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applied sociology - questions and answers

Question:"What is applied sociology?"

Answered by Jammie Price, Appalachian State University and Steve Steele, Anne Arundel Community College. An excerpt from Applied Sociology- Topics, Terms, Tools and Tasks 1st Edition. Wadsworth, 2004.

You may be asking: “What do you mean by applied sociology?” Well, applied sociology is:


“Any use (often client-centered) of the sociological perspective and/or its tools in the understanding of, intervention in, and/or enhancement of human social life.”*

Let’s dissect this definition. Notice that the definition contains both elements of theory and practice. “Any use” or application suggests knowledge and a distinct approach. The notion of “client-centered” work requires some thought because it really separates basic from applied work. In client-centered work, someone other than the person investigating it presents the problem. These problems can be “dirty” in that they exist in natural settings that may, in the best of times, be less than perfect for collecting information or using theory. Yet they are of great value largely because they are real and need solutions!  

Sociological perspective refers to identifying patterns in human interaction, how and why these patterns exist, the consequences of them, and how to reproduce or change the patterns. You will learn more about the sociological perspective in the chapters to follow. For now, understand that there are many ways to “look at” a situation. The sociological perspective is a distinct and powerful way to look at human interactions.

“Understanding of, intervention in and/or “enhancement of human social life” mean that applied sociologists work to advance our collective knowledge of social phenomena, solve problems (intervention), or improve social interaction. Often, applied sociologists work on all three dimensions simultaneously.  

We will use the term applied sociology throughout this book. We wish it were that simple. Modern sociologists use a variety of terms when they talk about actually applying their discipline. Some sociologists who use the discipline for the purpose of diagnosing and measuring intervention call what they are doing “clinical sociology.”  Others suggest that sociological practice is a better term, because it is a term that denotes both clinical and applied. Knowing these different terms for applied sociology should help you when you read other sociological material. For now, let’s just stick to “applied sociology.”

Here’s an example of basic and applied sociology. What happens when organizations change? Much scientific energy has been devoted to determining how organizations work. How big should they be? What should they look like, or how should they be structured? What kinds of leaders are best? These questions are all solid sociological questions for which basic researchers have toiled to answer. Basic sociologists initiate projects primarily because of their own interest in the topic. Whatever the topic, they primarily seek to build or test sociological theory.

Now, let’s look at an applied angle on this same problem. Suppose someone decides to change the organization in which you work. This becomes a real-world problem, not only for the person who needs to lead the change, but also for the person who lives and works in the organization.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the people responsible for these changes had a little basic theory under their managerial belts? If this sounds as if theory and practice, or basic and applied sciences, are linked, you are right!  Good practice demands good theory. Whether formally trained or not, a good plumber knows a great deal of physics’ theory. And a good manager needs a good deal of organizational theory.


*From Steele, S. and Iutcovich, J. (Eds.)  1997. Directions in Applied Sociology. Society for Applied Sociology: Arnold, MD. Page 154.