Sociology as a Career
Excerpted from "Careers In Sociology" and reprinted with permission from the American Sociological Association.
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There are three major areas in which sociologists can find employment:
- Sociological Practice
A substantial majority of sociologists teach in one setting or another-high schools, two-year colleges, four-year colleges, or university graduate departments. Sociology is a rewarding field to convey to others. It combines the importance of social relevance with the rigor of a scientific discipline. It includes a broad range of subject matter, since all forms of social behavior are potential objects of sociological study. Sociology is not only being taught to future sociologists and to undergraduate students as part of their liberal arts or vocational education, but it is also included in the programs of many professions, such as law, education, business, medicine, engineering, social work, and nursing. In addition to the standard college and university courses, sociology courses are frequently offered in adult and continuing education programs and are increasingly prominent in the nation's high schools.
Teaching sociology is not the same in every setting. It is one thing to give a general introduction to a class of high school students and quite another to give a specialized course to college seniors. Both of these are different from leading an advanced research seminar for graduate students who are well along toward the Ph.D. In each case there are rewards and frustrations. For many persons, teaching seems a desirable occupation which provides considerable job security and the satisfaction of providing knowledge and stimulation to students who respond with respect and appreciation.
Research is second to teaching as the most common career option within sociology. Note, however, that there is not necessarily a choice between teaching and research. Many teaching positions, particularly in universities but also in four-year colleges, require research activities. This is the basis for the academic cliché: publish or perish." Like most clichés, this one has some truth and a good deal of distortion. While it is certainly true that publishing books or articles is the foremost route to job security and promotion and salary increases in most universities, this requirement applies more in settings where original scholarship is highly prized and supported. Many institutions, however, put varying degrees of emphasis on research or teaching as the primary route to advancement. Some value one over the other; many institutions are attempting to achieve the optimum balance between research and teaching.
One can do research in a variety of employment settings-in a university, a public agency at the federal, state, or local level, a business or industrial firm, or as a staff member of a research institute in the non-profit or advocacy sector. Some are self-employed, and head their own research or consulting firms. It should be emphasized, however, that given the usefulness of their methods and perspectives, sociologists have helped develop and have branched out into many fields and career paths that utilize research but go well beyond the research function. These career activities are known collectively as sociological practice.
This broad category of career activities refers to positions that involve "applied" or "clinical" sociology. Applied sociology is knowledge directed to understanding immediate problems and their solutions. Clinical sociology, also concerned with the application of sociological knowledge, extends into involvement in the world by intervening in social settings using a wide range of techniques to help guide the process of change. Clinical sociologists may carry out interventions at the individual, group, organizational, community and/or societal levels. They are experts in counseling, social and environmental impact assessment, evaluation, facilitation, and mediation and techniques of conflict resolution (between couples, ethnic groups, communities, even nation-states). These approaches all have one thing in common they help citizens, groups, organizations or government to identify problems and their deeper causes and to suggest possible strategies for solutions.
There are a number of options for sociological practice. These include:
There are increasing opportunities for sociologists who can use their basic sociological training to make more informed policy decisions and administer programs more effectively and more imaginatively. This kind of career option has become increasingly prominent in recent years. These activities do not involve teaching of the conventional sort, but they often involve research -- a least in the sense of research consumption, if not production. Normally, a skilled policy administrator would not do research of his/ her own (perhaps having done it at an earlier career stage). But he or she would be expected to read the research literature, imagine useful research projects which might be commissioned, cooperate with full-time researchers who are either on the staff or who serve as outside consultants, and apply the developing knowledge of sociology and the social sciences to the problems at hand. Of course, these problems would vary depending upon the particular employment setting -- they might involve housing, transportation, education, control of the AIDS epidemic, community relations, corporate hiring strategies, health, law enforcement, or other major societal concerns.
Regardless of the area, this kind of career also involves working closely with others, ultimately as a supervisor, administrator or a staff specialist. It is unlikely that younger persons will be hired directly into such high level positions. Typically, as is true in most occupations, they work their way up from lower level staff positions. For example, it is not at all uncommon for young sociologist to be hired as staff members in a governmental agency and then follow a career which involves increased influence on policy and administrative responsibility. Competent administration often involves good sociological principles, although there are still very few administrative positions for which sociological training is a formal requirement.
A special type of policy-making role for sociologists is the opportunity to incorporate sociological knowledge into planning and policy making in areas primarily dominated by practicing professions. This is primarily true in the mental and physical health field where sociologists serve with planning boards and health services agencies. But this also applies to the fields of education, law enforcement, and government. Sociologists have contributed their knowledge effectively in each of these areas, although sociologists may disagree among themselves on effective policy concerning such sensitive areas as homelessness, crime control, or affirmative action.
In government settings, many sociologists conduct research; others manage programs, and some are engaged in problem solving for their agency. Although their specific areas of expertise vary, sociologists command an arsenal of skills, knowledge, and experience that can be put to good use at all levels in a complex government. Many sociologists in federal, state and local government are engaged in research and evaluation. Some are administrators, managers or developers of programs, and many others are engaged in policy analysis or problem-solving. They are employed in a wide variety of agencies, including for example, these at the federal level Bureau of the Census, the Department of Agriculture, the General Accounting Office, the National Institutes of Health, or the Centers for Disease Control, for example. At the state level, many are engaged in urban planning, health planning, and in criminal justice systems. Because the tasks of government sociologists are so complex, and it is difficult to find appropriate solutions to social problems, good data and broad knowledge are required. Skills in survey and evaluation research and specialties in such fields as health sociology, aging, criminal justice, demography and the family enable the sociologist to understand what is happening with current or proposed government programs that affect vast numbers of people.
Sociologists with B. A. degrees go into a variety of industries, predominantly in sales, human resources, and management. Those with advanced degrees are employed by (or consult with) many corporations, but are concentrated in the fields of marketing, advertising, telecommunications and insurance. Their specialties ten to be in demography -- the study of population and its changes, and in market research-the study of the needs, wants and life-styles of various populations who may be potential clients or customers. Many sociologists are also prominent in public opinion research which is of interest to those in politics, communications and advertising. In industry, they often are employed as industrial sociologists-experts on productivity, work relations, minorities and women in the work force, linking technology to the organization, corporate cultures and organizational development.
Sociologists in industry and business command an arsenal of skills and knowledge to solve a wide range of business problems that help to make the companies that employ them more profitable. These include: (a) planning for the future -- using demography and forecasting; (b) dealing with organizational change and growth-using training techniques and organizational and competitive analysis; (c) finding out what customers really want-through market analysis and group interviewing known as "focus groups"; and (d) increasing productivity and efficiency through team building and work reorganization.