Flight of the Sociologists

Something weird is happening to non-academic sociologists.

When sociologists leave the academy, they shed their identity. If you find one in the wild, they look like a typical knowledge worker: wearing titles like policy analyst, writer, or consultant. They sound like a typical knowledge worker: wielding buzzwords with the best of 'em.

But they aren't a typical knowledge worker.

The title may have changed, but the discipline remains. If their sociological training was anything like mine, they will be hard working critical thinkers who have the power to change the way you think about the world. They will be excellent writers, experts in their field, awake to the social issues of the world. They might even be a thorn in your foot.

You will wonder how they got this way. Could it have been that vague, nonspecific sociology degree? Isn't that basically just a general arts degree? What exactly does a sociologist do? What value do they offer my organization?

If you are asking these questions, then something has gone wrong. It means that sociologists have become invisible, no longer recognized as valuable experts outside of university lecture halls.

It feels like sociologists have abdicated their domain. Since the 1950s, we have seen 'sociology' release itself from professional practices like economics, public administration, political science, business management, and public policy. Sociology has been left out of emerging fields like information technology, human-centered design, and innovation.

The domain of the sociologist has been ceded to more pliable disciplines - especially those that can perform narrow tasks with robotic efficiency. These are the disciplines that emerge when education is reduced to professional training. Why take a chance on a sociologist, when you can hire a specially trained 'user experience researcher', even if sociologists have been researching the experience of 'users' (also known as humans) for 200 years.

This abdication - the flight of sociologists from professional work - results in a discipline that does not fit. To reach parity with the standards and classifications of existing job descriptions, human resource classifications, and the imagination of recruiters, non-academic sociologists are forced to translate their skills into a vocabulary they had no part in shaping.

Every one of the graduates from my cohort now have 'analyst' in their title. Would they be any less valuable if they called themselves sociologists? To the contrary, I believe that they would champion the value of sociology, because it isn't actually dead. It's just mislabelled.