Sociology Mind
2012. Vol.2, No.4, 335-341
Published Online October 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 335
Where Science Meets Art: Sociology and Social Work
Stephanie Ke l l y1, Tony Stanley2
1Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Batchelor, Australia
2London Borough of Tower Haml ets, London, UK
Received June 6th, 2012; revised July 16th, 2012; accepted July 27th, 2012
The nexus of neo-liberalist influences in our current risk society has produced a crisis for both New Zea-
land sociology and Social Work, playing out in practice domains and in the academy. This paper argues
that by co-habituating and co-operating, we may have a tangible way forward. One of the biggest chal-
lenges for Social Work practitioners is to come to terms with the role of theory in the practice of their dis-
cipline—a discipline that is often fast-paced, but increasingly focused on dealing with one client at a time,
and often reduced to a dyad emphasis in practise: that of client and worker. One of the biggest challenges
for the sociologist embarking on a career in research is to come to terms with sociology as methodological
toolkit for social activism where knowledge of theory can be applied toward sustained societal change.
Both offer a methodological approach to understanding the human condition in context. Both disciplines
are at risk because of neo-liberalisation, and this, we argue must be avoided by a move toward each other.
Keywords: Sociology; Social Work
Constantly the mature Social Worker faces the depressing
question: what after all are we doing? We patch a little here
and there, we provide temporary relief, we make temporary
adjustments, we direct to the appropriate institutions those who
need their services. But the great forces that create these needs
lie beyond us. The general situation is unchanged by our efforts.
The conditions, social and economic, hereditary and institu-
tional, from which destruction and maladjustment spring, are
untouched by us. The general situation is untouched by our
efforts. We deal with the unemployed but not with unemploy-
ment. We deal with consequences but not with causes, and the
consequences are eternal so long as the causes endure. (McIver,
1931: p. 6)
This paper argues that New Zealand sociology and Social
Work are at an historic juncture, both disciplines facing some-
what of a crisis of purpose and identity. Sociology is one of the
foundation theoretical bodies informing Social Work, taught in
Social Work education since the profession began in New Zea-
land, yet sociology in New Zealand is at risk of becoming a
historical artefact, becoming increasingly diluted in its delivery
in Social Work programmes while it continues to try and main-
tain its right as a standalone academic discipline. At a time of
enormous global and local change, this is an untenable position.
It seems to us that both sociology and Social Work are cur-
rently struggling with the intersection of theory and methodol-
ogy, and the impact of these on academic and applied practice
in a neo-liberal context means a crisis for both. Social Work
operates in a context of increased regulation, with workplaces
privileging practical skill sets over intellectual and critical ca-
pacity. The emphasis on doing work has replaced the episte-
mological foundations of what comes to constitute the “social”
in both sociology and Social Work. Bridging this gap may be
critical to the longevity of both disciplines and finding ways to
come together to do so it seems would be productive. In order
to do so, we argue that sociology needs to consider its role of
teaching and supplying critical theory as a methodological
toolkit for social action to address contemporary social prob-
lems inherent in western neo-liberal societies. Social Work can
embrace this application of social theory and method to bring
new life to the role of social “change agent”—and to address
the structural issues that are increasingly absent from the
analyses of both. As Garrett (Beddoe, 2005; Maidment, 2009: p.
5) argues, it is only by “drawing on critical commentary” that
practitioners can return to a Social Work that is critical, eman-
cipatory and ethical. We argue here that the co-habitus and co-
operation between and within Social Work and sociology is a
way forward to ensure that both remain current and co-existing
for and within our contemporary society.
Sociology students and practitioners struggle to think of so-
ciology as a methodological tool-kit and then to find applica-
tion in “the real world”. From our teaching experience with
Social Work students, they find sociological theory interesting
and may even get so far as to consider its usefulness as a
framework for thinking about, explaining or predicting social
trends relevant to the lives of their clients. However, there is
often a gap that exists in terms of making the shift from think-
ing about sociology as an interesting theoretical discipline con-
necting personal troubles with public issues and how this can
be used as a methodological tool for practice. We argue that
central to this difficulty is a perceived disjuncture between
theory and methodology and within this, an emphasis in Social
Work on categories of doing work, that is the intervening into
the world of clients, and the re-emphasis here on ontological
theory that explains what Social Work is, theories of how to do
Social Work and theories of the client world (Payne, 1997: p.
