By Dr. Kathy Stolley
Adjunct Faculty Member, Sociology at American Public University
In his classic work, “Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (1963: 18),” Peter Berger describes a sociologist as someone who is “intensively, endlessly, [and] shamelessly interested” in the doings of humans. Simply put, as sociologists we think humans are fascinating and we’re interested in the implications of human interactions for us as individuals and for the world more broadly.
Some sociologists are basic researchers. They conduct and publish scientific, theoretically-based research that helps us better understand human behavior. Humans are interesting, but how useful is it to know all of the “stuff” that sociologists have discovered?
Applied sociologists answer these questions by taking sociology to the next step. They use sociological theories, methods, and concepts to make positive change in the real world. In sociology, we call that a form of sociological practice, or “doing” sociology.
Sociology has a long history of being an applied discipline. Sociology was actually born in social action; trying to improve social conditions in Europe in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. The sociologists during that time period (e.g., Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber) focused on social issues like addressing class inequality and improving educational systems. Some were active in politics. In the United States, early sociologists applied their perspectives to fight against racism and lynching, and to fight for safe work places and women’s suffrage. Jane Addams, who taught at the University of Chicago and worked tirelessly on behalf of poor immigrants, even won the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize for her anti-war efforts during World War I.
Although many sociologists turned more heavily to building theory and conducting basic research during much of the 20th century, applied sociology never really went away and is now making a comeback. Applied sociological research has been instrumental in giving us such diverse contributions as: basic focus group techniques for better understanding voting and consumer behaviors; the idea for the restaurant order spindle that helps get your order of pancakes and eggs to your table while your food’s still hot; transit system improvements that better serve disabled riders; an endless array of more user-friendly consumer products; and more efficient and human-oriented organizations generally.
Applied sociology has even improved medical coding processes that have been credited with significantly reducing the number of medication errors in hospitals. So if you ever land in the hospital and your nurse gives you your correct medicine in the correct dosage (rather than a triple strength dose or the medicine intended for the guy in the room next door), applied sociology just might have saved your life! Hey, I’m just saying–never underestimate applied sociology.
About the Author:
Kathy Stolley received her Ph.D. from The George Washington University. In addition to teaching sociology with an applied emphasis, she has held a variety of positions outside of academics including policing, organizational consulting, and research. Her work has been published in various professional journals and she has published four books.
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