Academic journal article Social Justice

Applied Research in the Pursuit of Justice: Creating Change in the Community and the Academy

Academic journal article Social Justice

Applied Research in the Pursuit of Justice: Creating Change in the Community and the Academy

Article excerpt

THIS ARTICLE DELINEATES THE BOUNDARIES BETWEEN BASIC, APPLIED, AND CLINICAL sociological work and the role of applied research in the development of the discipline. (1) I argue that the call for social science research to be "value-free" is untenable and that a legitimate role for the sociologist involves using one's disciplinary perspective and research to inform program and policy development in an attempt to improve the quality of life for marginalized groups. Drawing from my own research experiences, I make the case that the distinction between basic and applied research is frequently overdrawn and that attempts to support an objective and detached research identity within the context of community-based projects may undermine the success of interventions and weaken understanding of social life and processes. The challenges of integrating applied work into an academic career are acknowledged, given prevailing academic norms related to faculty responsibilities. The promising role of service learning and applied sociological research in developing socially conscious students, engaging faculty in the community, and contributing to incremental change geared toward social justice are discussed. Last, strategies for altering the faculty recognition and reward structures to support and encourage applied work directed toward social change are highlighted.

What Distinguishes Basic, Applied, and Clinical Sociology?

DeMartini (1989) argues that basic sociological research is discipline oriented, focused on knowledge production, and geared toward fellow sociologists. In contrast, applied sociological research is client oriented, focused on problem solving, and dedicated to the persuasive use of data to respond to diverse stakeholders (DeMartini, 1989: 137). He further emphasizes the distinction between basic or "sociology as social science" and applied or "sociology as problem solving" and points out that the two types of work are often difficult to merge. This perspective is not shared by Alexander Boros, the founder of the Society for Applied Sociology (SAS), who argues that for sociology to be "workable" and prosper, it must validate its knowledge and theories through practice in the real world (1997: 41). In other words, Boros envisions basic and applied research as complementary and mutually beneficial in refining our understanding of social life.

Straus (2002) conceptualizes applied and clinical sociology as two elements or components of sociological practice. Under this model, he and others (e.g., Fritz and Clark, 1989) define applied sociology as problem-solving research that utilizes sociological concepts and methods, whereas clinical sociology is distinguished by the "application of sociological concepts, perspectives, and methods to interventions for individual and social change" (Straus, 2002: 17). In my experience, the distinctions between applied and clinical sociology are frequently not transparent given that applied research often results in recommendations that the sociologist/ practitioner may be invited to help initiate or implement. In short, we can think of basic, applied, and clinical work as existing along a continuum without clear lines of demarcation in either their conceptualization by sociologists or in the way they are actually practiced, Iutcovich (1997: 15) points out that these divergent definitions result from "the process of identity formation and legitimation." The nature of this "contested terrain" has led to my own preference for a rather broad conception of applied work, such as that offered by Steele (1997: 87): "Any use (often client-centered) of the sociological perspective and/or its tools in the understanding of, intervention in, and/or enhancement of human social life."

History of Applied Work in Sociology

It is interesting that early sociologists at influential institutions such as the University of Chicago would have viewed the distinction between basic and applied sociology as "redundant" given their concern with social progress and reform (Du Bois, 2001; Iutcovich, 1997). …

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