Sociology + Social Work = <3

As the title of my blog not-so-discreetly suggests, my social work practice framework is predominantly underpinned by sociology.

During the first year of my undergrad, I enrolled in an Introduction to Sociology class. At the time I had only a vague idea of what the word meant, let alone knowledge that the discipline would later become my major. My professor, Dr. Jesse Seary, made it his agenda to commence our sociological education by asserting that sociology and social work are not the same thing. He proceeded to illustrate his point with the following thought experiment:

“If a person was drowning in a river,” he said, “the social worker would be in the river, helping the person to get out; the sociologist would be sitting on the river bank away from them, taking notes and assessing the interaction between the two people.”

The implicit meaning of Dr. Seary’s analogy is that social workers are devoted to a practical application of skills, while sociologists are oriented to academic research and analysis of social arrangements. The effect of his story was that I came to naively believe that the two disciplines were incommensurable.

Over time and with much reading, I have developed my own understanding of the relationship between social work and sociology. I believe that social work is more effective when informed by sociological insights, while sociological research is only as valuable as it is applicable to a real social issue. This realization has remedied an unease I had during my undergrad regarding sociological research; I used to think, “okay, so we’re gaining all this knowledge and insight into social issues, but what are we actually doing about them?”

I am not saying that all sociological research should be intentioned for social work practice, nor that all social workers should look to sociological insight for guidance. What I am saying is that there seems to be a fundamental relationship between the usefulness of sociological insight and the ability to effect change through theory-driven social work.

Being able to think sociologically can make the outcome of social workers’ labour more effective. For example, if we are able to debunk1 macro-level social structures, institutions, unequal power arrangements, intersections of identity, and so on, we can better inform our understanding of the plights in which our clients find themselves. To do so requires us to remain inspired by C. Wright Mills’ concept of the Sociological Imagination2, a method for viewing the world that encourages us to draw connections between our personal circumstances and the larger social arrangements in which we find ourselves.

If we are able to see when and how our clients’ situations are determined by public issues of injustice such as poverty, racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on, then we can deter ourselves from blaming individuals entirely for their circumstance. As a result of observing the effects that social injustices can have on people’s lives, we are better positioned to advocate for our clients’ human rights when necessary.

In which ways do you use sociological insight in your practice?

More to read:

  1. Click here if you’re interested in Peter Berger’s concept of Sociological Debunking.
  2. Click here if you’re interested in C. Wright Mills’ Sociological Imagination.
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