39; Beddoe & Maidment, 2009: p. 11). This is echoed in the
recent UK government review of child protection, where Eileen
Munro makes a compelling case for professional social work
judgments to be made in conditions of uncertainty (Munro,
2010, 2011), and as argued by Stanley (2007) the practises of
risk reification are thus opened up for scrutiny and critical
This gap is especially challenging in the current neoliberal
obsession in Social Work and Human Services directing atten-
tion toward the micro unit of “the client” that sees Social Work-
ers preoccupied with the face to face, case by case approach to
practice and the “fixing” up of the individual issues. Social
Work’s capacity to consider, analyse and address social ine-
quality is a more complex endeavour but one none the less
crucial in the protection of society’s most vulnerable. There is a
growing neo-liberal practice culture of looking for and applying
micro explanations for human behaviour. This is easily grabbed
hold of and accepted as what Social Work is all about because
it allows for practice without the need for critical or structural
The necessary alliance of schools of Social Work with
schools of nursing, the case for the professional teaching ex-
perience for both authors, further exacerbates this issue because
training has become a dominant discourse over “learning” and
epistemological debates. While an economic response made by
our schools of Social Work to address declining student num-
bers and to align these “applied disciplines” that share some
teaching and learning characteristics (for example practicum
and field education, communication skills, introductory psy-
chology and human development) (Stanley & Kelly, 2010), just
what constitutes the sets of knowledge debates for Social Work
has not been the subject of scrutiny. Rather, an emphasis on the
work ready graduate is a significant influence over ontological
debates replacing epistemological enquiry. Healy (2005) sug-
gests that discourses and theories shape the ways in which cli-
ents’ needs and Social Workers’ practices are constructed in
contemporary practice environments. At the very least, the
relationship between power, empowerment and Social Work’s
potential in disempowering clients, needs thinking about
(Stanley, 2007).
In this paper, we argue that the current neoliberal context
poses its own set of risks to each of these disciplines and so we
call for a return for Sociology to its methodological and social
action roots if it is to weather contemporary economic, ideo-
logical and political contexts as a relevant social science in the
twenty first century.
Sociology as an “Applied” Discipline
Sociology is the foundation upon which the practice of So-
cial Work in the western world began. Social action was also
the raison d’etre for the origin of Sociology. Therefore a no-
ticeable binary between the two disciplines which has grown in
a neoliberal context of the last thirty years in Western nations
seems both unnecessary and unhelpful. Rather, “the questions
about the type of society we live in, the institutional culture or
ideological underpinnings of policy which our practice is em-
bedded in, the personal experiences or predicaments of people
that make up this society, and economic, social and political
trends in the way that society, its institutions, communities and
iwi, and individualism have developed are interrelated.”
(Stanley & Kelly, 2010)
Sociology has always been a discipline to help make sense of
the contexts and changes in the world around us. It has formed
the basis of political movements, social and government policy
and research. Yet Sociology in New Zealand is coming to terms
with its uses in this political era of neoliberalism.
The founders of Sociology developed a social science to
make sense of the mass change of the societies around them
and to advocate for a social science for social action—the sci-
ence to help make sense of the social problems associated with
the brave new world—rapid urbanisation, poverty, racial ine-
qualities (Burawoy, 2005). Sociology continued into the twen-
tieth century with the development of the Chicago School
through to its role in the mass movements of feminism and
ethnicity from the middle of the century. In the 1960s it was the
politicisation of rights—women’s rights and the rights of ethnic
minorities and students, that led to shifts in understandings by
social theorists of the political nature of identity, “the politics of
identity” (Burawoy, 2005; Somers, 1994). Social theory arose
out of empirical observation of the social world and in turn this
knowledge was grabbed hold of by movements for change
(Burawoy, 2005). Sociology starts from the basic premise of
coming to terms with the relationship between the individual
and wider structures. CW Mills frames this as the relationship
between “personal troubles” and “public issues” (Mills, 1959;
Burawoy, 2005).
Social Work as an “Applied” Discipline
Connecting “personal troubles” to “public issues” is the
founding principle of Social Work. Therefore Social Work as a
discipline has been founded primarily on social theory. Beddoe
and Maidment (2009) credit social theory with the position of
historically informing Social Work practice. Social Work aca-
demics continue to call for inclusion of Sociology as a core
subject of Social Work and for Social Work to consider the
macro issues of social justice (Connolly & Harms, 2009: p. xii),
albeit in ever increasing dilute forms.
