contend for influence and control" (1976). His point was that when our work attends to any orientation beyond the scientific then our findings, conclusions, and explanations may be shaped by the orientations of others, notably those for whom we do our work.

As sociologists, we quickly realize that what we learn from our research has application to the problems of society. This is welcome news if you are a sociologist who listens to the likes of Mills, Weber, and Lee. But it is also a challenge and if their voices are silent to you it can be troubling as well.

In part, the problem is that since the late 20th century, doing research increasingly is infused with the demands of business and politics. This raises important questions for those of us who practice sociology.

We all know how to do sociological research. Our methods, theories, and approaches may vary, but we all know and appreciate the scientific method. We can design a study, collect and analyze data, report findings, and reach conclusions. But to what extent do sociologists today understand and appreciate the business and the politics of research? Are they able to direct a research project and the people who work with them on that project? Can they manage budgets, resources, and consumers of their findings? Are they able to work honestly and productively under the influence of those whom they depend on to finance their research?

Almost 30 years after Lee asked for whom we do sociology, 2005 ASA President Michael Burawoy challenged sociologists to invigorate the field with his call for a public sociology. For Burawoy, public sociology is interrelated with, but distinct from, policy, professional, and critical sociology; for Lee and Mills all sociology is public. Burawoy acknowledges that when he has spoken about public sociology to sociologists in other countries they look at him and ask: "What else could sociology be, if not an engagement with diverse publics about public issues?" (2005).

Arguably, all sociology is public. It is important that people who do sociological research in the 21st century understand and appreciate this. Like it or not, we need to be able not only to do sociological research but also to practice sociology in a world where business and politics matter.

Ideas and opinions are those of the author alone.


Burawoy, Michael. 2005. "Presidential Address: For Public Sociology." American Sociological Review 70:4-28.

Gerth, Hans H. and C. Wright Mills. 1958. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lee, Alfred McClung. 1976. "Presidential Address: Sociology for Whom?" American Sociological Review 41: 925-936.

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