Applied sociology is not a new idea. It is at least as old as the recognized discipline. The very first sociologists had visions of using sociology to build a better world, and that’s a large part of what modern applied sociologists want to do – they want to use their sociological toolkit to find answers to practical problems and improve things.
A quick look back through some selected sociological history helps show the depth of the applied roots of the discipline. Work reflecting a sociological perspective survives from ancient times, including works from China and the Arab world. However, the term “sociology” was coined by August Comte who first used it in his book, Positive Philosophy, in 1838. It was during the period of the 1800s that scholars who became the first sociologists were moving away from the age-old philosophical questions of how society should be, to studying how society actually is. In brief, they felt that if they understood how society is organized, operates, and changes, they could more effectively address the many social problems rampant in their day.
In Europe where sociology first appeared, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels focused on class inequality. Their contributions have been central to the social-conflict perspectives and even the feminist perspectives of today’s sociologists. Emile Durkheim, known among other things for his influence on the structural-functionalist perspective of sociology, advocated for educational reforms. Max Weber was active in politics and social justice (as well as many other areas) and left a footprint that has influenced all the modern sociological perspectives, including largely the interpretive school of thought.
In the U.S., Ida Wells-Barnett, born the daughter of Mississippi slaves, fought lynching. Jane Addams helped shape the famous “Chicago School” of sociology. Hull House, a settlement house she founded in 1889, served a poor Chicago immigrant neighborhood with a wide range of services including a kindergarten, day care, adult classes, library, employment bureau, recreational facilities, and outlets for the fine arts. Both Wells-Barnett and Addams were honored by having their likeness on a U.S. postage stamp. Addams also won the Nobel Peace Price for her activism in World War I. (Now that’s applying your skills!) Lester Ward, who held a number of degrees and was the first president of the American Sociological Society (now the American Sociological Association), was so well-known that when he died in 1913 the flag was flown at half-mast in Washington, D.C.
More recently, William Foote Whyte improved food service by developing the order spindles used in many diners. Today’s “focus group” widely used in business and marketing, law, and politics grew from work by Robert K. Merton. Sociologists such as Stephen F. Steele here at Anne Arundel Community College and Arthur B. Shostak of Drexel University focus on the future and ways to build more positive worlds. Other applied sociologists work throughout society in fields ranging from social service to “high-tech.” Even people who have studied sociology, although not necessarily claiming the title of sociologist, apply their skills throughout society and have included such notables as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan.
So applied sociology is not a new idea. Rather, it is a way of “doing” sociology that has been at the core of the discipline since the beginning and continues to be central to the future of the discipline and it’s utility for society.