That Sociology has always offered Social Workers a descrip-
tive, explanatory and predictive capacity for practice is recog-
nised by many authors (Beddoe & Maidment, 2009; Stanley &
Kelly, 2008; Dominelli, 1997, 2004). The New Zealand Social
Work Registration Board lists Sociology as one of the key dis-
ciplines that Social Work education must offer. Ruth McManus
outlines the extent to which Sociology is one of the key disci-
plines taught in human service and applied social science pro-
grammes around New Zealand (2006). In Social Work this
occurs at the foundational level and if grasped successfully at
this stage can be utilised by students to help them in research
debates, social policy analysis, and to a consideration of the
role of biculturalism in New Zealand Social Work (Stanley &
Kelly, 2010).
Garrett (Beddoe, 2006; Maidment, 2009: p. 6) alerts practi-
tioners to the importance of retaining an inquiring stance in
relation to changes in day-to-day work practices. Social Work-
ers must be able to understand and challenge institutional barri-
ers that perpetuate inequality and disadvantage. Students and
practitioners need to be able to make sense of complex social
issues, and while Social Work theories offer pathways to inter-
vene to advance social justic e, it is Sociology that provides both
theoretical and methodological tools for the Social Work prac-
tices of “making sense” of taking action for social change.
Recent calls for a return to “the political in Social Work”
(Gray & Webb, 2009; Weinburg, 2008) draws our attention to
the important place of Sociology for and in Social Work. One
of the primary objectives of the The International Association
of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) is “to promote human
rights and social development through policy and advocacy
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
activities”. According to Gray and Webb (2009) Social Work
needs a post-Marxist approach rather than one informed by
postmodern theories. They argue if Social Work is to have a
transformative capacity, attention must be paid to the way poli-
tics and power operate in and through practice. Importantly, for
Sociology to be useful it has to be accessible. As Burawoy
(2005) argues, the primary purpose of Sociology is to engage in
both public and political ways with social issues, hence utiliz-
ing both the theoretical and methodological strengths of Soci-
ology for public purpose, while in turn assisting the discipline
to continue and flourish in this age where its uses seem to have
been at risk of being relegated to private ivory towers, for the
sole consumption of academics (2005). This is all with the in-
tention of raising awareness of how society operates in order
challenge and improve, while never diluting its theoretical and
methodological strengths to become just a clinical practice.
The Contemporary Challenges for Both
Van Heugten (2001) identified swings in New Zealand So-
cial Work, with shifts noted since the 1970s radical social cri-
tique to therapeutic work with individuals and more recent
attention to neighbourhood initiatives aimed at galvanising
communities. She noted that by the 1980s Social Workers were
becoming disillusioned with the potential of radical macro So-
cial Work to achieve social system changes at a macro level.
Change on a smaller scale seemed more achievable, and thus
more attractive, while appearing to create less conflict for So-
cial Workers getting on with their work. Reflecting this shift
from the end of the 1980s, at a time heavily influenced by neo-
liberal ideas of individual rights and concomitant responsibili-
ties, the family therapy model became popular in New Zealand
Social Work, adding impetus to growing interest in counselling
and therapeutic techniques. A focus on the individual as unit for
analysis and intervention tended to dominate Social Work, and
associated theorising drew heavily on psychodynamic and psy-
chological theories. For the beginning Social Work student this
needs challenging early on if Social Work is to achieve its
promise of affecting change across multiple levels of society
(Webb, 2006).
Social Work in New Zealand has struggled in the last three
decades to find its place as a standalone identity independent
from the sociological departments it began its local genealogy
in (Stanley & Kelly, 2010; Van Heugten, 2011). In the early
1990s, Franklin and Parton (Beddoe, 1991; Maidment, 2009)
referred to the “low profile” of Social Work which they attrib-
uted to its “idealised self-image” and unflattering media stereo-
types. Social Work has always been informed by a body of
theory, stemming primarily from Sociology and from a range of
other disciplines and as such has lived with the uncomfortable
reputation of “eclecticism” whose practitioners are jacks of all
trades, masters of none.
Beddoe and Maidment (2009: p. 5) point out that Social
Work still “continues to occupy a somewhat uncomfortable
position, seeking to be a valued profession (with the requisite
respect and status) while maintaining a purity of purpose based
on ideals of empowerment, anti-oppressive practice and social
justice”. Beddoe and Maidment refer to the two-edged sword of
this “eclecticism”, which allows for flexibility of practice while
at the same time lacking its own unique body of theory (2009: p.
