Applied Sociology Thematic Group Review 2016

Melanie Shier-Baker, Mithzay Pomenta and Jon Gray:

The TASA Applied Sociology Thematic Group aims to provide opportunities for sociologists working outside the academy to network, collaborate and share knowledge. Furthermore, we work to promote the use of sociological tools and theories across a diverse and broad range of public and industry arenas. It is well recognised that sociologists working outside the university sector can be isolated and part of the Applied Sociology group’s remit is to come up with strategies to address these issues.

In 2016, the group conveners, Melanie Shier-Baker and Mithzay Pomenta, coordinated a series of webinars to address these issues directly, which culminated in a panel discussion at the 2016 TASA annual conference. The panel, facilitated by the convenors and the Applied Sociology Chair, discussed feedback and common themes from the webinars and explored recommendations into the future. The conveners chose to use the GoToWebinar software to host the sessions. Each hour-long session compromised a thirty-minute presentation with thirty minutes allocated for questions and answers. These sessions have been edited and uploaded to the TASA Applied Sociology Thematic Group YouTube channel.

There are advantages evident in using the webinar method to meet and exchange information. Given that many sociologists outside of academe have no option to participate in conferences or professional development opportunities, this platform allows people to engage at no cost or required travel. Members of the group received emails detailing each upcoming event, with links to join the presentations.

In addition, the creation of an enduring record of the sessions as presented on the YouTube channel successfully captures the format of each presentation and its question and answer session. The sessions have become a valuable resource for the group, for TASA, and given its public accessibility, a resource for anyone interested in sociological practices outside the academic realm.

The overriding question addressed throughout the webinars, ‘How does sociology inform your work?’ was considered by six speakers from disparate sectors of employment and location and has resulted in intimate meetings and discussions that are robust, informative, active and varied.

The presentations included:

Eva Cox: ‘Sociology and social change – applying sociology skills and findings to create more civil societies. Promoting sociology as offering valuable analytical skills and tools for social change.’

Pierre Van Osselaer: ‘Pragmatic use of semiotics in the everyday.’

Kim Stace: ‘Outcomes measurement:  What does this mean for community service organisations and their consumers/clients?’

Joseph Borlagdan: ‘Where to from here? Possible paths to supporting sociologists outside of academe’.

Melanie Shier-Baker: ‘Transition from care: How sociology informs practice when transitioning young people with disabilities from the care of child safety services.’

Dina Bowman: ‘Public sociology and social policy: The importance of sociological insights when seeking to influence social policy and why language matters.’

It was these presentations and discussions that the panellists at the TASA 2016 conference responded to. The panellists included Joseph Borlagdan: Brotherhood of St Laurence and Applied Sociology Portfolio Leader, TASA Executive; Ashleigh Watson: PhD student and Postgraduate Portfolio Leader, TASA Executive; Steve Talbot: Defence Australia; Dina Bowman, Brotherhood of St Laurence; and Yoland Wadsworth, independent methodology consultant and Honorary Adjunct Professor, RMIT.

Points of interest and questions raised by the panel examined the difficulties encountered within the industry for sociologists and explored the sociological skills that postgraduates and the public see as useful to society/business. For example, employees are governed by organisational expectations, policies and objectives, so discovering how sociological knowledge and skills can be implemented in these settings is critical. Further, in addressing these questions, how then can we embed these applied practices into coursework?

Sociologists outside academe or ‘SOA’ work with complex systems, within interdisciplinary contexts that can be at odds with the ‘social’ that the academy prioritises. There is a need to explore the spaces occupied by those practising sociology, by those ‘getting their hands dirty’, addressing ‘wicked problems’ and to communicate these stories to postgrads and into the public realm. But, this exchange of knowledge needs to travel in both directions. The SOA needs to maintain and keep current the toolbox of methods and theoretical frameworks that all sociologists use to inform their work. This, in fact, is the first of the three recommendations that came out of the panel.

The second recommendation, ‘establishing networks’, addresses the isolation that those working outside the Academe face. Workshops and webinars, symposiums/public engagement and work placements to enable professional development within industry, all stand out as effective means of networking, to create bridges to the silos that many of us end up working in. Of note is the question of seeking an applied sociologist as a keynote speaker in future TASA conferences.

Linked to the above is the need to explore the steps involved in establishing access to journals for applied sociologists, creating a community of practice for evaluators/applied sociologists and a formal resource for SOA that offers tools and techniques; a translation of sociological speak into general workspaces.

The third recommendation is to promote applied sociology by highlighting the spaces where sociology is practiced and embedded. As an interrogation and sharing of applied practices for SOA, this statement speaks not only to the ‘how’ of sociology as considered in the first recommendation but enables an opportunity to consider the ‘why’ and the ‘what for’ of sociology. We are used to asking how. Resources and energy needs to be devoted to these other questions for those who are beginning or contemplating a career informed by sociological principles and practice.

The Applied Sociology Thematic group seeks to enable SOA to be better equipped as sociologists in applied settings and to work at learning and sharing the challenges of doing applied sociology in the private and public realm. We are hopeful, that through a collaborative leadership team and engaged thematic group, we will be able to achieve increased public awareness with regards to the complex, relevant and productive work of applied sociologists in a range of fields throughout Australia.


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