To Be or Not to Be ‘Too Academic’: Theory and Practice in Applied Contexts

To Be or Not to Be Too AcademicWelcome to the second edition of Working Notes, the online bulletin for Sociology At Work. In this edition, we tackle the question of what it means to be ‘too academic’ in an applied context. The idea of being ‘too academic’ (or ‘not academic enough’ as the case may be) refers to a way of defining and dividing sociological practices outside academia from university traditions. Within a non-academic work setting, the phrase ‘too academic’ often implies placing a different value on the scholarly application of theoretical and methodological concepts than is usually practised in formal academic contexts. This edition of Working Notes aims to highlight the different ways in which research practices and the application of theoretical frameworks are shaped by the fields in which applied sociologists work.

The Applied Sociology Thematic Group (ASTG), which is part of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA), has recently been debating how we should run our professional network for sociologists outside academia. As the editorial team of Working Notes is also part of the ASTG, the debate got us thinking about the wider issues facing our broader international network. Two-thirds of ATSG members are sociologists working in a variety of professional roles such as research and policy officers in community based organisations, activists, community development workers and social research consultants.  The ASTG tends to pass on events and information from the Australian network (TASA) to its members. As most TASA members are academics, the feedback from some of our ASTG members is that our group is being channelled towards activities that are too academically focused. In particular, encouraging members to share their reports, writing papers and attending conferences seems not to reflect the nature of the work that some of us are doing as applied sociologists.

The work of applied sociologists tends to be generated ‘from the ground up’. This work is inherently focused on documenting social needs, critiquing existing social policy, lobbying for enhancements in service provision, completing research consultancies or developing new and innovative policy solutions to difficult social problems. Although this work is sometimes published in traditional formats such as in reports or on websites, it is often manifested in specific policy or strategy changes which determine how funding is provided, to whom and for which specific needs. Applied sociological work is oriented towards, as Marx (2008 [1852]) observed, not simply describing the nature of specific social relations, but also to change them.

For the most part, the field of academic sociology is managed in ways that reward the communication of ideas and research to other sociologists via refereed publication in academic journals or the presentation of peer reviewed conference papers. These activities are not often rewarded in applied contexts. In applied contexts (such as in activism, policy work, consultancy and so on), the work of sociologists may be more about doing sociology rather than writing about what they do. Some workplaces may not have the funding to send their employees to conferences. Large annual conferences tend to be held during times of the year that suit university schedules, such as during mid-term break or at the end of the academic year.  These times (end of financial year and end of calendar year) may be particularly busy for non-university based researchers.

Applied researchers may not have the time to publish their ideas or research as they are too busy in their day-to-day work of service provision and consultation. Time-pressures, lack of resources, and poor professional incentives, may mean that publishing and conferences are not priorities for some of our members. Moreover, some of our members may see such activities as ‘too academic’.

The representation of non-academic sociologists continues to be woefully low at the annual TASA conference, and few of the papers published in mainstream sociology journals are written by applied researchers. Unfortunately, this means that the broader academic community does not really know much about how we practise sociology outside a university setting. There is often a lack of tangible case studies and specific examples about how sociologists practise their craft, how they negotiate with clients and community members, and how they achieve real results.

At the same time, some members feel a little grumpy about the idea that our group of applied sociologists should avoid being ‘too’ academically focused. What does this phrase actually mean? What does it mean to be ‘too academic’? Some of our members do highly specialised and practical work, such as working on community development, project management or providing policy analysis, while drawing heavily on the academic literature to scope out their project plans and draw out results. For these members, the idea of doing sociology in a way that is ‘too academic’ refers to using jargon language that only people with a sociology degree can understand. Reading academic papers and engaging with the ‘scholarly universe’ informs the work of many of our members, but they need to ‘translate’ academic jargon, concepts and theories into specific principles and ideas that can be usefully applied to specific sets of outcomes.  For others, theory and practice are indivisible. These members draw on academic research to critically engage with policy and practice.