The Shared Neo-Liberal Crisis
McDonald (2006) argues that the critical social justice stance
of Social Work has been lost in contemporary neoliberal wel-
fare service delivery. She talks about this similar trend in the
United Kingdom where “the reassertion of strong social con-
trol policiesfor example, antisocial behaviour orders often
aligns Social Work practice more closely with a reconstituted
agenda of human improvement”. McDonald talks about how
this context either leaves Social Work as an outcome of neolib-
eralism or aligning itself with “technologies of control in a
social context where ideas aboutproblem familiesare re-
turning to popular, political and professional debates” (Garrett,
2005: p. 539). We can certainly see this approach in New Zea-
land child and family policy since the early 1990s.
McDonald (2006) suggests that what she calls the emancipa-
tor project of Social Work, grounded in critical social theory, is
gravely weakened by both the neoliberal ideology of the eco-
nomic right and the substantial postmodernist contemporary
perspective in which the grand narrative of major social divi-
sion is replaced by ideas of fragmentation, diversity and multi-
ple voices. She suggests that “contemporary theory not only
destabilizes the emancipatory and progressive intent of Social
Work, it also undermines specific sets of practicesparticu-
larly those Social Workers use when engaging in social and
community development” (p. 91).
As Beddoe and Maidment (2009) and Webb (2006) argue,
Social Work has changed over the past 25 years “as fiscal and
social policies have shifted focus from universal to needs and
risk management bases, and a great deal of practice is caught
up with monitoring and managing public perceptions of vul-
nerable groups” (Beddoe & Maidment, 2009: p. 7).
Also, with trends embedded in neoliberal education and
practice, we argue that such a binary may also increasingly
become a luxury. It is Sociology as a methodological toolkit
that facilitates the very analysis of the historical development of
neo-liberalism and its impact on both the discipline of Sociol-
ogy and the practice of Social Work. We therefore argue that
Sociology is a paramount methodological and theoretical tool-
kit for both daily Social Work and human service practice and
for embedded and informed critique of the contexts of these
An application of CW Mills’ methodological triangle could
be applied to a consideration of the individual crises currently
faced by both these disciplines at the same time and yet ex-
perienced separately. Placing the current issues faced by both
Sociology and Human Services in a historical context and un-
derstanding of structural political and ideological neoliberal
policy, may help the two disciplines to understand the experi-
ence of their separateness and remember the historical context
of union—when Sociology was social action and the “doing”
professions of Human Services were founded on the theoretical
discipline of Sociology. Doing so would lead to the deconstruc-
tion of many of the neoliberal binaries that seem to perpetuate
the separation of these disciplines: science v art; theory v prac-
tice; research v theory.
While some schools of Social Work offer introductory Soci-
ology courses, and these tend to be delivered to first year de-
gree students, there is little curriculum space for sociological or
social science electives in further years of Social Work study.
There may also be an increasing move toward diluting intro-
ductory Sociology courses within cross-disciplinary modules
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 337
which attempt to teach multiple theoretical perspectives rele-
vant to practice. As noted, it is possible to graduate with a So-
cial Work degree and not to have studied sociology at all.
Ruth McManus writes about the current neoliberal crisis of
Sociology as a defined academic discipline (2006), linked to
neoliberal policies in New Zealand higher education. She sug-
gests that while Sociology achieves a degree of academic rec-
ognition through its capacity to teach at university level, recog-
nition of Sociology in the national research culture and sup-
porting agencies is also vital. We argue that Sociology needs to
return to its roots as methodological tool for social change.
Hence, as well as building its disciplinary reputation as research
and policy tool, it also has a lot to offer its students by returning
to its social action roots and including in its university pro-
grammes, the teaching about the theoretical and methodological
applications of Sociology for Human Services practices such as
Social Work.
Burawoy maps out why he feels the appeal of public sociol-
ogy is so important at this time. He feels that over the last half
of the century the political stance of Sociology has drifted in
one critical direction whilst the world it studies has moved in
the opposite direction. Burawoy proposes that the radicalism of
the 1960s diffused itself through the profession and conse-
quently in however dilute form resulted in the increased pres-
ence and participation of racial minorities and women (2005).
