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Where Sociologists Work

TASA member, and Charles Darwin University & Australian National University joint PhD candidate, Penelope Bergen, conducted some research, on behalf of our association, into Applied Sociology. Penelope’s work resulted in the great article, and video companion, below:

Applied sociology out in the field

If you scratch the surface of the global job market today, you’re likely to find an Australian applied sociologist. You may not know they’re there as they expertly blend in, going by titles such as evaluator, consultant, project manager, researcher, or advisor. Their identity may not be obvious, but they are an active community, according to systems scientist – and applied sociologist – Dr Anne Stephens.

If the literature on the discipline of sociology in Australia is anything to go by, there is still a strong demarcation between sociologists who work inside academia, working with theories and interpretations of what Dr Stephens calls a “macro view”, and those who work outside the academy[1]. As somebody who has done both, Dr Stephens’ observations of the differences between them, are well-qualified.

“My main experience working with other applied sociologists is through evaluation,” she said. “I think a lot has been done to change the perception that methodologies commonly used in applied sociology, such as action research, are not robust or valid. The reasons might have been, that there was too much closeness with the participants, or commercial interests interfered in the outcome of a project. Whereas in the academic world there’s an implied purity, scientific objectivity or independence, which is doubtful,” Dr Stephens says.

Research in the ‘real world’

Applied sociologists bring a unique set of tools to program evaluation, providing a range of methodologies and theoretical viewpoints unique to the field. It is these frameworks that inform and reveal the richness of collected data other fields fail to capture.

Using action research in applied sociology means “working from real world data, real world people, real world situations, to make sense of what is happening in the world,” she said.

Using action research in applied sociology means “working from real world data, real world people, real world situations, to make sense of what is happening in the world,” she said.

“It’s going in there with a fairly blank slate, asking yourself and the people you’re working with: ‘What is going on here? Let’s make sense of this together’. And then being able to analyse that against what other people have said or theorised about that situation, and then perhaps developing some concepts of your own.”

As part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[2], UN Women asked Dr Stephens and her US counterpart, Dr Ellen Lewis, to help develop new evaluation guidance. Together, with an Evaluation Specialist from UN Women’s Independent Evaluation Office, Shravanti Reddy, they have been using systems thinking to develop what they call “systemic evaluation guidance tools and methods”. Essentially, this means they spend time within the environment in question, and look at it as a complex ecosystem.

To do this, the trio started their research in New York, interviewing UN staff about their projects and evaluation processes. The first stage of evaluating the evaluators had some pleasant surprises in store: “We had a team of people who did not know how our methods worked. We taught them, they applied it – and they loved it,” said Dr Stephens.

It is here that Dr. Stevens made use of system thinking using action research, one of the frameworks from the toolkit of the Applied Sociologist. An example of one of those systems-thinking-methods wasving participants that had worked in social interventions write what they called a boundary story: “They’re defining not just what’s inside the boundary, but what’s excluded. ‘What’s on the outside? What didn’t they think about? Who didn’t they approach? Who might have been affected that they didn’t consider?’”

“We trialled this with the participants of a project and they wrote a one-hundred-page ‘boundary story’, which blew our minds. We were thinking they might write a page and a half, maybe two pages. They wrote one hundred pages of text.”

“We trialled this with the participants of a project and they wrote a one-hundred-page ‘boundary story’, which blew our minds. We were thinking they might write a page and a half, maybe two pages. They wrote one hundred pages of text.”

The interviews, the boundary story, and examining existing literature relevant to their inquiry, helped Dr Stephens and her colleagues develop a new systemic evaluation approach for UN Women, a method devised from a systems based approach: “We dubbed it ‘ISE4GEMs’. It includes the GEMs Framework: Gender, Environments and Marginalised voices. The GEMs framework is for intersectional complexity analysis and is referred to throughout the systemic evaluation approach.”[3]

After feedback and input from the participants at UN Women in New York, the ISE4GEMS eeded further testing. As this was a “whole of systems”[4] approach, the researchers needed to spend time with an organisation that would qualify as being a recipient of intervention by UN Women. A not-for-profit organisation, the Maya Traditions Foundation in Guatemala, was enthusiastic about trialling the new evaluation approach. The organisation supports Indigenous women in business development, ethical tourism and cultural preservation.

Working with participants to bring about change

If the utility of applied sociology is largely in how it serves its ‘clients’[5], then ethics are an important part of the approach. Dr Stephens found that her work in Guatemala required her to constantly re-evaluate her own preconceptions, which was confronting: “We had to check our personal expectations at the door. I guess one of the Western attitudes that I had going in to Guatemala was the women would be the passive victims of a post-colonial legacy. And I wasn’t expecting to find them quite as articulate about that as they are, and as culturally resilient. Passive victims, they are not.”

Those targeted by the research are brought into the process. The group developed clarity, trust and transparency by giving their participants the opportunity to find out everything they wanted to know about their international Western visitors: “Our approach included time spent providing feedback to the participants and sharing the findings of our work, checking our interpretations of our data,” said Dr Stephens.

[1] Zevallos, Z., 2012. Sociology for What, Who, Where and How Situating Applied Sociology in Action. Available at https://othersociologist.com/2012/11/02/sociology-for-what/ [accessed 26/11/2017).

[2] For more information about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals go to un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

[3] The Inclusive Systemic Evaluation for Gender equality, Environments and Marginalized voices (ISE4GEMs): A new approach for the SDG era will be available in April at unwomen.org

[4] Stephens, A., 2017, pers. comm.

[5] Freeman, H. E. and P. H. Rossi, 1984. ‘Furthering The Applied Side Of Sociology’, American Sociological Review 49(4): pp. 571-580,