So how do applied sociologists accommodate academic practices in their day-to-day work? This issue of Working Notes draws out different approaches to applying academic ideas in ‘the real world’. For some applied sociologists, using academic theories might not have much to do with the formal aspects of their job. Instead, applying sociological principles are implicit in the way in which they approach a problem. Steve Nwokeocha introduces the idea of ‘sociological management’ with respect to his career in the Teachers’ Registration Council of Nigeria. While most of his colleagues come from a background specific to education, Steve uses his sociological training to inform his thinking and to provide leadership and advice to multiple national, regional and global bodies representing teaching professionals. Sharon Bond is a Senior Researcher with a non-government-organisation. Sharon provides research and analysis to inform the development of community services, such as helping young people transition from school to the workplace. Sharon’s paper provides some background on how she went from being a sociology student to a professional researcher and she offers advice for students considering similar type of work. These two authors show that writing reports and papers is not always the primary focus of applied researchers. Instead, introducing sociological ideas to challenge how their colleagues think about service and policy delivery is perhaps an even more important part of applied work.

Three of our other authors focus on the importance of applying sociological methodologies to thinking about research and evaluation. Christine Walker works as the Chief Executive Officer of the Chronic Health Alliance in Melbourne, Australia. She writes about how she has used qualitative and quantitative sociological methods to identify and address the needs and well-being of people suffering from diabetes and epilepsy.  Yoland Wadsworth writes a brief paper introducing her new book, which brings together almost four decades worth of applied experience in research and evaluation. Yoland’s book provides examples of the way in which applied sociological techniques have been used in various health, education and community organisations. Christina Kargillis is a third-year postgraduate student who has a practical focus on sustainable migration for workers moving from city to regional areas in Queensland, Australia. Christina introduces her research blog which documents her methodological and theoretical approach.

In her two papers, Dina Bowman highlights how sociology has informed her research and policy work with a not-for-profit organisation in Melbourne, Australia. Dina’s reflections on her job nicely exemplify that sociological theory can be applied in more explicit ways that are not ‘too academic’. In one paper, Dina talks about how she has incorporated academic activities into her work, such as supervising a student, convening a symposium, and establishing a reading group for her colleagues. In another paper, Dina parallels the marginalisation of sociological understandings in social policy with the ways in which quantitative research may treat the ‘invalid’ (or unorthodox) survey responses. She discusses a survey of job-seekers in which some respondents left their questionnaires blank, others provided an explanation as to why they refused to answer the questions (they did not feel the survey would help them find work) and others used the survey to request assistance. Such ‘non-responses’ would ordinarily have been discounted, but as an applied sociologist, Dina sets out to theorise how certain types of disaffected ‘voices’ are understood within the field of social policy.

This issue of Working Notes shows that academic and applied sociologists have much in common. Like academics, applied sociologists work on issues that explore the consequences of social structures, including the positive and negative effects on the choices people make in their lives. Applied sociologists also carry out qualitative and quantitative social research in order to advocate alongside, and on behalf of, different community groups. Applied researchers undertake literature reviews and they provide critical commentary on social policy, often in national and international forums. Applied sociologists also apply for funding grants upon which many non-government organisations rely for their daily survival. At the end of the day, sociological theories and methods provide applied sociologists not just with a way of making sense of the issues they encounter in their daily work, but also with strategies for critical thinking. Sociology helps to reframe social problems and, most importantly, it illuminates ways to action social change.

The papers in Working Notes attempt to showcase the diversity of applied sociologists, including the types of work they carry out, as well as the way in which they address social problems. Making these written accounts publicly available is just one way for applied researchers to network. We hope to also encourage more debate about what it means to be ‘too academic’ in our communication and application of sociological ideas. The Editorial team invites comments on these topics or on the papers published on Working Notes. If you are an applied sociologist and you have other suggestions on how we might encourage further participation from our applied colleagues, we would love to hear from you below or via email.

Marx, K. (2008 [1852]) The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New World Paperbacks. New York: International Publishers.

Editorial Credits

SAW logoArticle copyright: © Zuleyka Zevallos, Dina Bowman, Anthony Hogan and Lucy Nelms 2011. Published by Sociology At Work. All rights reserved.

Article citation: Zevallos, Z., D. Bowman, A. Hogan and L. Nelms (2011) ‘ To Be or Not to Be ‘Too Academic’: Theory and Practice in Applied Contexts,’ Working Notes, Issue 2, June, online resource:

Top photo credit: Ideowl (2008) ‘Solitude in Academia’, Flickr. Online resource last accessed 5 June 11:

%d bloggers like this: