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applied sociology - questions and answers

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Question: "Why Applied Sociology?"

Answered by John E. Glass, Ph.D. Professor of Sociology, Colin County Community College, Frisco, Texas

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The discipline of Sociology is a tremendous resource for framing and finding solutions to social problems. Much, if not most of its potential remains untapped, however. I see it as the job of Sociologists in general and Applied Sociologists in particular to demonstrate to the public the relevance that Sociology has for improving the living conditions of our world. There is no better evidence for the value that Sociology has to offer than through the actual demonstration of a Sociological intervention. As such, I consistently advocate for Sociologists to develop and implement Sociological applications.

One particularly powerful device within the realm of Sociology that is awaiting full realization of its application potential is a concept popularized by the radical Sociologist, C. W. Mills known as the "Sociological Imagination." This simple, yet elegant idea links an individual to the whole of human history and social organization. How does it do this? By showing us that we are indeed individuals, but as individuals, we represent the intersection of biography (our personal story) and history (the story of our society). What does this mean? It means that much of what we think of as being extremely personal to us (e.g., our gender, our desires, our sense of ourselves, our values) are, in large part, determined by the socio-historical context we find ourselves in. To put it another way, when we were born, where we were raised, and what the prominent ideas were that were accepted as fact or truth during our lives have had a tremendous impact on us….much more so than we often ever think about. Consider if you had been born in a different country, a different culture, at a different time; would you still be you? Or would you be someone else? The Sociological Imagination implies that we are who we are, in large part because of where we are within a certain context and history. To answer the above question, chances are you would not be you as you know yourself now, you would be someone else. You would still have the experience of being alive, but your frame of reference, in terms of the very personal elements listed above would, in all likelihood, be very, very different.

Now, what kind of intervention could we develop using the Sociological Imagination as the primary framework? One that immediately comes to mind would focus on increasing our appreciation of our common humanity. If we use our Sociological Imagination to realize that our seeming differences are due primarily to context, culture, and time, then we can begin to understand and deeply appreciate our similarities. These similarities are public and personal (another insight of Mills’) and they are fundamentally human. We all get hungry. We all need a safe place to live. We all need clean water to drink. We all need some way of obtaining resources to care for ourselves and our families. In short, we are all human; how we are human (the differences between us) is window-dressing. How we are human has to do with our context, culture, and time. This diversity is wonderful, but it is not the defining factor of our collective lives. That defining factor of our collective lives is that we are all human, that we all have needs to get met and at an ever-increasing rate, we are sharing the resources of one world to do that. In short, the Sociological Imagination can be used to realize that we are truly one human family.

So, why Applied Sociology? Because there is invaluable wisdom and insight in the discipline of Sociology that remains untapped. Once tapped and fully resourced, our world will be a much better, much more humane, and much more productive world.