Talking Sociology With Local Communities

Volunteering is an important way to build applied sociology careers. Let’s explore how giving practical talks to community groups can improve both communities and our sociology. We’ll use a short case study of Dr. Ray McDonald, Assistant Professor at Wiley College in the USA, who gave a talk to his local Lions Club. His talk focused on practical research outcomes regarding Alzheimer’s Disease. The novel aspect of his talk was to blend sociological ideas with lifestyle tips. Demonstrating the everyday utility of sociological research is central to applied sociological work. If there’s a cause you’re already involved with or interested in getting into, here are some ways that  you can integrate your volunteering with your professional CV.

Bringing sociology to local communities. Walking the talk!
Bringing sociology to local communities. Walking the talk!

During his talk to an elderly community group at the Lions Club, McDonald noted that, as harrowing as Alzheimer’s is, the disease more or less follows set patterns, increasing in severity. There are medical and social programs to try to improve quality of life and to manage the disease. For example, I’ve previously shown how sociology can help improve Alzeimer’s and other forms of dementia through art therapy and research. As he was speaking to a group who are likely to be future carers of loved ones with dementia, McDonald did not simply focus on describing the disease. He highlighted the specific skills and resources that carers might draw on to help their own health.

Research shows that carers’ health will change drastically because they are not focused on their own wellbeing. McDonald suggests taking regular 15 minute breaks, making the time to play games or to learn a new skill, and reaching out for professional support, such as counselling to deal with the stress and emotion work involved in care. I’ve made similar observations with respect to the work involved in aged care for families and how social policy can help to alleviate family stress.

These suggestions may seem simple, but they are informed by sociological research, and presented in a way that makes carers’ work seem a bit more manageable.

Photo: Rapid City Public Library. Via Flickr
Photo: Rapid City Public Library. Via Flickr

Most of the time, sociologists present research only to professional audiences, such as other academics, or in the case of applied sociologists, to government and industry audiences. Presenting research to community audiences in plain language is an important professional skill. Many applied sociologists will deliver community workshops and consultations as part of their work, but there are other ways to get involved. For example, you might promote your free services to local community groups. Not all of us are in a position to do free talks or workshops, but if there is a community cause  you care about, but you have limited time, offering a once-off talk or a monthly seminar may be more suitable.


Using Social Media

Voluntering is a useful way of giving back to communities, and practising your sociology along the way, as I’ve noted previously. Local communities are always looking for resources to compliment their programs. You might join an online community to provide sociology advice that can benefit local community groups. Don’t forget that here at Sociology at Work we have our own YouTube channel where applied sociologists can talk about their career or share their research and expertise for applied audiences. We’ve previously focused on volunteering with local community groups, so check this out to see how social activism boosts your sociological thinking and practice! Get in touch if  you’d like to tell us how you use sociology to help your local community.

Sociology at Work is also on Google+. This is another great platform for connecting with local audiences using technology. There are many ways to host or collaborate on online discussions with other community groups. I recommend making contact with existing groups and seeing what you can offer them, rather than simply writing blog posts or making videos that may or may not resonate with their everyday lives.

Whether you’re still studying, or if you’re already working with professional clients, make sure you stay open to opportunities to speak to broader audiences. Ditch the PowerPoint/Prezi presentations, and just go and speak to local groups on the applied outcomes of your work! You might also approach your local public library, and work with them to deliver useful community seminars.

Representing Volunteering on your CV

How can you represent this work on your CV? I suggest placing a “Public Engagement” section where you can list your community presentations, blog posts and social media. Alternatively, if you’re leading ongoing seminars that involves more hands-on work, you might put this under a “Leadership” section. I place all my not-for-profit work under a “Volunteering” section (such as the moderation I do with online science and education communities).

CVs are often “padded out” with unnecessary sections (such as “hobbies”), but showing how your volunteer work with communities connects with applied sociology skills can potentially boost a job application.

You can even bring in specific examples of this volunteering by tying it into the key selection criteria of a job advertisement. For example: What work did you present? What were the key issues in communicating sociological ideas to a specific community group? Applied jobs will require skills in stakeholder engagement, collaboration with culturally and linguistically diverse groups, and teamwork, as well as visual communication of ideas. Be sure to let potential employers know exactly how your volunteering experience links to their job description.

My volunteering has greatly benefited my growth as a sociologist. Speaking with diverse audiences makes you really think about how to convey complex ideas in a simple but effective way. You are also forced to reconfigure what you think makes a successful talk! Being able to list actionable results, such as advice on how to look after health, is not as easy as it sounds. Applied sociology is about creating workable solutions, rather than simply pointing out problems or further areas for research. Practising sociology with communities is a good way of showing your ability to “do” applied sociology. It’s also another way to get more experience in a new area. Let prospective employers know that your volunteering demonstrates how your skills as a sociologist are transferable to different roles and that it has strengthened your communication and leadership skills.

Unpaid work is highly value to employers, as it reinforces communication and interpersonal skills, and it demonstrates your ability to work with diverse groups. Connecting your volunteering with paid work also demonstrates you understand both the value of community leadership as well as your own sociological knowledge, and it gives employers tangible examples of what you’re truly passionate about.

Career Tips: Connect with a local group; speak to your expertise; use plain-language; provide practical advice; use social media to improve collaboration
Career Tips: Connect with a local group; speak to your expertise; use plain-language; provide practical advice; use social media to improve collaboration

Over to You:

Do you do community work? What has it taught you about practising sociology? How do represent your volunteering on your CV?

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