This interpretation of the changes in ideology where sociol-
ogy is concerned is said to be pulling in the opposite direction
in terms of the world changing according to Burawoy. Whilst
sociologists reiterate their jargon concerning the ever deepening
crisis of inequality and domination, we as the public are
flooded with the influx of rhetoric promoting equality and
freedom, and as Burawoy argues (2005), sociologists are be-
coming more and more inclined to wish to separate their social
justice ideological positions as individuals from the role of the
discipline, which is becoming less and less around “public” and
political sociology—sociology for action and more around the
private sociology of academic institutions.
It could therefore be argued that both disciplines are experi-
encing a neoliberal crisis. Sociology has always maintained a
clear identity as a solid theoretical and academic discipline but
is now struggling with finding ways to make its theoretical
strength apply to social action and to appeal to contemporary
student culture in a neoliberal context. We argue that this crisis
could be addressed by a coming together of the two disciplines
whereby the science of Sociology remembers its action roots
and meets the art of social action currently represented by So-
cial Work and Human Services, bringing Sociology out into the
public, rather than waiting to be invited in.
At the same time that Sociology is struggling to maintain its
academic credibility, Social Work is struggling to assert its
professional credibility, in a world that privileges empirical and
positivist infused evidenced based knowledge (Webb, 2006).
Moreover, Social Work often finds itself attending to highly
contested terms and ideas, like “power”, “risk”, and “need”
(Stanley, 2007). Thus Social Work needs Sociology to inform
sets of analyses about power, risk and accessibility.
Discussion: A Way Forward
The sociological imagination allows students and practitio-
ners to consider how this contemporary emphasis on “the cli-
ent” as individual is itself the outcome of a particular context
where political and economic forces are at play in the western
world, and have been for the past thirty years. Hopefully this
opens up the opportunity for student and practitioner to under-
stand the forces at play that have led to this particular interact-
tion, and the next face to face interaction, and so on that will
happen on a daily basis. The power of the sociological imagina-
tion to contextualise the framing of the individual client and the
individual practitioner as the most relevant units for practice as
embedded in a key ideology that informs this need to save the
individual from themselves or from the impact of external
forces, can be seen for what the situation is—a social construc-
tion itself.
Through getting students to come up with contemporary
examples of social problems affecting individuals and applying
more than one social theory to the situation we have been able
to teach students how to compare and contrast sociological
theories and how the exercise of doing this is a method to help
understand and analyse what may be happening for this con-
temporary Social Work focus—“the client”. For instance, com-
paring and contrasting Durkheim’s traditional “anomie” or
Marx’s “alienation” theory with contemporary liberal feminism
provides a way of moving away from our own understandings
of feelings of alienation that may come from sitting outside the
social norms, for example in the case of the young student who
presents to the high school Social Worker with issues around
body image, to consider the value that body shaping has for an
individual’s sense of worth for both the female student and the
female practitioner in contemporary mass culture.
In classroom exercises we began to deconstruct examples
that at first are presented as a “personal trouble” such as the
young student who visits the school Social Worker to help deal
with negative feelings about her body image. Students are first
asked to research and collect some statistics around this issue,
identifying trends today and in other decades. This is followed
by class discussions where we consider some of the economic
and social trends which may have led to the student seeing
herself as having this “personal trouble”. Included in this is an
analysis of the role that social policy has played through history
in embodying women’s identities vis a vis men, family, com-
munity and the state. We consider how knowledge of such pat-
terns can help us to predict the increased likelihood that
women—young, old, marginalised and educated, demonstrate a
higher tendency than men to low self esteem based on issues
around the body and eating.
Recognition that some women in the class are experiencing,
or have experienced similar issues, can help the student to
check their value judgments and assumptions, and to think
about how they may use this understanding to empower the
client through the linkage of “personal trouble” to “public is-
sue”. Students have remarked that they can now see “self” as
social, maintained, accepted or criticised because of social ex-
pectations around the “perfect” body: a definition that shifts
through time and across contexts.
Students can see that the “self” and the negative impacts on a
person’s sense of “self” worth brought about by negative body
image, such as eating disorders, dependence on smoking to
suppress appetite, and depression, are indeed personal effects of
historical context; economic determinants; and geographical
and cultural placement. These seemingly internal experiences—
personal troubles— a r e indeed socially constructed.
