Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


Deutscher, I. (1998) 'Sociological Practice: The Politics of Identities and Futures'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1, <>

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The theme of a meeting I attended in 1994 was 'Contested Boundaries and Shifting Solidarities'. Sitting in a stuffy room and unable to avoid the droning monotony of a voice buried in what looked like a very long paper, I reflected on the two usual means of escape: doodling and dozing. Thanks, however, to the theme of those meetings, I found a more constructive escape. I began thinking about shifting solidarities and contested boundaries as they relate to the practice of sociology. I confess that, although most of my career has been spent doing applied sociology, I never paid serious attention to any boundaries between applied and basic sociology, nor did I ever feel any particular solidarity with colleagues because they happened to be doing applied work. All of that changed quite suddenly in the late seventies for reasons I will mention later in this paper.

This little pep-talk was constructed from the free association reflected in the notes I scribbled at that boring session. I intend to say a few things about the women's movement and the teaching movement in sociology. I will highlight some of the qualities they share and will eventually suggest what they could have in common with us. The nature of our collective identity is perhaps the central theme of this paper and along the way I will insist that sociological practice must be sociological if it is to be anything at all. I will maintain the importance of sociological concepts in facilitating our understanding of where we are and where we might be going. Finally, I will advise you that there are choices to be made in shaping our future and those choices are yours.

Contested Boundaries and Shifting Solidarities

Gender was one of the emerging boundaries and solidarities that received attention at the meeting where I chose to neither doze nor doodle. The women's movement has had a profound impact on the contemporary world. I don't know who now reads C. Wright Mills (1959), but the women' movement was a deliberate consciousness- raising effort - an attempt to convert private troubles into public issues. It transformed in group self-hatred ('Why am I and others like me so inferior in the ways men tell me we are?') into a collective consciousness ('We are all in this together and they are wrong about us'). There may be a few sociologists who now study social movements, even though it is not a fashionable field. Yet there is no better conceptual framework for fathoming social change in the contemporary world. Who now studies the 'funny words' Everett Hughes insisted were at the heart of understanding any social entity? The women's movement converted the grammatical term 'gender' into the accepted core of their enterprise and they relegated to obscurity the epithet 'women's libber,' substituting the more dignified 'feminist' to describe themselves and their enterprise. Finally, Like all social movements, they launched a successful search for heroic ancestors.

What has all this to do with the politics of sociological practice? For the moment I will give you a clue. The old boy system which governed the American Sociological Association as well as the regional professional societies well into the '80's, met its final demise with the 1994 ASA election: no male was nominated for President, Vice President, or Secretary - the three most important elected offices in the society. Things do change, but not of their own volition. On a smaller scale, but equally close to home, consider another movement. In the late 1970's I served as evaluator of the ASA teaching projects which were perceived by the still entrenched elite as a harmless device for keeping the natives from getting restless.

Under the leadership of Hans Mauksch, an addicted user of sociology in any of his ventures, those teaching projects became instead a device for illuminating and publicizing the private troubles of the alienated and unknown teachers of sociology. No matter how magnificent they performed in the classroom, they would never gain the prominence enjoyed in the discipline by their vain colleagues who fancy seeing their names in print. Mauksch made a deliberate effort to create a social movement and in doing so converted into public issues, the private troubles of faculty in institutions ranging from obscure community colleges to elite four year institutions. Hundreds of these teaching sociologists were organized and learned, among other things, the power of the ballot by successfully electing some of their own candidates to the council of the ASA.

Their success is witnessed not only by the establishment of an ASA teaching section, but by the creation of an enduring and extensively used teaching resources center within the ASA executive office and the widening recognition of teaching as an honorable and legitimate activity for a scholar. Like the women's movement, the temper of the times played no little part in enabling the teaching movement to succeed to the degree that it did. But the temper of the times concerns the sociology of knowledge and that is another story although I will return to it briefly. What has all this got to do with the politics of sociological practice? Patience! I will return to the topic of social movements, but first let us consider who we would like to be. What choices do we have in forming a collective identity?

Our Identity

What does it mean to say we are 'practicing sociologists?' Are we like practicing anthropologists, truly proud of our professional identity? If so we must, like them, be compassionate for our colleagues whose lives are stuck in the stale mud of universities and colleges where they do research no one cares about and bore large classes of disinterested students while entertaining themselves with the petty politics of academia. These great power struggles are best captured by the Abbot and Costello shtick in which the big guy says to the little guy, 'Remember this, I am the boss!' To which, the little guy meekly asks, 'And what am I?' 'You,' says the big guy, 'are nothing.' The last word is the little guy's: 'So, that makes you boss over nothing.' So it is with the great power politics of academic departments.

