Research Consultancy to Improve Civic Participation: Challenges and Opportunities

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

Improving Civic ParticipationI’ve started to republish some articles from a special edition I edited a couple of years a go for Sociology at Work, a not-for-profit network for research professionals and community workers that I’ve been running since 2009. The first article is by Scott Burrows, a sociologist and research consultant for private industry. He worked with unemployed youth in picturesque Illawara, in regional New South Wales, Australia. Scott was tasked with documenting and addressing these young people’s obstacles in securing employment.

Scott finds that young people tend to feel disappointed that service providers have not been able to help them find a job. At the same time, these youth believe that their personal traits and deficiencies stop them from finding work. In other words, they tend to blame themselves for their unemployment. While it is important for individuals to take ownership of their personal troubles, sociology finds connections between individual stories and larger social patterns. C. Wright Mills calls this the sociological imagination.

As a sociologist, Scott goes beyond these individual perspectives, by looking at unemployment using a broader framework. He focuses on the concept of citizenship.

These youth are not able to participate as full citizens of their local communities for a range of reasons, such as lack of education, inadequate housing, poor access to transport, family issues, substance abuse and mental health problems. Job preparation and motivation is a problem for many people in regional Australia, not just young people in particular. This makes unemployment a civic issue, not an individual deficiency.

Improving young people’s access to secure housing, reliable public transport, improving their education and training, and providing better social services to address family and health issues not only addresses some of the structural barriers to securing work, but it also improves civic participation for young people. This benefits their communities in many ways, as everyone’s access to local services and amenities are improved.

In the article, Scott also writes about his own work experiences as a research consultant. Moving from academic research into private industry, Scott discusses having to adjust to swift deadlines and a looser use of social theory. He raises a poignant issue close to my heart, about the different working contexts of applied researchers versus academia:

I have also found that in terms of knowledge and professional practice, private organisations require researchers to have knowledge on many projects from a wide range of issues whereas academic organisations tend to have a more thorough in-depth knowledge in a smaller cohort of studies. This is not a criticism but rather a reflection of the way in which a private organisation operates.

I find this to be true – while non-academic researchers are limited in researching expansive projects for long periods of time, we take on a varied portfolio that both challenges yet invigorates our social science training. The best part of our job is finding ways to make social science relevant and applicable to our clients. It’s not always easy, but it is rewarding, as you can see the real benefits that social science can have on communities and organisations.

Read more about Scott’s experiences on Sociology at Work.

Photo by Kaptain Kobold via Flickr, CC 2.0. Adapted by Sociology at Work

Photo by Kaptain Kobold via Flickr, CC 2.0. Adapted by Sociology at Work.