It is exactly due to the power of public context that we come
to consider our bodies as natural and biological. Therefore we
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
tend to consider that any matters to do with body are personal
and private, inside the realm of medical and psychological in-
vestigation and outside the realm of sociology. We are regu-
lated and regulate our bodies through acts such as diet, exercise,
plastic surgery, and appetite suppression activities such as
smoking. We do this in order to feel we have control over our
own body, its presentation and acceptance to others, and hence
our sense of self worth. Feelings of inadequacy about our bod-
ies become psychologically internalised and addressed by very
“personal” responses—diet, exercise, plastic surgery, and also
as eating disorders and/or depression. Yet it is a historical phe-
nomenon that sees the contemporary and growing focus on
“self” regulation (Elias, 2008; Kawahara, 2010), constructed by
public narrative as something that is the result of individual
control. Yet, trends show that these internalised processes by
individuals are indeed growing “public” issues. Scourges such
as eating disorders and depression are on the rise in the western
world, particularly among young people, particularly young
women but increasingly extending to encompass wider seg-
ments of the population—young men, middle aged women and
children. This is exactly the point of Mills and the sociological
imagination—the psychological is social. If we were just one
person living alone in this world, we would not consider our
body image or how it compares with that of others, but because
we live in a social world, our very sense of self, our personal
identity is determined socially. As the sociologist George Her-
bert Mead outlines, we begin to recognise ourselves and behave
in the ways we do through social interaction. According to
Mead, our historical, social, cultural environments have the
power to shape our consciousness. He called this self con-
sciousness “the self”. Mead introduces the concept of the “I”
and the “me” components of the “self”. He saw self conscious-
ness as “the self” and argued that “the self” has two parts: the
“I” and the “me”. “I” is the subjective perception of self and
“me” is the objective, external view of self (Silva, 2007: pp. 51-
Saori Kawahara (2010) is a young female sociology student
who carries out this same methodological exercise we work
through with our students, of bringing the “sociological imagi-
nation” to make sense of her own personal experiences and
responses, including diet and depression, to her own sense of
self image:
I am ready to consider my experience in terms of Meads
theory. In my case, firstly the social ideal of slenderness affects
the self’. Then the me’, which is one part of the self created by
social interaction, accepts the notion of slenderness. Therefore,
I consider that the slim body is the symbol of self-control, ele-
gance, social attractiveness and youth (Grogan, 2008: p. 41).
Next, according to “the me”, the “I” tries to meet the standard
of slenderness. After this process, I (“the self”) decided to go
on a diet.
My Experience
For the past half a year, I have experienced a change in my
body shape. I got fat. My weight became the heaviest it has ever
been in my lifeabout 60 kg. Before I came to the UK, my
weight was 55 kg. I did not feel I was fat or obese, but I was not
satisfied with my weight and my body shape. I always paid
attention not to get fat and I tried to keep that condition when I
was in Japan. However, the life in the UK changed my body
form, because for me the life in the UK really differs from that
in Japan. For example, I have lived with my family in Japan
and it has taken about two hours to go to my university. By
contrast, now I am living in university accommodation located
on campus. I do not need to ride on a crowded train or stand
for two hours any more. In addition, during the Christmas va-
cation, I spent a lot of time in my room and continued just eat-
ing and sleeping. I was sitting in front of my computer and
watched YouTube or played computer games all day long. This
is because I stayed here and most of my friends went back to
their home. There was nothing to do. After holidays, I realised
that I got fat. When I realised this fact, I strongly regretted
having lived a lazy life during the Christmas holidays. More-
over, I really do not want to see the mirror because I feel that I
am ugly, unattractive and obese. Whatever I wore, I felt that it
did not suit me. I became depressed. Therefore, I decided to go
on a diet when the spring term began. From this experience,
questions came to my mind. Why did I get fat? Why did I be-
come so depressed when I got fat? Why is the slim body the
standard of beauty, especially for women? Now I am interested
in the relationship between body and society…
I describe and analyse my experience in terms of sociologi-
cal imagination and some sociological theories. Durkheims
social facts tell us how society and social institutions affect our
body. In addition, the theory of Mead and Goffman are efficient
for analysis of my consciousness toward my body. Studying
media effects shows the influence on ideal body shape. My ex-
perience was analysed by looking from these points of view. As
I mentioned at beginning, human body is definitely influenced
by society. Many sociologists agree with the argument that the
body is not only private problem but also linked to social or
public matters. Sociological imagination helps us to see this.
