Overview of Definitions, History, and Ethics for Applied, Clinical, and Public Sociology

“People apply sociology when they use sociological methods, theories, concepts, or perspectives (tools) to address a social problem or issue” (Steele and Price, 2008)

According to the Association of Applied and Clinical Sociology, applied sociology is the utilization of sociological theory, methods, and skills to collect and analyze data and to communicate the findings to understand and resolve pragmatic problems of clients. Applied sociology is and has been the foundation of basic sociology since the discipline began some 200 years ago. In the United States, Lester F. Ward called for applied sociology in his 1906 address to the first gathering of the American Sociological Association (then Society): “sociology, established as a pure science, is now entering upon its applied stage, which is the great practical object for which it exists.” The U.S. government has been commissioning social surveys and studies for over a century. Today, applied sociology is a diverse field, encompassing clinical sociology, public sociology, community-based research, participatory-action research, and translational research.

Sociological practitioners occupy a wide variety of occupations. Many receive their pay as professors and teachers in institutions of higher education. Federal and state agencies or nongovernment organizations employ a large variety of practitioners. Corporate or business enterprises hire some, as well. It is likely that soon, both public and private funding will continue to shift from basic to translational or applied research and from researcher-initiated grants to funder-defined contracts as universities become more engaged in community based research and application.

“The term ‘applied sociology’ refers to a diverse group of practitioners all using sociology to ‘understand, intervene, or enhance human social life’. Many different approaches to sociological application exist. We use the term ‘sociological practice’ or ‘practitioner’ to inclusively refer to applied, clinical, and public sociologists, as well as those who identify more with methods used across the social sciences: community-based researchers, participatory-action researchers, and translational researchers. With their work, all of these sociologists intend to impact groups of people in the present day. They primarily differ in the clients with whom they work and their level of engagement in implementing the action steps of a project.” (Price, J., & Will, J., 2015: 858).

Perlstadt proposes a history of applied sociology that “divides the past 150 years into four periods: from the origins of sociology through the end of World War I –1850-1920; the struggle between scientific/ objective sociology and applied sociology – 1920-1940; the growth of sponsored research from the Second World War through the end of the War on Poverty – 1940-1980, and the emergence of a more independent applied sociology in an era of accountability and practicality – 1980-2005.” (Perlstadt, H., 2005: 2)

“Activities carried out by sociological practitioners usually begin with individuals or groups as human clients, not as human subjects. At some point the practitioner realizes that the activities and results should be systematically recorded as they could contribute to generalizable knowledge and be treated as research. The prudent sociological practitioner should be following the code of ethics of the Association of Applied and Clinical Sociologists (AACS) or the American Sociological Association (ASA). The AACS principle on responsibility notes that in their practice, sociological practitioners bear a heavy responsibility because their recommendations and professional actions may alter the lives of others. Sociological practitioners recognize that they must not do harm to clients or research subjects. In addition, sociological practitioners are alert to personal, social, organizational, financial, and political situations or pressures that might lead to the misuse of their influence.” (Perlstadt in Price, Strauss, and Breese, 2009: 180)

Steele and Price, 2008
Price, J., & Will, J., 2015
Perlstadt, H., 2005
Perlstadt in Price, Strauss, and Breese, 2009