Why Do We Read So Much in Sociology?

Applied sociology expands your ability to  evaluate, organise & present new information quickly.

Applied sociology expands your ability to
evaluate, organise & present new information quickly.

When I was still teaching sociology, I was often bemused when some students complained that they had too much reading to do ahead of class. We typically set two journal articles or book chapters as mandatory reading each week (and of course there were additional suggested texts). This level of reading will serve you well throughout your career.

In fact, your applied sociological work is likely to involve lots of reading and synthesis of different materials. Your output may not necessarily mean writing up this information. In all likelihood, you’ll have to provide verbal summaries and visual presentations of what you read. All that undergraduate reading will be invaluable to your career.

In some jobs, you will produce client reports where you will have many pages of references. In many cases, most of these readings will have informed your thinking, but you will summarise these in only a couple of pages, and spend most of your time analysing your data. I’ve produced research reports that ranged from 50 to 300 pages (inclusive of hundreds of references and hundreds of tables and diagrams). I’ve also produced one page client reports where I was asked to provide policy advice or to contribute to decision-making that drew on years of reading, but included no citations.

In some jobs, you may not ever draw directly from a sociology study. In most jobs, you will read volumes of community reports, case studies, executive minutes and various other sources. Again, all those years you spent reading as an undergraduate will serve you well. I’ve drawn on studies that I read as a first year student, and not just from my sociology course. I have had to draw on ideas from my other undergraduate courses (in my case, from media & psychology primarily), but I filter these through a sociological lens.

Part of the reason why we read so much as sociology students, is because we’re expected to be able to draw on large volumes of information. In an applied job context, your ability to critically evaluate, organise and present new information quickly has several advantages.

Sociological training helps you carry out these tasks better because you will have a broad grounding in theory that will help you collate relevant ideas from different resources. You’ll have a scientific process for arranging and classifying different types of documents. Sociological methods will also help you to analyse whether the data you have available helps you answer the questions your clients have.

You’ll be able to draw on  your university readings to better position your reports: does this information match the empirical literature or is there something unusual? Are there gaps in your findings based on the files you have at hand? You cannot answer these questions if you don’t have a broad foundation of literature.

All of these applied skills go back to the basic lessons in how to read sociologically.

Are you working as an applied sociologist? If so, what are some of the other ways your sociological readings have helped your career?

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