In the nineteenth century, industrialization changed the hu-
man body shape significantly. Various food supplies gave us
many options of what to eat and new technology made us sed-
entary. In addition, in my case, the size of food affects my body.
Comparing the size of food between the UK and Japan, Brit-
ains food products are bigger than Japanese food products. I
showed some examples such as yoghurt and ice cream. Conse-
quently, I consumed more food than when I was in Japan.
However, I cannot control the production of food, because I am
an individual in big society. Durkheim called it a social fact.
According to him, sociologists should consider social phe-
nomenon in terms of social facts. In addition, social facts have
the power to affect our behaviour and body. In my case, social
facts such as various food supplies, size of food, new technol-
ogy and changing life style made me fat.
Secondly, I tried to describe my experience in terms of self
consciousnessthe Self, the Me and the I. According to George
Herbert Mead, human beings are involved in social interaction.
This social experience develops self consciousness. Human
beings who establish self consciousness will be affected by
social ideals, such as slenderness. Both parts of the self react to
each other. The Me accepts or agrees with the ideal of slen-
derness and the I tries to achieve this ideal. Consequently, I
choose to be on a diet.
In addition, according to Goffman, we play a social role
which i s giv en by socie ty. Social roles, for example, are gender,
race, age and ethnicity. At the same time, we really care about
the presentation of self. Then we try to manage our impression.
For me, gender is one of the most important social roles.
Therefore, being fat means the crisis of my gender social role.
This is because I was affected by the ideal of slenderness.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 339
Therefore, in order to achieve the ideal, I decided to go on a
diet. Furthermore, he distinguished human behaviour between
two regions, front stage and back stage”. According to
Goffman, the action of dieting is categorised as back stage
where people prepare for performance in front stage. Therefore,
the action of dieting can be considered to be an important so-
cial activity for individuals in order for them to present them-
selves with confidence and satisfaction. Moreover, being on a
diet is the action, which is really affected by modern society.
Lastly, I considered how social ideals spread in society. To-
day slimness is the standard of cultural beauty in Western cul-
ture. This is because of the successful marketing by the fashion
industry. After the 1920s, photographic advertisements made it
possible to distribute the ideal body image widely. In the
latter half of the twentieth century, celebrities such as actresses
and fashion models add an upper class and sophisticated image
to slimness. Most fashion magazines deliver the idealization of
slimness to girls and young women. Thus, positive attitudes
toward slimness were established. According to Grogan, we
are exposed to the image of abnormally thin models which are
portrayed by the media. While the media is only one cause of
the idealization of slenderness, it is the main reason for the
establishment of it. Also, Barbie dolls and mannequins are
media which tell us of the slenderness ideal. Both of them,
which have unrealistic proportions, affect our beauty standard.
I considered that increasing weight is a private problem and
the result of personal actions and life. However, in this journal,
I described my experience in terms of various sociological
methods. Then I realised that the experience of changing body
shape and the action and emotion after that experience were
constructed by many elements of modern society. Thus we have
seen influenced by society consciously or unconsciously. Soci-
ology provides us various methods and theories in order to
understand this kind of social experience.
This way Sociology serves to act as a method and method-
ology for practice (Allen & Stanley, 2011). The subsequent
problem solving could have incorporated a range of methods
including counselling the young student around feeling more
comfortable with her body but also around educating her boy-
friend, her friends and wider circles about how the issue is not
hers to own—it is the world that needs to change, not her or her
counsellor. This can serve the purpose of empowerment in a
multi-method approach, utilising narrative to feed into theo-
retical and methodological frameworks for practice.
Beddoe and Maidment (2010) discuss how the unfolding of
Social Work practice is mediated through the lens of an indi-
vidual practitioner’s values and beliefs about how the world is
and about how she or he would like it to be, thus influencing
thinking and action in practice (Payne, 2002). This is referred to
as “praxis”. Margaret Somers has argued that the goal of any
theoretical exercise is to bring together narrative and identity in
order to better understand social action’ (1994: p. 607); hence
who is doing the praxis.
By bringing their own worldviews and narratives to interac-
tion with the client the practitioner can be a tool of perpetuating
dominant disempowering narratives. In every face to face in-
teraction the practitioner has the power to step back, consider
the context, the narratives at play—seen and unseen and to
challenge dominant narratives that inform practice. Sociology is
the tool to do so. We have had great success in watching how
the development of a sociological imagination for students
leads to the beginning of an analysis about how their own per-
sonal judgments feed into choices about intervention plans
about other people’s lives, as in the example of the Social
Worker in School and the young woman presenting with body
image issues. We have seen the lights come on as students util-
ise this theoretical tool to understand how worldviews are
formed, how these differ across place, time, culture and gender,
and the influence these can have in practice.
