I have previously discussed the four questions facing applied sociologists. These questions refer to how we utilise sociological theories, methods and principles in our work, and the challenges and opportunities we encounter practising sociology outside academia. In brief, these questions are:
My post today for Sociology at Work addresses all these questions, through a specific focus: what is it like when applied sociologists work with differnent clients? As I mentioned previously on the S@W blog, there are not enough first-hand accounts of how applied sociologists navigate their work. Today I want to open up a conversation about how we manage our client relationships.
This post starts with an overview of the client work that applied sociologists carry out, by demonstrating how applied sociology differs from the industry projects undertaken by academics. I then share some of my general experiences working with clients in three contexts: as a researcher in the public service; as a private contractor; and as a consultant running my own business. I draw on my examples to reflect on the challenges and rewards of working as an applied sociologist. Later posts will focus on other aspects of applied work with clients, such as the types of sociological activities we carry out for clients in different industries.
Sociology is conceived as a highly academic field. The way in which most sociological courses are structured, one would think that the primary work of sociologists is to teach and do research within universities and to publish in academic journals. The work that applied sociologists do outside academia carries less prestige within our discipline because what we do, who we do it for, where we do it, and how we carry it out is a largely a mystery. This work is rarely seen by our academic peers, and our work is poorly understood by the public. It is less recognisable than the work of psychologists or economists, whose ideas have been diffused into popular culture (albeit not always adopted correctly).
Many academics carry out research studies for governments, community groups and businesses. This usually takes the form of delivering a report, compiling an evaluation or some other research activity. When academics carry out research for clients they are still nestled within a university institution that recognises their expertise. They might take a break from teaching in order to complete the project full time. In this case, they leave the academy for a specific time – for the length of the project.
Applied sociologists who work outside academia have a different relationship to clients because we are embedded within external organisations outside the academic system. We often sustain long-term relationships with clients that go beyond the length of one project. If we do contract work, we might maintain a pool of clients that we service over many years.
In fact we might be seen to manage several client relationships both within and outside of our organisations. So how do we manage these relationships and what happens to us along the way?
Clients rarely seek out sociologists for the full rubric of our sociological expertise. They don’t really want to work with us purely for our theoretical contributions. They are unlikely to want to sit down and discuss neo-Marxism. They are probably not very interested in understanding the difference between radical and postmodern feminisms. Instead, they might be interested in our general knowledge about different social groups. Clients might want to know how to improve the delivery of social services for specific communities. Or they might want to know how to get people to comply with particular safety laws.
Clients also see value in our methodologies. Clients often want particular type of research carried out that requires quantitative methods (such as surveys and statistical analyses) or they might be interested in qualitative methods (such as focus groups, in-depth interviews, or evaluations of existing reports and processes).
The way in which clients approach social problems is often leading because they have not been trained in the same way as sociologists. The types of questions clients ask, the types of issues they’re interested in, and the data they want us to use often have embedded biases. The client’s approach to social problems will be shaped by their organisational culture, social location, funding, the policy direction of the time, their mission and business model.
Applied sociologists face many hurdles in our client work. Sometimes, the client may use language that is problematic, framing their questions in ways that are the extreme opposite of what sociology is about. They might ask: “What’s wrong this group of people?,” rather than asking; “What’s wrong with the system that hampers the opportunities available to this group?”
Clients want answers, but they have a narrow time frame for delivery. They are not concerned with the fact that sociology is a process that takes considerable time and effort: devising an interview schedule that will yield meaningful results takes time. Analysing interview material and drawing conclusions takes a long time. Working out a new community program takes even longer.
Clients may not understand that sociology is not about cause and effect. Sociology is about the complex influences on behaviour. There are no neat answers that can be applied unilaterally. Clients may not be ready to hear this; they want a simple solution that they can implement within their existing programme for a specific fiscal year.
Raewyn Connel has addressed the market ideologies that narrow the focus of useful social science. She notes that social research is a slow and methodical process: we approach social problems first by defining our key concepts, generating new ideas, collecting data, and creating relationships between social phenomena using theoretical interpretation. In comparison to the relatively quick turnaround of market research, “Social science is harder”:
It is slower. Knowledge grows by a collective process of exploration that is complex and uncertain. Research must be unpredictable, since we never know at the start what the results will be. (If we do know, it isn’t research!) Social science needs patience and it does not suit media deadlines. It also needs resources, especially people and time. For intellectual work to be done there has to be a workforce; and that is not easily assembled or kept in being. There is often an awkward gap between significant questions and the means of answering them.
