Applied Sociology

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Applied sociology is sociology in use. It is policy-oriented, action-directed, and intends to assist people and groups to think reflectively about what it is they do, or how it is they can create more viable social forms capable of adapting to changing external and internal conditions. The roots of applied sociology in the United States go back to the publication in 1883 of Lester Ward's Dynamic Sociology: or Applied Social Science, a text in which he laid the groundwork for distinguishing between an understanding of causal processes and how to intervene in them to foster social progress. Today applied sociology has blossomed in every arena of sociological endeavor (Olsen and Micklin 1981).

The nature of applied sociology can more easily be grasped by examining those characteristics that distinguish it from basic sociology. Different audiences are involved (Coleman 1972). Basic sociology is oriented toward those who have a concern for the advancement of sociological knowledge. The quality of such work (quantitative or qualitative,) is evaluated in accordance with agreed-upon standards of scientific merit. Applied sociology is oriented more toward those who are making decisions, developing or monitoring programs, or concerned about the accountability of those who are making decisions and developing programs. The quality of applied work is evaluated in accordance with a dual set of criteria: (1) how useful it is in informing decisions, revealing patterns, improving programs, and increasing accountability; and (2) whether its assumptions and methods are appropriately rigorous for the problems under investigation.

If we were to imagine a continuum between pure research and pure practice, applied sociology would occupy a space in the middle of this continuum. This space is enlarged along one boundary when practitioners and applied sociologists collaborate to explain patterns of behavior or develop causal models for predicting the likely impact of different courses of action. It is enlarged on the other boundary when applied and basic sociologists collaborate in the elaboration of abstract theory so as to make it more useful (Lazersfeld and Reitz 1975). There is always tension between the two, however. In part, the tension is attributable to the analytic distance that should characterize sociological analysis more generally (Lofland 1997). In part, it is attributable to the infusion of an ethical position in applied analysis, a posture which, if nothing else, is sensitive to the operation of power.

The boundaries of applied sociology may also be specified by enumerating the activities that play a central role in what it is that applied sociologists do. Freeman and Rossi (1984) have suggested three activities: (1) mapping and social indicator research, (2) modeling social phenomena, and (3) evaluating purposive action. To this could be added at least one more activity: (4) conceptualizing, studying, and facilitating the adaptability of alternative social forms. Examining these activities also permits considering some of the presumed tradeoffs that are commonly thought to distinguish basic from applied sociology.

Mapping and social indicator research. Such studies are primarily descriptive, and designed to provide estimates of the incidence and prevalence of phenomena that are social in nature. There may be interest in how these phenomena are distributed in different social categories (e.g., by ethnic group affiliation, lifestyles, or social classes) or are changing over time. For example, corporations may wish to know how consumption patterns for various goods are changing over time for different groups to facilitate the development of marketing strategies. Federal and state agencies may wish to understand how the incidence and prevalence of diseases for different social groups is changing over time to develop more effective prevention and treatment strategies. Neighborhood groups may wish to know how citizen complaints regarding the police, high school graduation, or cervical cancer rates are distributed in relation to income characteristics of neighborhoods.

It is often assumed that applied sociology is less rigorous than basic sociology. Freeman and Rossi (1984) suggest that it is more appropriate to argue that the norms governing the conduct of basic sociological research are universally rigorous, while the norms governing the conduct of applied sociological research, of which mapping and social indicator research are but two examples, have a sliding scale of rigor. For critical decisions, complex phenomena that are either difficult to measure or disentangle, or where precise projections are needed, sophisticated quantitative or qualitative measures, or both, may be required and sophisticated analytic techniques may be needed, or may need to be developed. But as time and budget constraints increase, and the need for precision decreases, "quick and dirty" measures might be more appropriate. The level of rigor in applied sociology, in short, is driven by the needs of the client and the situation as well as the nature of the problem under investigation.

Modeling social phenomena. The modeling of social phenomena is an activity common to both basic and applied sociology. Sociologists of both persuasions might be interested in modeling the paths by which adolescents develop adaptive or maladaptive coping strategies, or the mechanisms by which social order is maintained in illicit drug networks. The applied sociologist would need to go beyond the development of these causal models. For the adolescents, applied sociologists would need to understand how various interventions might increase the development and maintenance of adaptive strategies. In the case of drug networks, they might need to understand the relative effectiveness of different crime-control strategies in reducing the capacity of drug networks to protect themselves.

Just as with mapping and social indicator research, while there are norms supporting rigor to which basic researchers should adhere in the development of causal models, there is usually a sliding scale of rigor in applied research. There is not a necessary trade-off between doing applied work and levels of rigor. It usually happens, however, that applied problems are relatively more complex and tap into concepts that are less easy to quantify. In trying to capture more of the complexity, precision in the specification of concepts and elegance of form of the overall model may be traded off against an understanding of dynamics that is sufficient to inform decisions.

For both basic and applied work it is imperative that the mechanisms by which controllable and uncontrollable concepts have an impact on the phenomenon of interest are properly specified. Specification decisions must be made with respect to three aspects of the dynamics of situations (Britt 1997). First, the nature of what concepts are (and what they are not) must be specified with regard to the contextually specific indicators that give them meaning. Second, the concepts that are considered sufficiently important to be included in a model (as well as those that are deemed sufficiently unimportant to be left out) must be specified. Finally, the nature of relationships that exist (and do not exist) among the included concepts must be specified. Since these specification decisions interpenetrate one another (i.e., have implications for one another) over time, it may be prudent to think of models as vehicles for summarizing what we think we know about the dynamics of situations (Britt 1997).