This becomes an exercise in reflecting on previously held
binary views that can exist within worldview/dominant political
ideology. Bridging this binary provides students with what
Weinberg (2008) would refer to as the practical “nuts and
bolts” of doing Social Work, connecting the role of the indi-
vidual (as both client and practitioner), with understandings of
wider structural power.
Once this analysis occurs sociology has the power to act as
methodological practice tool in the setting, although the capac-
ity for doing so is always limited by the worldview of the prac-
titioner and the organisational, cultural and ideological con-
straints of the practice environment.
If in our example, the Social Worker in school had utilised
such a method and made clear the parallel of her own lived
experience as a woman concerned with body image, the em-
power tool of Social Work as agent of social change, not just
personal change could have been facilitated.
By contributing to counter narratives that challenge the
dominant narratives in families, schools, community, and the
mass media around issues like body image students are en-
couraged to think more deeply about things they may have
ordinarily taken for granted. While the Mills triangle offers
students a way to think about the intersection of theory, re-
search and practice in understanding the structural embedded-
ness of the personal troubles of their clients, it can still be a leap
for students and practitioners to think about how such structural
analysis can be used in a day to day applied way to make im-
mediate and effective change for clients.
Looking at the individual client in terms of the entire history
and context of their life and their personal situations can help
the practitioner identify what is not there, as much as what is
there. How has history, power, individual experience and
structure intersected to make this particular interpretation of an
issue by an individual at this particular time and what is my
role as practitioner in this?
This facilitates the opening up of prior fixed and rigid iden-
tity classifications and commensurate “solutions” as based on
fixed and repeated practice and institutional narratives, e.g.
attachment theory as a dominant modality in social work
(Shemmings & Shemmings, 2011), needs the developing of
awareness of what is not immediately in front of the Social
Work practitioner at this place and time. Thus theory becomes
method and practice and if carried further, the practitioner has
the power through narrative to connect the individual to the sets
of narratives at play in the construction of the practitioner’s
identity and the identity of other individuals experiencing simi-
lar situations. This ultimately can be very empowering for both
the client and the practitioner.
Does the science of Sociology need an art of application in
order to find its place in our brave new world? Does the art of
Human Services needs a science to inform it? Or is this science
versus art proposition itself a problematic binary (as Burawoy
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 341
argued, there is now a growing binary in Sociology between
what he calls private and public sociology); premised on par-
ticular ontologies arising out of a political, economic and policy
context of neoliberalism characteristic of New Zealand and
other western nations since the 1970s, which when applied to
the disciplines of Sociology and the practice of social work &
Human Services fails to take into account the historical origin
of both practices. Social Work has always maintained its posi-
tion as “art”, borrowing on Sociology and to a lesser extent
other theoretical disciplines (from within the social sciences) to
inform it, but it is now at risk of becoming so eclectic as to be
moving further and further away from any identity as an aca-
demic discipline in its own right.
The challenge for students and teachers of sociology and So-
cial Work continues to be the context of the contemporary em-
phasis on micro practice. By acting as both theoretical and
methodological toolkits sociology can help practitioners think
differently, and importantly critically, about the dominant prac-
tice influences.
Sociology is all at once theory, methodology and epistemol-
ogy. It both informs and explains what Social Work is, under-
standings of the client world and of the multiple cultural milieu
of the practitioner, as well as where it came from and is the
fundamental methodology for how to “do” Social Work. In
doing so, it reminds itself of its unique theory for action roots.
The role of Sociology as methodological tool for Social
Work practice is perhaps less clear, yet we cannot be too hard
on Social Work for its struggle to understand and utilise this
foundational tool, when it seems Sociology is itself in a crisis
perhaps brought about by its willingness since the 1970s to
become an academic theoretical pursuit—a luxury item for the
consumption and use by academics, devoid of its original roots
and contemporary connections with community action. Sociol-
ogy offers a tool by which both sociologists and Social Work-
ers can think about and redefine “the problem” as something
greater than the individual. As we argue (Stanley & Kelly, 2008)
it is how this actually operates in practice that becomes the
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