What is Applied Sociology? Definition, Origin and Overview

Defining Applied Sociology:  “The means and methods for artificial improvement of social conditions, on the part of man and society as conscious and intelligent agents.” -the term ‘applied sociology’ has been the most general and oldest way of identifying this definition given by Lester F. Ward in 1903. It utilizes “sociological knowledge and research skills” to gain empirical knowledge. This knowledge is then used to inform clients, decision-makers, and the public regarding various social processes, problems, issues, and conditions to facilitate their informed decision-making and improvement of life quality. Applied sociology includes needs assessment, social indicators, evaluation and market research, demographics, and also “directed sociological research” in education, work, medicine, military, complex organizations, and mental health- in its broadest sense. (Perlstadt, 2007)

Therefore, in simpler terms, applied sociology can be defined as “sociology in use.” It is action-directed, policy-oriented, and facilitates individuals and groups to reflect on what they do and how they can build “viable social forms” that are capable of adapting to evolving internal and external conditions. (Applied Sociology | Encyclopedia, 2020)

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Origin of Applied Sociology 

Lester F. Ward was the first to bring the concept of applied sociology into the discipline of sociology. In 1883, Ward published a book titled, ‘Dynamic Sociology or Applied Social Science,’ wherein he defined the ability of legislators and the government to bring an improvement in societal conditions by gaining knowledge of the social forces, applying this knowledge, and becoming social scientists. Ward was strongly opposed to the idea of radical socialist movements and utopian reform that led to abrupt changes. According to Ward, applied sociology paved the pathway for the application of sociological principles by serving as a guide for political and social action. (Perlstadt, 2007) Therefore, through his work, Ward aimed at establishing the groundwork for the distinction between causal processes and the plausible interventions that can be made in these processes to bring about social progress.

As stated by Hegel, in order to understand and grasp a concept, it is important to know what it is not. (Marx’s Socialism) Therefore, the next section of the paper carries a differentiation between applied and pure sociology to facilitate the reader’s understanding of this subject.

Differentiating Pure and Applied Sociology

The 1906 published book, ‘Applied Sociology’ by Lester F. Ward aims to bring out the differences between these two.

In his book, he states that applied sociology aims to answer the question ‘what for?’ as opposed to the questions of ‘what, how and why?’ that are raised by pure sociology. While the area of focus for applied sociology deals with end, purpose, and object, that of pure sociology deals with causes, principles, and facts. It looks into the use of sociology whereas pure sociology delves into the subject matter of sociology. (Ward, 1906)

Applied sociology deals with an artificial medium of “accelerating the spontaneous processes of nature” whereas pure sociology deals with the “spontaneous development of society.” The former is practical whereas the latter is theoretical. In matters pertaining to the point of view, in applied sociology, it is seen to be subjective as compared to pure sociology, where it is seen as objective. The subject matter of applied sociology is based on improvement whereas that of pure sociology is based on achievement. (Ward, 1906)

Applied sociology looks towards the future and pure sociology, on the other hand, is concerned with the past and the present. (Ward, 1906)

To understand the differences between these two, many scholars have also turned to other social science disciplines like psychology and borrowed ideas from their subject matter. Such is visible from the work of Freeman and Rossi, who in 1984, published a work that stated six clear-cut differences between pure and applied sociology. (Freeman & Rossi, 1984)


Since applied sociology has carried with itself a certain degree of ambiguity and elusiveness, scholars believed it was essential to define the boundaries of applied sociology by listing and categorizing the work done by applied sociologists. They believed that the work of applied sociologists cut across “all substantive activities of the discipline” subsequently leading them to the only viable alternative of identification and codification of activities characterizing applied sociology. (Freeman & Rossi, 1984)

Freeman and Rossi have listed out three activities that are carried out by applied sociologists, to prepare a foundation for defining the boundaries of applied sociology. These are as follows-

The first activity is, ‘Mapping and Social Indicator Research.’ These studies are viewed as being descriptive in their purpose and character. They allow for an estimation of the degree of existence of a phenomenon, its social and physical space distribution, and plotting of its trends over a specified period. An example of this activity would include an individual standing for office desiring to know the region-specific trends in his/her public support. (Freeman & Rossi, 1984)

The second activity is, ‘Modelling social phenomena.’ This activity closely resembles “academic-oriented research” and aims to develop models based on social processes. An example of this would be a manufacturer wanting to know and understand the process of introduction of new products within the market and the control they exercise over the market-share. (Freeman & Rossi, 1984)

The third activity is, ‘Evaluation of Purposive Action.’ This is defined as a “social science activity” that utilizes social sciences’ research methods and theories to obtain the desired ends. Therefore, evaluation includes within itself the study and analysis of the extent of its success, in terms of how it impacts the intended beneficiaries, the organizational implementation plans of the evaluation, and the costs of achieving these desired goals. Its application is widely seen in public sector activities and various social programs. An example of this activity would be business firms evaluating their employee recruitment schemes and how they are reaching the population segments. (Freeman & Rossi, 1984)

