Towards a hopeful sociology – what kind of sociological practice do we need today? MacGregor, Guerrero & Crawford

Casimir MacGregor, Nic Guerrero and Harrison Crawford

The world today is experiencing many challenges, such as climate change, and the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) creating the COVID-19 pandemic.  Events, such as those outlined, are reconfiguring our relations with nature, society and economy in ways never before seen or even imagined. In these times of change, social science disciplines like sociology are useful in helping us understand and unpack the meaning of these events. However, these times also provide an opportunity to reflect on the current practice and institution of sociology – is the kind of sociology we practice today hopeful? What is the sociology we need to contribute to the challenges facing the world today and into the future?

Such reflections are timely as several of weeks before the national lockdown due to COVID-19 isolation restrictions, two Victoria University of Wellington 4th year sociology students Nic and Harrison undertook as part of their honours programme a sociological internship at BRANZ- a national research institute specialising in built environment research. The internship programme provides a supervised work placement opportunity to gain an understanding of the issues involved in working in a research, policy or related environment. A key aspect of the internship is to critically reflect on the craft of sociology with the challenges and practicality of doing sociology within the workplace.

During this time, we have been critically reflecting on the practice of social science more deeply within ourselves and with others.  The sociology we do at BRANZ is centred on research impact, by this we mean impact is the good that researchers can do in the world. A core of our work focuses on health and wellbeing, and to help create solutions to address climate change in the transition to a net-zero carbon economy. From our experiences and reflections on our sociological practice, it has become clear to us that sociological practice is about:

  • Your personal why – values are an important part of our practice in determining the type of sociology you do, but also how you conduct your research and engage with others.
  • Recognising that sociology is about communication – engaging with others for a common purpose.
  • Sociology is about engaging with the critical issues of our time – they may be difficult or challenging, but ignoring them is not useful, as sharing people’s experiences, positioning the issues within their social, cultural and political-economic context are always necessary.

Towards a hopeful sociology

Part of our sociological journey is about hope – being in a position to do the kind of sociology we want and need to do. Nic reflects on the challenges:

Employment after university is a conversation that sucks the air out of the room. It is almost as if the topic is followed around by an aura of dread. When I tell someone I studied sociology, their first question is often something along the lines of, “what kind of job does that get you?” The response I supply is a nervous laugh followed by, “I’m not quite sure”.

Such experiences are often typical for those of us who have studied sociology or other arts and humanities disciplines at university. For Nic, coming to a place like BRANZ where you can do sociology outside the university environment helped him to imagine a possible future and challenged his view on potential career options.  As he recounts:

For sociology there is no standard employment pathway like you might find in other courses at university. Sociology students are encouraged by the institution to either pursue post-graduate learning (Hons/MA and then PhD) or enter the real world with no real guidance. The post-graduate learning path (which I have currently started) is time consuming and economically precarious but the personal and professional development is invaluable. However, since interning at BRANZ I have been shown a different side of sociology. The sociology within this space generates research that encourages policy change. They are in a position where they can actively interact with the public sphere as well as the political and legislative spheres. This is not to disparage the critical sociology of universities, the research here is also important, however, it feels as though the impact is… disconnected from the public. The internship has given me insight into an alternative problem-solving sociology that builds upon my initial understanding of sociology.

Nic’s reflection highlights a need for a greater balance between the sociology undertaken at universities and professional sociology undertaken outside the university environment.

Harrison, during his time at BRANZ, reflects on how engagement is a critical aspect of the sociology he wishes to do:

Through BRANZ I have gained an appreciation for approaching sociology from the perspective of applied, or, embedded sociology and the difference between this and sociology in the university setting… It has allowed me to hone my sociological imagination and gain better insight into how sociology can be applied to problems in a real world context. This has given me a critical reflexivity towards my position as a sociologist, I am more aware of the biases and unique insights that I bring to the table when investigating beyond the hypothetical. In light of my unique perspective, I have been able to see the value that the sociological imagination adds to client issues and problems and how understanding the problem as a whole with real life implications can lead to a creative and practical reimagining of the solution.

The reflections of Nic and Harrison in relation to the practice of sociology raise some wider questions that need to be talked about and debated within New Zealand to enable a more hopeful sociology:

  1. A need to acknowledge there are many kinds of sociologies. There are many kinds of sociologies that are created through peoples’ experiences and shaped by different institutional cultures.  Each of us have our own sociology, so cannot assume that the sociology that you were trained in is the same as another’s. So, within the discipline of sociology, but also when we work multidisciplinary teams, we should take the time and explain things and not assume everyone knows what we are talking about in terms of theory, methods and world-views.
  2. The sociology we practice must address the challenges of our time. Sociology needs to be engaged in the world and address, critique and participate in the critical issues of our times. Are the research projects we are undertaking addressing questions and solutions that can be of benefit to New Zealand?
  3. We need to build sociological capability for the future. In our research projects are we providing opportunities to help train the next generation sociologists? Post-university many sociology students will find careers in a diverse range of areas – but have we given them the right training?  Are we teaching them the research skills needed?  What should be the curriculum for sociology so that across New Zealand we will ensure sociologists have the skills needed to help and contribute to our future challenges?  We need to ensure that graduates have an understanding of the skills they possess.  Sociology teaches students many good skills necessary within the workplace like reflexivity, writing, synthesising complex information, project management and others. With the impact agenda becoming firmly placed in New Zealand’s science system, do we have the right skills and systems in place to actively engage with policy makers and end users?  Do we as a discipline have the ability to share our impact stories in a way that people can see and understand the impact?

There are many challenges ahead for the practice sociology. We all know its relevance and its value. However, we also need to ensure we take others along this journey and demonstrate to others its relevance. This is a challenge for each of us, and part of a discussion we need to have within New Zealand sociology for us to help develop a more hopeful sociology for the future.

Casimir MacGregor – BRANZ. Contact:

Nic Guerrero & Harrison Crawford: Victoria University of Wellington, sociology programme