An alternative to this sense of superiority, is a whining sense of inferiority. Do we perceive ourselves as losers who, in failing to get a 'good job' (with tenure) are now forever doomed to perform the dirty work of the discipline? My sinister musings about sociological practice as dirty work, are the subject of an ancient keynote address to this organization (Deutscher, 1984). It seems to me, however, that there is little to be gained from either a collective smugness or a collective self-pity. In both instances we are defining ourselves in comparison to other sociologists, rather than by our own standards.

It should be understood that we are above all, sociologists. We differ from some of our colleagues, solely because our work directly impinges on the empirical world. It may or may not change anything and it may change some part of that world for better or for worse, but the fact is that it is our intention to do work which alters existing social arrangements in large or small ways. It should be said that an undergraduate sociology major does not a sociologist make any more than an undergraduate major makes a philosopher, historian, or chemist. It is possible that, equipped with the proper tools, a technician can ply a research trade with pride. Such a person may be a craftsperson, but is not a practicing sociologist.

It is a weak version of disciplinary chauvinism that I recommend-- weak because there is no implication that sociology is any better than any other discipline. It is, however, different. It is because of that difference that it is important to maintain the identity of a sociologist. That identity is what provides us with the option of contributing something which others do not. Without a sociological perspective the picture is incomplete and fragmentary. Medical practitioners view people as sick or healthy or somewhere in between; psychologists view people as sane or crazy or somewhere in between, but that is not our language nor is it the way we perceive the empirical world. Medical practitioners are better equipped to practice medicine than us; psychologists usually do better psychology than us; even economists sometimes do better economics than us.

We may not be aware of how much the world has caught up with us in recent years. My home town newspaper, The Washington Post, regularly cites the authority of sociologists on issues of religion, race, politics, crime, the military, the family, and urban problems. A personal anecdote illustrates the extent to which the sociological perspective is penetrating the American consciousness. I was engaged in a cocktail party conversation with a recently retired air force colonel. He was intrigued by the fact that he had met a real sociologist and immediately began interrogating me about the frequency of black on black shootings. Let me paraphrase the conversation: 'What do you sociologists suggest be done about this?' he inquired. 'I know', he continued, 'that these kids are not sick and they are not crazy. I understand that they are acting under some sort of social rules and cultural values which make sense to them in their world.' Having succinctly stated this sociological perspective much to my satisfaction, the old soldier then repeated his demand:'What do you sociologists suggest be done about this?' Much to my regret, I stuttered, stammered, wheezed, and made some sort of half-hearted comment about the need to restructure the social world in which these young people found themselves. The point of the anecdote is not my inarticulate solution, but this lay person's articulate sociological statement of the problem. The sociological perspective is increasingly understood by the ordinary citizen. That bodes well for our future.

Applied work in the empirical world is, of course, often interdisciplinary. People working together approach issues from a variety of perspectives which hopefully can provide a more complete picture of problems and solutions. When a practitioner is part of a team because of his or her disciplinary perspective, then it is an abandonment of responsibility to ignore that perspective or to mimic another one.

Perspectives and Concepts

In discussing our perspective, I have avoided the word 'theory' because there is no single coherent theory in sociology which is fit to guide our practice. But we do have perspectives and we do have concepts which are useful. I have mentioned C.Wright Mills' conceptual distinction between private troubles and public issues, the notion of social movements, and E.C. Hughes's concepts of 'dirty work' and 'funny words.' Hans Mauksch was explicit in his use of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma (1944) as the conceptual foundation for his efforts to organize teaching sociologists into an influential social movement. The hallmark of quality sociological practice is the ability to mine the discipline for concepts appropriate to the job on hand.

Useful concepts can range from the grand to the tiny. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin (1960), borrowing from R. K. Merton, planted their 'Opportunity Theory' on Lyndon Johnson's lap, and the so called war on poverty was born. At the other extreme, we find Sam Strong of Carlton College spending his weekends in the 1950's at the state mental hospital in Minnesota. Strong played chess with schizophrenic catatonics. To the amazement of the psychiatric staff, he was able to engage some of these extremely withdrawn patients into human interaction. He was a student of Herbert Blumer and assumed that in order to play chess effectively, one had to take the role of the other-- to step into the other persons shoes and anticipate how that person would respond to a chess move.[2] I suppose Sam Strong was one of the first clinical sociologists although that term was not then fashionable.