The clients of applied researchers, however, are not interested in how elegant models are, but in how well the implications of these models assist them in reducing the uncertainty associated with decisions that must be made. As time and budget constraints increase, or researchers become more confident in their ability to understand which controllable concepts are having the biggest (or most unanticipated) impact, less formal techniques may be used to develop and evaluate the models under consideration. Elegance must be balanced against usability. Complexity must be balanced against communicability. Theoretical sophistication must be balanced against the capacity of a model to interpret the lives of individuals and groups living through situations.

Evaluating purposive action. Evaluation research is an applied activity in which theories and methods of the social sciences are used to ascertain the extent to which programs are being implemented, services are being delivered, goals are being accomplished, and these efforts are being conducted in a cost-effective manner. These may be relatively small-scale efforts with finite and specific research questions. A manufacturing company may be interested in evaluating the impact of a new marketing program. A drug rehabilitation center may be interested in evaluating the cost-effectiveness of a new treatment modality. A movement organization may be interested in the situational effectiveness of particular strategies for fostering policies that are conducive to the reduction in infant-mortality differentials or the production of higher graduation rates in high-risk areas, or to a more equitable allocation of tax revenues (Maines and McCallion 2000).

These programs may or may not be of national importance, may or may not have large sums of money contingent on the outcomes, and may or may not require an understanding of anything but gross effects. It may be necessary to perform such analyses with limited personnel, time, and money. Under such circumstances, relatively unsophisticated methods are going to be used to conduct the evaluations and reanalysis will not be likely.

On the other hand, programs may involve the lives of many people, and deal with critical and complex social issues. The Coleman report on the equality of educational opportunity was presumably intended to establish once and for all that gross differences in school facilities did exist for black and white children in the United States (Coleman et al. 1966). The report, carried out by a team of sophisticated social scientists in a relatively short time, unleashed a storm of reanalyses and critiques (e.g., Mosteller and Moynihan 1972). These reanalyses attempted to apply the most sophisticated theoretical and methodological weapons in the sociological arsenal to the task of evaluating the implications of the Coleman report. Similarly, econometric analyses initially conducted to evaluate the impact of capital punishment on the homicide rate spawned very painstaking and sophisticated applied research (e.g., Bowers and Pierce 1975) in an attempt to evaluate the robustness of the conclusions. In these latter two cases, a high level of rigor by any standard was maintained.

Conceptualizing, studying, and facilitating the adaptability of alternative social forms. A legitimate test of applied sociology is whether it can be used as a basis for designing and implementing better social institutions (Street and Weinstein 1975). An element of critical theory is involved here that complicates the distinction between basic and applied sociology, for it challenges applied sociologists and their clients to imagine: (1) alternative social forms that might be more adaptive in the face of changing social, environmental, and technological trends; and (2) alternative environments that must be sought if equitable social forms are to exist. At the level of families, this may mean asking what new role relationships could create more adaptive family structures. Alternatively, it might mean asking in what normative environments egalitarian family roles might exist. Or perhaps, asking what the impact of pressure for reproductive rights might be on the influence of women in families and communities. At the level of work groups faced with changing technologies and dynamic environments, it is appropriate to ask whether flatter organizational structures and more autonomous work groups might better serve both organizational goals and those of its members (e.g., Myers 1985). At the community level, exploring the viability of alternative interorganizational relationships, or how communities respond to the threat of drug dealing are among a host of legitimate questions. Whatever the specific focus of such questions and the role of applied sociologists in working with clients to answer them, questions of power and ethics should never be far away.

In applied sociology, problems drive the development of both theory and method. When problems and their dynamics cannot be explained by existing theories, new assumptions are added (Lazerefeld and Reitz 1975), new ways of thinking about concepts like adaptability are developed (e.g., Britt 1989), or more fundamental theoretical shifts take place in a manner described by Kuhn (1961). When problems cannot be studied using existing methodological and statistical techniques, new techniques are developed. For example, the computer was developed under a contract from the Census Bureau so that the 1950 census could be conducted, and advances in area sampling theory were stimulated by the Department of Commerce needing to get better unemployment estimates (Rossi 1986). Ragin (1987) developed qualitative comparative analysis to permit the rigorous analysis of relatively rare events such as revolutions. Yet the applied implications of being able to study the alternative combinations of conditions that might give rise to particular outcomes has immense applied value (Britt 1998).

The continuing pressure on applied sociology to adapt to the needs of clients has had two important second-order effects beyond the development of theory and method. The nature of graduate training for applied sociologists is changing by virtue of the wider repertoire of skills needed by applied sociologists, and the dilemmas faced by sociologists vis-à-vis their clients are being confronted, and norms regarding the appropriateness of various courses of action are being developed.

A universal component of graduate applied education is the internship. Learning by doing, and experiencing the array of problems associated with designing and conducting research under time and budget constraints, while still having supportive ties with the academic program, are very important. The range and depth of coursework in qualitative and quantitative methods and statistics is increasing in applied programs to prepare students for the prospect of needing to employ techniques as varied as structural equations, focus groups, archival analysis, and participant observation in order to deal with the complexity of the problems requiring analysis.

There have been corresponding changes in the area of theory, with more emphasis given to moving back and forth from theory to applied problem. And there have been increases in courses designed to train students in the other skills required for successful applied work: networking, problem decomposition, and dealing with client-sociologist dilemmas.


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David Britt

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Applied Sociology

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