Apathy Towards Applied Sociology

The Journal of Applied Social Science by Andrew C. Cohen in 2011, aimed to explore the reason behind the dwindling numbers of students enrolling and opting for applied sociology at the undergraduate level or the “apathy towards applied sociology” Despite the plausible career options and comprehensive work undertaken by applied sociologists, students seem to be potentially uninterested in applied sociology. The paper concludes that students are unaware of the career opportunities possible in applied sociology due to which it has failed to gain popularity in the ‘student market.’ The paper stated that sociology is “invisible to the public eye” and lists out the steps that can be taken by applied sociologists to make the subject matter more appealing to the students. It mentions the need for applied sociologists to promote a “unified image of sociology’ that allows students to observe the work and field of applied sociology. (Cohen, 2011) Similar concerns regarding the disregard towards applied sociology have been made by Watts, Short, and Schultz in 1983 where they explore the lack of interested students as the crisis of applied sociology. (Watts, Short & Schultz, 1983)

Alternative Futures

It is said that applied sociology and its future are being modeled by the historical progression of sociology, institutional contexts, and various social factors related to higher education. With the discussions regarding the decreased number of students opting to study applied sociology, Peterson, Dukes, and Van Valey have listed out 5 alternative futures for this subfield that allow us to explore the possible future of applied sociology in the years to come. These are- ‘down and out,’ ‘subfield status,’ ‘increasing focus,’ ‘ascension of applied sociology,’ and ‘leaving home.’ (Peterson, Dukes & Van Valey, 2008)

‘Down and out’ is considered to be the least optimistic future possibility for applied sociology. Under this, as sociology’s fate becomes more inextricably linked with that of academic departments and universities. Increasing pressures on finances might impact the higher education curriculum leading to the possibility of reducing and/or removing applied sociology from the larger field of sociology. (Peterson, Dukes & Van Valey, 2008)

‘Subfield status’ is considered to be an alternate possibility for the increasing financial pressures on individuals and academic institutions. Though it seems highly unlikely, if the situation regarding the finances is dealt with, then applied sociology can emerge as a subfield of sociology and can be given as much importance as the fields of family, medical sociology, and social psychology. (Peterson, Dukes & Van Valey, 2008)

‘Increasing focus’ as an alternate future possibility is based on recent American education trends that can be seen to increasingly emphasize the importance and relevance of applied sociology. According to Perlstadt, the demand for applied research is unlikely to diminish, especially in the case of the federal government. However, it has been noted that for such a situation to unfold, significant changes in the academic culture will be required to sustain an increased focus towards applied sociology. (Peterson, Dukes & Van Valey, 2008)

‘Ascension of Applied Sociology’ deals with the possibility of applied sociology becoming the “dominant force” within the discipline of sociology. However, this seems to be quite an idealistic possibility since the ascension of applied sociology would require overcoming the resistance stemming from the sociological elite. This is substantiated by the American Sociological Meeting in 2004, wherein themes pertaining to ‘pure sociology’ were quite apparent. However, those related to applied sociology were neither being discussed nor being publicly recognized. (Peterson, Dukes & Van Valey, 2008)

‘Leaving Home’ focuses on new trends within higher education that could lead to a possible amalgamation of applied sociology and various other applied fields to create an “interdisciplinary applied social sciences” field. (Peterson, Dukes & Van Valey, 2008)

Applied Sociology and its standing in the 21st century.

Despite the multiple possibilities that have been stated regarding the future of applied sociology, in the 21st century, one can acknowledge that this field of sociology is “very resilient.” The term itself has withstood years of vague definitions and the content of applied sociology has been attempted to either be ignored or replaced. One can conclude that in an increasingly individualistic, neo-liberal society that focuses on self-actualization and personal liberty, a discipline like sociology has difficulty in expanding its base and becoming widely acclaimed. However, “the heart of applied sociology is social research.”- this phrase reminds us of every aspect that is encompassed within applied sociology, all the way from its definitions to its objectives. Therefore, as long as the state and relevant decision-makers are inclined towards discovery and understanding of social facts and as long as individuals are trained to provide these social facts, applied sociology will expand and flourish. (Perlstadt, 2007)

Also Read: How to Apply Sociology in Everyday Life


Cohen, A. (2011). Investigating the Apathy toward Applied Sociology. Journal of Applied Social Science, 5(2), 53-65. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23548975

Encyclopedia.com. 2020.  | Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps[Accessed 7 May 2020].

Freeman, H., & Rossi, P. (1984). Furthering the Applied Side of Sociology. American Sociological Review, 49(4), 571-580. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/2095470

Perlstadt, H., 2007. Applied Sociology. [PDF] Michigan State University, East Lansing, pp.342-352. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/21643324 [Accessed 7 May 2020]

Petersen, J., Dukes, D., & Van Valey, T. (2008). Alternative Futures for Applied. Journal of Applied Social Science,2(2), 77-84. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23548746

Watts, W., Short, A., & Schultz, C. (1983). Applied Socio and the Current Crisis. Teaching Sociology, 11(1), 47-61. Retrieved May 7, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/1316923

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Stuti Banga is a sociology and psychology student, with a keen interest in exploring the different concepts and facets of these two subjects and their intersecting areas. She is passionate about writing and researching on various topics related to sociological and psychological phenomena. She has undertaken on-field research and engaged in several volunteering programs. She wishes to inspire individuals through her work and bring a revolution in the study of social sciences in India.