The concepts and perspectives which I have found useful in this paper are not necessarily those that are currently fashionable. Such tools may or may not derive from obscure sources. The criterion for selecting them is their usefulness in illuminating the issue, not their popularity. The idea of 'relative deprivation,' for example, is rarely cited in contemporary sociology - applied or otherwise. This notion was developed by a team of sociologists during the second world war. It was their job to help the military deal with some of the anomalies in morale among American Soldiers. Relative deprivation can illuminate many organizational paradoxes especially in conjunction with the concept Merton derived from it. His little theory, tagged 'reference group' may be one of the least used and most useful in American sociology.

The sociologist-practitioner must rake through the useless chaff which is usually taught in 'theory' courses, in order to discover the occasional grain. Note, however, that reference group theory did not blossom from the musings of a professor in an ivy covered tower. The origins of that useful little theory lie in the practical efforts of a team of sociological draftees doing their job for the army. This address is not the proper place to provide an encyclopedia of good sociological practice. In fact, it may be a rather thin volume when it is produced, not because of the quality of practice, but because of the quality of sociology. Nor will I dwell upon the history of sociological practice. People like Calvin Larson (1993) have already recorded much of that for us. What I will do is return to the women's movement and the teaching movement and offer one final option.

Choose the Future: A Social Movement or a Friendly Club?

There is another choice that is ours. The options are both good but they are very different. One future we can pursue is the path we are now on. We have our lovely little clubs where we meet once a year, exchange gossip, get updated on what's happening in the field, grumble about the elite establishment in the universities and in the ASA, have a good time with old friends and go home to work until the following year. I enjoy all of that immensely. It is what our meetings and those of our fellow practitioner organizations are all about. Some practitioners would, however, choose a different kind of organizational future.

Suppose one would prefer to have sociological practice become an integral part of the discipline and to gain the kind of collective influence and respect that SWS achieved for women in sociology and which the teaching projects achieved for teachers of sociology? It then becomes necessary to create the kind of social movement they created. I referred earlier to the temper of the times. I suspect that the temper of the times is unlikely to ever again provide a more hospitable milieu for such a movement. This is even more true today for sociological practice than it was for the teaching movement a decade ago. At the start of this paper I claimed that I had never paid serious attention to the boundaries between basic and applied sociology. I also claimed that I never felt any particular solidarity with colleagues because they happened to be doing applied work. I also confessed that all of that changed quite suddenly in the late 1970's.

At about that time a sea change began to occur in institutions of higher education. That change, viewed as so terrifying to academics, provided the milieu within which the teaching projects were able to succeed. With some of the recent shifts I have mentioned in this paper, it is even more possible today for a sociological practice movement to succeed. I am speaking of times characterized by the imposition of severe budget restrictions in general, the demands for accountability in particular, student preoccupation with the job potential of their education, the desperate need of ASA to expand its membership, and increasing public recognition of the importance of sociology followed by an inevitable increase in demand for practicing sociologists-- all of these and other ingredients of the temper of the times result in a climate that is hospitable to such a movement. The little lapel button proclaiming 'Sociology, Use it or Lose it!' has more serious implications than its wearers may intend.

I beg you to take no pleasure in the problems such a miliu presents to our academic colleagues. Perhaps more than anything else, a healthy discipline needs to provide opportunities for curious people to pursue research out of no better motive than the curiosity itself. Nevertheless, what appears to be happening, although regretable, is clearly to the benefit of those engaged in practical problem solving activities.[3]

As for the more dismal forecasters in the discipline, I simply disagree. A 1994 issue of Sociological Forum was dedicated to the (loaded) question, 'What's Wrong with Sociology?' Although the editor reminded readers that one of the problems dealt with in the volume is 'the absense of theory that can be utilized in empirical [and perhaps applied?] research' (Cole, 1994: p. 129), the tone is generally one of distress over apparent disciplinary prestige. Lipset, for example, is convinced that 'We are an endangered discipline'(1994: p. 215). This appraisal is based on (1) the disapproval registered by 144 American deans several years ago (Lynch and McFerron, 1993); (2) 'Contested elections' such as those held in the ASA and Modern Language Association which accounts for the lack of respectability of such organizations as compared with the American Political Science Association whose elite nominating committee makes a wise presidential selection for the members and (3) the fearful threats to sociology departments in certain elite institutions (He mentions Yale and Washington University. In both cases there is some merit to the argument that the sociology department may be disposable). He seems more concerned about departments in such 'leading universities' than with some of the others he mentions in passing. In that same volume, Harvey Moltach's pessimism is at least rational. Taking as a point of departure the American tradition of individualism, Moltach concludes that 'We are misfits. The most developed sociology in the world exists in a country inhospitable to it' (1994: p. 221).