Connell makes a profound point: social science is a journey of discovery and its path unfolds slowly. At the same time, Connell is a renowned, senior academic with a high level of authority. Her ability to negotiate ideal conditions to carry out research in the way she wants is supported by her relative power within the university system in which she works. It’s not that she doesn’t fight against the system, but she is certainly working from a privileged position given she has the security of tenure. Many of us do not work in such ideal conditions.
Applied sociologists have to address our client’s questions within the client’s organisational reality. They come to us with a problem, and they are often limited in their questions, methods and data. Applied sociologists are expected to fit in with their client’s demands, not the other way around.
We can feel frustrated by this – after all, useful sociological answers can’t be rushed. At the same time, a seasoned applied sociologist will learn to modify our theoretical and methodological approaches to maximise the benefit to our clients and stakeholders. We are not powerless, and over the years we learn to work within narrow confines. Often the outcomes are intellectually rewarding even if the product is not a peer-reviewed journal publication that the wider sociological community can praise and admire.
Sometimes applied sociologists might feel disheartened about the limits of what are able to achieve. Over the coming weeks and months, I will share more detail about my positive and negative experiences working with clients and how I’ve managed these situations. Today, I want to broadly sketch the terrain in which we carry out client work.
By and large, applied sociological work brings great pleasure. In the best circumstance, I have worked with clients who specifically sought to work with me because they’d read my previous work, or because they wanted to work with a sociologist. They valued my PhD as proof that I had the skills and credentials to add value to their work program. They were eager to see me apply social methods to their questions. Even if they didn’t specifically understand what’s involved in the research process, they respected that sociology requires time, patience and discussion.
I had a long-standing working relationship with a strategic policy group that was mutually beneficial. We often disagreed: they were largely from political science backgrounds. We had different ideas about the world. Yet there was mutual professional respect. Most of them had done postgraduate studies so they saw research as a long-term investment. They made time to regularly meet face
to discuss my research. As a strategic policy group, their objectives were long term. Our organisations had a long-standing contract, so we were not hampered by budget-related quibbles.
I have also worked with other clients, both within government and industry, who were not familiar with sociology. Their organisational demands were focused on short-term deadlines. Their budgets did not allow for reiterations of research outcomes. They may or may not have done a postgraduate degree, and if they had, they did not understand sociological methods very well. Some of them engaged me because they had a “cultural problem” that needed an answer. They sometimes had a specific dataset that they could not manage internally. It is one thing for an organisation to decide that they want in-depth interviews to be carried out, and it is quite another to actually understand what this might involve.
As a consultant, some of my clients find me by accident and others seek to work with me because they have a vague sense of how I can help them. They might have tried to work with other businesses where things didn’t work out; or they might want some type of professional advice. They have an end goal in mind, but they can’t see the process to get there. This is tough, because it means I have to figure out what they want, then set out a methodology for achieving this outcome, and then deliver a service, report or strategy. In my experience, this means you come up with a framework that you discuss with the client, and which they agree to, and then you deliver the result only to find this is not what they wanted. A client does not always know what they want until they see what they don’t want. This is extremely difficult for me as a sociologist and for the client, but it gets easier once you learn how they think.
In the most extreme cases, a client may become impatient or antagonistic about working with a sociologist. Thankfully I’ve only experienced the worst of this in one case, when I worked on a short-term project. I was brought in to do analysis under incredibly stressful conditions. The data arrived less than two months before the report was due, there were reams of errors every step of the way that needed to be addressed, the personnel working on the project were not trained to manage data properly, and so needless to say, relationships were strained. In this context, I was under strain, as I was expected to deliver results for people who did not understand my credentials as a sociologist. As the client saw it, I was there to provide answers – “the facts” – but they did not care about the process. They did not want to engage with the problems my team encountered (even though these issues were the outcome of the client’s organisational set up). In short, they wanted a scientific result, but they did not provide me with the resources, time or autonomy to produce social science. This was tough- it took a great toll on me professionally and personally. Despite the issues our team endured, the delivery was incredibly positive: the report was successfully delivered on time and all of our recommendations were adopted by our client. Best of all, we helped a community find answers to an issue that had adversely affected local wellbeing.
So, given the ups and downs, why continue working with clients when it’s such a “mixed bag”?
