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Respond to one of the following discussion prompts.
What are your thoughts on the tools of sociology (perspective, theories, concepts, methods) and their impact on sociological practice?
Discuss the applied sociological enterprise in the information age and the role played by applied sociologists and basic researchers.
Most of us toss around the term information age when describing the contemporary world, but as sociologists our interest in this term should go much deeper than mere semantic shorthand for the times in which we live. For, this is an age where information has truly become a commodity. Our economic and social structures depend upon it, just as they relied upon iron, coal and later petroleum in the industrial age.
Information has become the essential raw ingredient in a chain of production that goes from information to knowledge to innovation. At each stage, imagination and creativity are the catalysts from which emerges the next step of the process. And each stage of the process has the potential to generate new information, making information a renewable resource and the chain of production self-accelerating. If not a perpetual motion machine, this chain of production is at least a perpetual information creator.
How then is knowledge generated from this torrent of information? Clearly one answer is through the arts and humanities. Another is through basic research. Science has become a huge force connecting bits of information to create patterns of meaning (i.e., knowledge). These patterns, in turn, become blueprints for innovations that change our life in ways big and small. For example, advances in physics are translated into cell phones which not only make it easier for friends to communicate on the go but connect people on the periphery to commercial institutions at the core of world system.
Granted, processing a Barclay’s credit card hardly makes a street vendor in Tunis or Addis Ababa a major player in the global financial system. Cell phones alone seem an unlikely tool with which to overturn the world system envisioned by people like Immanuel Wallerstein. However, as the Arab Spring and other recent events have shown, in the hands of a radical it can be a rebellious instrument. In the information age the revolution won’t be televised, it will be Tweeted.
Where does sociology stand?
What is the role of sociology in this new chain of production? Judging from most presentations at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, the majority of articles published in the journals of the discipline, and the zeitgeist of most sociology departments, sociology has firmly planted its flag in the knowledge stage of the process. After all, thanks to microcomputers vast arrays of information are available to us in digital form; indeed, entire constellations of data points electronically beckon to us from cyberspace. As scientists, we sociologists connect these data points, drawing meaning from them. In this paradigm, our job is to make sense of the passing parade while the task of being a drum-major falls to others.*
In its own way, this is a powerful paradigm whose roots stretch deep into modernity. However, it seems ill fitted to the information age. As a discipline we must cover each phase of the production process – information, knowledge and innovation – to be successful in this era. In effect, we must be vertically integrated. Basic research is clearly vital to our enterprise; but basic research alone is not enough.
Sociologists should be actively engaged in the process of acquiring information. If the person generating data has a solid theoretical understanding of the field, the information they present to a basic researcher is likely to be more useful in his or her attempt to generate knowledge.
Sociologists must also take the knowledge developed by their research colleagues and transform it into innovative approaches that change organizations and/or civil society. This is often work undertaken at the behest of clients, and it can have significant impact on the people involved. A project to improve the workplace at a company may seem rather prosaic except to individual employees who see tangible improvements in their daily life as a result. In this paradigm, the applied sociologist who affects that change is as important as the basic researcher who defined the relationship upon which that change rests – and both are dependent upon the quality of that initial data.
model showing connections between applied sociology and basic research and back to applied sociology.
If it all seems rather circular, it is. Dynamic is another word for it. As shown in Figure 1, the process becomes non-linear and constantly feeds back on itself. One of the most exciting things, I think, is that this paradigm opens new frontiers upon which to do sociology. Our greatest strength remains our sociological tool kit of method, theory and sociological imagination. But these tools are put to use in the information and innovation phases of the chain of production as well as the knowledge generation phase. We have two new arenas in which to play. We can be drum majors for – as well as detached observers of – the passing parade.
* Not to paint with too broad a brush, there are exceptions. The discipline has heard reports from the frontiers of other visions. As president of ASA Michael Burawoy championed the idea of public sociology, and some leaders in the organization have sought ways to more fully incorporate applied and clinical sociologists and their interests into its proceedings, publications and advocacy work.
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