applied sociology vs. public policy

From time to time, I run across “applied sociology.” There are now programs in applied sociology and research journals. Can someone show me an article or book that succinctly explains how applied sociology is different than public policy?

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Written by fabiorojas

June 7, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in academia, fabio, sociology

9 Responses

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  1. Sure. Project management… or corporate security … One of my co-workers is active in his VFW post, usually an officer, just as I am usually an officer in any local coin club that I join.

    The error in thinking only of public policy is Weber’s myopia for church, family, and state. On this blog, we have considered the sociology of music. If any musician had a sociology class and, based on that, decided that ticket scalpers functionally served the structure of seating, then, that would be “applied sociology” — and would be invisible.

    I work in private security, a field that takes much social abuse, even though we number and out-invest publicly-financed police three to one. You never see TV shows where private guards in suits politely clear a visitor to a corporate building… just the government cops blazing their lights and sirens while they yell at people. So, too, with “public policy” is this easy to see because it eclipses a larger context.

    I recommend When Strangers Co-operate by David Wayne Browns for an examples of “applied sociology” that has nothing to do with “public policy.”


    Michael Marotta

    June 7, 2012 at 2:38 am

  2. The term “applied sociology” indicates that the application is based on research within the academic field of sociology, so when such research is used to develop policy within the governmental arena, it becomes “public policy.” However, we probably all know that “public policy” is often developed without any backing of such research, based on policy makers’ research, their understanding of public consensus, their beliefs, or sheer gut feeling. Additionally, sociological research may be applied within education, organizations, and many other arenas where we do not label it “public policy.”

    Therefore, not all “public policy” is “applied sociology,” and not all “applied sociology” is “public policy.”


    Marjory J Munson

    June 7, 2012 at 10:12 am

  3. It’s an interesting question, and I am not certain I can point to an article or a book that clearly distinguishes between the two. But that’s because there is a significant amount of overlap. Anecdotally, I think the overlap emerges from public policy being inherently multi-disciplinary and from sociology being a bit of a broad catch-all discipline which gives people who want to call themselves sociologists a fair amount of latitude to approach a wide range of topics.

    But as someone who calls himself a sociologist, has taken public policy courses, and works in program evaluation (yet another field now that blurs the lines between a variety of social sciences and public policy–but a job I approach as an applied sociologist), I think there are some differences between public policy and sociology. Though, these differences certainly aren’t true universally. The tendency I have noticed, but again anecdotally, has been for public policy to place more of an emphasis on the administration and process of policy formulation, development, and implementation. At the same time, there tends to be a focus on policy as it emerges within government. So public policy places more of an emphasis on how policy gets done or how policy changes and highlights the structure of government (federalism, government agencies, interest groups and lobbying, etc.). In some ways, it assumes the legitimacy of the policy process.

    I think where sociology and applied sociology differ is in terms of their perspective, with theoretical traditions that allow sociologists to be a bit more critical. It seems a sociologist would have more of a willingness to dig deeper into where policy emerges from, whose interests it serves, and the consequences policy has on different groups. More specifically, I think applied sociologists tend to have a desire to foster social change and whereas public policy would tend to focus more on how policy is reformed within the system. So in some ways applied sociologists, because of the theoretical traditions we use, have a willingness to question the legitimacy of the policy process.

    I know there are standards developed for applied sociology Ph.D programs here, which might help with some evidence:

    But another way to approach it might be to compare syllabi from applied sociology courses to intro or overview courses in public policy. So I’d be interested to see how many public policy courses assign something like Marx, for example, something that I would think it a pretty standard read in any applied or public sociology course. I for one know that public policy courses deal with distinctions between elite vs. pluralist policy formulations, but most of the elite research public policy courses focus on comes more from the tradition of Robert Dahl (his later work) or Thomas Dye, rather than say Mills or Domhoff. In that way, public policy approaches tend to be bit more moderate in their approach and more accepting of the policy apparatus as it exists. Though again, I certainly wouldn’t say this is true across all cases.

    As for me the field of work I am in right now, I can differences pretty clearly. As part of my job, I am active in education policy and the evaluation of education programs. As someone trained as a sociologist, it is interesting to see that a lot of education policy is still very much focused on how to solve issues through policies focused on the school. Whether that means changes to the curriculum, the offering of alternative programs through charter schools, or the development of a new ways to assess the quality of teachers, among many other things. Fewer questions or discussions are focused on the issues that exist outside of the school building or beyond the district. So less of the discussion is about the unequal distribution of resources across schools brought about by legacies of and continued segregation and racism or by highlighting persistent and increasing inequality. This is not to say that there aren’t changes that need to be made within the schools or to the curriculum. It’s just to say that there is a place for applied sociologists to continue to bring the deeper issues to the attention of policymakers.


    Scott Dolan

    June 7, 2012 at 2:25 pm

  4. I really appreciated M. Munson’s comment to this post. Also, it was good to read in Scott Dolan’s comment that I’m not the only sociologist working in education research who notices that our discipline is often needed if legacies of segregation and effects of inequality are going to be kept in the education research conversation.



    June 8, 2012 at 2:34 am

  5. Not an article or book, but pretty helpful. Directly addresses your question.
    “Public Sociology – Lecture 1: What is Public Sociology?, Michael Burawoy”


    M Gibson

    June 8, 2012 at 8:34 am

  6. I find this to be an easy distinction, since I did public policy as an undergraduate and sociology for the PhD. Other commentators are right about the overlaps, but one thing that you have in public policy and perhaps not in applied sociology: cost models. Public policy people are wonks, at least where I come from. (See also: why I don’t like politicians.) Things get translated into dollars, harms, risks and levels. Quantification is taken for granted and lack of calculation would actually be strange.

    So in a policy program you would have more taken for granted use of economics, more training in economics, particularly economics of the public sector (externalities), more training in classical administrative theory (e.g. Simon), perhaps also more quantitative training, although not necessarily. I did decision models, optimization, etc. but that could have been a Carnegie Mellon thing, with the overlap of all of those engineers. But you’d likely see some electives about this, or on various social problems, perhaps some urban stuff, and heavier emphasis on environmental issues than in sociology, as that has been a long standing bread and butter issue in policy research. On the other hand, a lot less social theory, unless it was via a political science class, or the program tilted more toward political science than applied policy. Oh, and one would often write papers in the form of reports or briefings in some classes, rather than as theory papers.

    I would also say that the spirit of the field is different. You would probably also see less of an overtly critical social change viewpoint, and more of an attitude of change from within the system. I don’t say that as a good or bad thing, just as a thing. However, in the way that it plays out, I realize that because of this, I am a trained bureaucrat, and together with my newer ethnographic skills, I find that it is a real asset in navigating our everyday university bureaucracy.



    June 12, 2012 at 4:24 am

  7. For one, there aren’t (almost) sociologist in Public Policy Departments for the same reason you don’t see sociologist occupying important decision-making positions in the government.



    June 12, 2012 at 9:31 pm

  8. @Myself: That’s just not right. I’ve been at three schools w/well known programs (Chicago/Harris, IU/SPEA, and Michigan/Ford) and all have sociologists, some increasing the #s.



    June 12, 2012 at 9:38 pm

  9. @fabiorojas: I didn’t meant to say that there were none, but that the ratio of sociogists to other disciplines is very, very low. The number of sociologists is increasing because the schools are getting bigger, what’s important here is the ratio.

    And the sociologists that are there (specially at Harris) are basically doing, unfortunately, kind of applied econ work (running regressions assuming, implicitly, the optimization of an objective function subject to constraints).



    June 12, 2012 at 10:49 pm

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