Professor Robert Dingwall: Using Sociology to Offer Strategic Advice and Qualitative Evaluations

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Professor Robert Dingwall earned an MA in Economics and Social and Political Science from the University of Cambridge in 1971. He continued his social science education to earn his PhD in Medical Sociology from the University of Aberdeen in 1974. Most of Professor Dingwall's work "is strategic advice and small-scale qualitative evaluation studies for a range of public sector clients. [He] also [does] some journalism and media work as a commentator on public policy, mainly in health and social care."

When we asked Professor Dingwall how he established himself as an applied and clinical sociologist, he told us:

"I worked full-time in universities for almost 40 years until 2010. A change of university president led to an offer of an exit package which I accepted and used to establish a consultancy practice based on my personal reputation and research record in health and social care, law and civil justice, and science and technology studies. I retained an academic connection through a part-time faculty position at the other university in the city."

Read the full interview with Professor Dingwall to learn more about his established career as a consulting sociologist below!

Professor Robert Dingwall

Using Sociology in Practice

In general, how do you use sociology in practice?

In giving strategic advice and commentary on policy directions, I draw generally on my training and experience as a sociologist. Because I am used to working in interdisciplinary environments, I always begin by trying to learn the client's language and way of thinking and to translate my own knowledge, skills and experience into their terms. However, I think the main thing that I have to offer is a different way of looking at their problems and it is important not to lose the professional independence that goes with my own distinctive background as a team member.

How do you use sociological research methods in practice?

Mostly I use qualitative methods and I am clear that clients should go elsewhere if they want quantitative research. However, this does not prevent me from commenting on quantitative data. My added value is sometimes in helping clients to understand the social construction of the numbers and how to interpret them. Otherwise, I mainly do interviews and rapid ethnographies.

Lessons for Future Practitioners

What types of courses should undergraduate students take in preparation for a career in your type of practice?

Students need a diverse range of methods courses. Our professional skill lies in our ability to appraise the value of different kinds of data rather than being locked into the idea that any one kind is superior to any other - it is a question of fitness for purpose. I would also encourage students to think about electives that will give them a wider sense of history and literature to provide a context for their studies in sociology. Students need a good foundation in sociological theory and a sense of the great tradition of the discipline but I don't think it is a big deal which specific topics they choose to study beyond that.

What types of courses should graduate students take in preparation for a career in your type of practice?

Again, a diverse range of methods courses are essential, even if they are not needed for a dissertation. I have found that reasonable competence in a foreign language has opened doors for me that would not otherwise have been available. Computer literacy is critical. Graduate students also need to learn to think like entrepreneurs. The people who don't make successful careers are those who are so wedded to their dissertation topic that they just want to repeat it over and over. My career has been built much more on seeing opportunities and thinking how I can package my portfolio of competencies to match them. How can I find something interesting in what a funder or client wants done?

What types of experiences should undergraduate students seek in preparation for a career in your type of practice?

Undergraduate students should certainly look for internship opportunities. However, they can also use other life experiences to reflect on how they can use their sociology. Even a part-time job flipping burgers offers an opportunity to think about how this fits with studies of work and occupations, of occupational health and safety or of provider-customer interactions.

What types of experiences should graduate students seek in preparation for a career in your type of practice?

I always encouraged my graduate students to look for traveling fellowships or placements with outside organizations - anything to have them realise that the rest of the world was different from the specific university and graduate program that they were following. This was helped by recruiting quite a few graduate students who had previous work experience, or other first degrees, rather than expecting them to come straight from undergraduate degrees in sociology.

What advice do you have for aspiring applied and clinical sociologists?

My business model is not easily replicated because I do have a decent occupational pension that covers the household bills and it is built on a 40-year career and professional reputation. However, I have always approached what I do as a business. I have invested in good hardware and software, networked energetically, looked for professional advice when I have needed it. I don't work for free unless there is a clear payback in terms of networking or reputation - universities are dreadful in expecting free labor and I am particularly firm with them. My invoices look commercial and I follow up slow payers. I remember that I am there to help with the client's problem - even if my role is sometimes to explain that the real problem is not the one that they think they have - and I focus on practical solutions. Because I came onto the academic labor market of the late 1970s/1980s, which was very tight, I had to learn to think like an entrepreneur from the start, which is not very positive for an academic career but essential in any other market.

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