Despite all that gloom and doom, the temper of the times is right and the outlook is rosy! But the kind of social movement we are talking about requires above all, organizational coherence. There must be a unified voice lobbying for the interests of all sociological practitioners. It may be that the greatest cost of creating a movement, is the ruin of the friendly little clubs - the end of the Society for Applied Sociology and the Sociological Practice Association as we know them. On the other hand, such a coherent organization, can provide a new home and revitalization for such groups as Sociologists in Business, Sociologists in Government, and even our fading ancestor, The Rural Sociological Society. It is of no little importance that the practice section provides a base of operation within the ASA.

Although organizationally fragmented, there is a growing collective identity among practitioners and funny terms like 'sociological practice' and 'clinical sociology' are more acceptable and better understood as part of the disciplinary vocabulary than they were a decade ago. Committed scholars have invented a legitimate (and legitimizing) history of the enterprise, along with heroic ancestors in whom we can take pride.[4] Some of the elementary ingredients of a social movement exist. What is most lacking besides organizational unity is the sort of charismatic leadership experienced by the women's movement and the teaching movement. It takes effort, time, persistence, and dedication to mobilize this motley crew of restless sociologists into enthusiastic and excited participants in a social movement. Who among you is willing and able to do that?

I chose the words 'influence' and 'respect' in describing what we might hope to achieve. Taking our cue from the women's movement and the teaching movement, it should be enough to know that we will no longer be perceived as second class citizens of the discipline and we will have a say in where our discipline is going. 'Influence' and 'respect' are more appropriate in this context than are terms like 'power' and 'control'. Besides, as the little guy declares, who wants to be boss over nothing?


1 Presidential address, The Society for Applied Sociology, Detroit, Michigan, October 22, 1994. After finishing this paper it occurred to me that if a presidential address could be dedicated to someone, I would dedicate this to Arnold M. Rose, my friend and mentor who I noticed (after the fact) is a usually unacknowledged co-author of both An American Dilemma and The American Soldier in World War II: Vol.2, Social Psychology. Both of those volumes figure prominently in this paper.

2 Sam Strong published a paper on this topic in The Midwest Sociologist somewhere between 1954 and 1956. That journal, under the editorship of Paul Meadows at the time, has since been re-named The Sociological Quarterly.

3 In the last of a series of three articles in The Washington Post, Rensberger (1994) documents the liklihood of federal research resources shifting steadily in the near future from basic to applied research.

4 The origins and traditions of sociology both in Britain and the U.S. emerged as efforts to understand and resolve social problems. Until the invasion of the science creatures shortly after the second world war, sociologists were by and large do-gooders, reformers, preachers, and the like. It is not at all difficult for sociological practice to discover heroic ancestors among them.


CLOWARD, Richard A. and Lloyd E. OHLIN (1960) Delinquency and Opportunity. New York: Free Press.

COLE, Stephen (1994) 'Introduction: What's Wrong with Sociology?', Sociological Forum, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 129 - 31.

DEUTSCHER, Irwin (1984) 'The Moral Order of Sociological Work', Journal of Applied Sociology, vol. 1, pp. 1 - 11.

LARSON, Calvin J. (1993) Pure and Applied Sociological Theory. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

LIPSET, Seymour Martin (1994) 'The State of American Sociology', Sociological Forum, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 199 - 220.

LYNCH, David M. and J. Richard McFERRON (1993) "A Discipline in Trouble: Why More Sociology Departments May Be Closing Shortly", Footnotes, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 3 and 7.

MILLS, C. Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

MOLTACH, Harvey (1994) 'Going Out', Sociological Forum, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 221 - 239.

MYRDAL, Gunnar (1944) An American Dilemma. New York: Harper and Brothers.

RENSBERGER, Boyce (1994) 'Fundamental Research at Risk: Political Favor Shifting Toward Applied Science', The Washington Post, December 27, 1994, pp. A1 and A12.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998