Sociology is primarily an academic subject, concerned with understanding the way in which society operates and how it influences our lives. For many sociologists, this is the full extent of their interest - however for others, it is important that the understanding of social process which they uncover, are used to make a difference to people.
Sociology can have significant implications for government policy - so much that an applied form of the subject has evolved in the form of social policy. This discipline is primarily concerned with producing evidence and theories which address specific social problems, informing governmental policy and evaluating the impact of these policies on peoples’ lives.
The Usefulness of Sociology
According to Giddens (2001), it is possible to identify four main ways in which sociology can be practically useful in forming and reforming social policy.
1) Understanding social situations
Sociology provides insight into the ways in which society operates, and the position of certain groups in society. One aspect of this is to gather factual information about society which can challenge the assumptions of politicians. On this level, the role of sociology is to describe features of the social world e.g. the work of Rowntree during the 19 Century aimed to demonstrate the extent and extremes of poverty in Britain and to spur the government into acting to alleviate this poverty.
Furthermore, sociology can offer theoretical understandings, moving beyond description of the social world and explaining why their findings have occurred. In offering these explanations, ways in which improvements can be made are also suggested e.g. the work of the sociologists of poverty and education has led to the development of material deprivation theory, which argues that the underachievement of the working class can be explained in terms of lack of income. This suggests that policy makers can address inequalities by readdressing the financial barriers faced by certain children.
2) Awareness of Cultural Differences
Giddens argues that sociology can be vital in addressing diversity; highlighting the views of certain groups and allowing policy-makers to respond to their particular needs and concerns.
- This can be illustrated with reforms to policing which attempt to reduce institutional racism. Sociological research has highlighted the way in policies such as stop-and-search were disproportionately targeting certain ethnic-minority groups (particularly the African-Caribbean community) and the way in which this was creating distrust of the police.
- Furthermore, sociologists interested in disability have highlighted the failure of conventional policies on unemployment - which try to encourage people to seek work - to address joblessness amongst disabled people. They have shown that additional policies are needed to solve unemployment amongst this group, particularly addressing discrimination by employers and unsuitable access to workplaces.
3) Assessments of the Effects of Policies
However, an increasingly important part of the relationship between sociology and government is in the evaluation…