The financial rewards are not the prime reason to become a sociologist – applied or otherwise. Working as an academic, the industry is highly competitive and yet there is an increasingly limited number of tenured positions. Yet at least the career path seems laid out: you can foresee a pay progression and there are processes in place for being promoted (again, this is increasingly limited, especially for younger academics).
Working as an applied sociologist, however, your career path is hazy.
In Government, I was lucky to have negotiated good pay and conditions. There was also the opportunity for promotion. There are many bureaucratic hurdles to being promoted but the path is laid out clearly. As a private contractor, I was able to negotiate good pay and penalty rates. Most other contract work pays poorly and offers no such luxuries. As a self-employed consultant, finances are another headache all together. You compete with large established firms and people from other industries who proclaim to do research but not in the way sociology conceives it (independent, impartial and rigorous).
Under such financially precarious conditions, the rewards of working with clients is less about money and more about a passion for applying sociology in new or unconventional ways. Financial compensation, of course, is important: even the most enlightened sociologist doesn’t live on air alone! Still, most applied sociologists go from contract to contract (as do an increasing number of academics). For this reason, the client work we pick up has to satisfy our sociological curiosity. Not all the work we do will turn out to be a sociological Magnum Opus, but when we get through to a client, this is tremendously satisfying. For example:
Even under less than ideal conditions, when I wondered why I was persisting with sociology outside the academy, I learn more about what the sociological imagination is capable of when it is pushed to its limits.
These are the moments that convince me that applied sociology is worth weathering through the rough seas.
The quote below is by Auguste Comte, who first identified the distinctions between what we now refer to as academic and applied sociologies. The quote is about positivist sciences versus other forms of sociology, but he could easily be referencing the division between sociological practices within and outside the academy.
Our clients and our academic colleagues do not always understand what we go through to produce applied sociology. Our triumphs and pitfalls happen in private, away from our colleagues. Our work rarely appears in mainstream academic publications. The reality of doing applied sociology is not really discussed in sociology courses. Our experiences are invisible, silenced by omission, or otherwise hidden. I’m hoping that over the course of this blog, by sharing my personal experiences of working with different clients, and by inviting you to share your experiences, we can begin to de-mystify applied sociology.
My point is that applied sociologists face unique challenges that need to be heard, acknowledged and brought to the attention of our academic peers. There are problems with academic work as well. We tend not to discuss these as much as we should. Academics might love teaching, but increasingly, teaching loads constrain their ability to carry out research. Helen Marshall and her colleagues find that Australian sociologists are under-funded, over-worked and over-burdened with administrative duties. One academic said:
“Most people have been … just struggling to keep body and soul together and cope with the requirements. It’s very hard to build a sustained research effort under those circumstances.”
Our academic peers are facing increasing market pressures with cuts to research funding. This is something that has wide ramifications for our discipline. Academics have both positive and negative experiences in attracting funding and working with different community organisations. Government policies shape research funding, meaning that some academic projects will be funded while others will never get off the ground. Nevertheless, academics work within an institution that is familiar with the research process. The expectation that the (senior) researcher will determine their research process is accepted. Applied sociologists do not always have this luxury.
While academic and applied sociologists work for different ends, with different audiences, in different places and perhaps with different tools, there is overlap in our struggles. Applied work is largely invisible and lacking in prestige. Isn’t it time we stopped cloaking our struggles and start an ongoing dialogue about our practices? Let’s bring applied sociology out of the shadows. There is much to be learned by sharing our stories and increasing solidarity with our academic peers.
Applied sociology does not always grow out of ideal conditions. Yes, it’s sometimes rushed. Yes, there are compromises, especially where we are under-resourced. Yet what we achieve is tremendous, given the constraints in which we work.
My vision for Sociology at Work was always to create a community of support. This website and our social media were set up as a professional network where applied sociologists can discuss how they navigate their careers. S@W was also a resource to provide graduates with insight about where they can take their career if they expand their sociological horizons. I hope that by sharing my story, and bringing in the stories of others, we can start to have better conversations about what it means to do sociology “in the real world.”
Applied sociologists often navigate uncharted worlds. Sometimes our clients “get” what we can do for them, other times clients will test our resilience. Yet we persevere. It’s not always wonderful, but it’s always stimulating. Will you share your story with the rest of us? What is it like to work with clients you love? How have you worked through the tough times? Consider writing your story for our S@W community as a blog post of for our online journal,Working Notes. Drop me a line and tell your story.
You know what they say about the unexamined sociological life…