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4.1: Skills and Competencies in Sociological Practice

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    43053
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    Careers for sociologists are diverse and sometimes nontraditional (Viola and McMahon 2010). Sociologists are trained to help people and organizations assess and improve their social condition or situation. As agents of change, sociologists must develop an understanding of investigational methods, measurements, and social relationships to help clients and communities narrow the gap between their current condition and what they need (Bellman 1990). Overall, a sociologist’s work focuses on helping people by adding value and expertise in research, data collection, and analysis about social issues and potential solutions.

    Sociologists play a direct role in people’s lives by providing information and support to individuals and organizations for change. Sociological practitioners help others create programs and services, build capacity and infrastructure, adapt to social and organizational fluctuations, and develop or increase resources (Viola and McMahon 2010). The social and collaborative nature of being a practitioner requires people skills including trust and integrity. As a result, sociologists must develop personal characteristics such as patience, flexibility, and tolerance to build trust with clients and community members they serve.

    Being a sociologist requires knowledge in building and maintaining relationships with people. Sociological practitioners must develop the ability to establish rapport and trust with others for effective and efficient collaboration (Viola and McMahon 2010). The most critical interpersonal communication skills needed for a successful career in sociology includes listening, facilitation, and conflict resolution. These skills allow practitioners to communicate across cultures and share data or information using technical (formal) terminology and conversational (informal) language to work with and understand diverse individuals and groups.

    Communication only happens when practitioners, clients, and community members engage in uncovering and understanding the meaning behind the words. Active listening requires listeners to give feedback, confirm understanding by asking questions, and making clarifying statements rather than focusing on what they want to say (Freedom Learning Group 2019). Without listening, there is no understanding and no foundation for building trust and rapport. By listening, a sociological practitioner can assess people’s needs and translate their questions and desires into concrete tasks to support and help them.

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    Figure 4.1.1: This image "Six Women Standing and Sitting inside the Room" by Christine Morillo is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    Much of the work facilitated by sociological practitioners focuses on partnerships with individuals and groups to cultivate solutions for change. Practitioners must demonstrate a level of leadership and facilitation skills to create an open, safe, and collaborative work environment for all participants. Creating an effective setting and atmosphere for change requires practitioners to be aware of the roles and intrinsic motivation of the people involved. This level of awareness helps manage group dynamics, cohesiveness, and direction for optimal results.

    Secondarily, effective facilitation requires sensitivity to the established norms people bring to the collaborative process and the social pressures to conform when working in groups (Black, Bright, Gardner, Hartmann, Lambert, Leduc, Leopold, O’Rourke, Pierce, Steers, Terjesen, and Weiss 2019). An effective sociological practitioner will identify and show consideration for established norms while helping people recognize shared standards and customs among the collaborative group to identify common goals for change. Additionally, supportive practitioners aid individuals in dealing with internal group pressures that allows everyone to retain their unique characteristics or traits while accepting the collaborative groups’ standards or procedures.

    Lastly, by harnessing group cohesiveness, practitioners show collaborates how to help each other and work together as a team (Black et al. 2019). Practitioners emphasize the benefits of working together towards common goals for change. Group cohesiveness blends complementary strengths and promotes a sense of ownership among each group member.

    There are five stages of team or group development (Tuckman and Jensen 1977). The forming stage or first phase of development begins with the introduction of team members. This is commonly known as the “polite” stage in which team participants are friendly, demonstrate enthusiasm, focus on similarities, and look for leadership and direction among its membership (Black et al. 2019). The second or storming stage initiates when team members begin testing the group process. This is the “win-lose” stage where individuals clash for control over the group and choose sides creating a negative atmosphere with frustration around the goals, tasks, and progress of the group (Black et al. 2019).

    The storming process may be long and painful for the team, but the third or norming stage will eventually form and take shape. In the norming stage, team members now demonstrate group cohesion, openly exchange and communicate ideas, have common goals, ground rules, boundaries, and share responsibility and control (Tuckman 1965). Once there is established value and respect for one another, the team is able to build momentum and achieve results. In the fourth or performing stage, the team is confident, self-directed, and expresses renewed enthusiasm (Black et al. 2019). In this stage, the team is a problem-solving instrument (Tuckman 1965).

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    Figure 3: Tuckman’s Model of Team Development. Attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

    As a project, program, or initiative ends, team members complete their work and the group begins to dissolve. This adjourning stage is the fifth and final stage of team development. In this stage, team members seek closure and recognition for their work and contributions (Tuckman and Jensen 1977).

    Leading people and facilitating groups is challenging. It takes time and experience to understand and figure out the most appropriate methods and approaches for supporting people through change and problem solving. One of the most challenging aspects of working with teams and collaborative partnerships is figuring out how to balance the demands and expectations of individuals, the team or partners, and external stakeholders and constituencies (Black et al. 2019). Developing a checklist to identify people relevant to a particular effort or cause helps practitioners manage and facilitate the group process as well as ensure optimal performance for leading change. Some checklist questions to consider include:

    • Whose participation and support do we need to identify the issue or condition and solve the problem?
    • Who needs my support? What do they need from me or the team or collaborators?
    • Who can keep me and our team or effort from being successful?
    • What is my ongoing strategy to motivate, engage, and influence change?

    The answers to these questions are important in guiding and building the relationships we need to develop for social change. The primary role of sociological practitioners is to build and manage relationships with people who will support the team and their work (Black et al. 2019). This is the politics of sociological practice meaning practitioners must develop interpersonal skills to bridge people and shape strong working relationships.

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    Figure 3: This image "People Sitting around Brown Wooden Table under White Pendant Lamp Inside Room" by Christine Morillo is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    Acting as a facilitator, a sociological practitioner must demonstrate leadership skills. The practitioner often serves as an orchestrator or person that arranges and helps set the tone for a group to push on and accomplish its goals (Black et al. 2019). The process of leadership is different from being a leader or head of a group. Leadership is a working relationship with group members directed at achieving the needs of the team in problem solving and change. The act of leadership is an exchange relationship among group members and the practitioner to influence each other and the context or condition the collaborators are addressing.

    Several characteristics endow people with leadership potential (Kirkpatrick and Locke 1991; Kirkpatrick and Locke 2000; and Locke et al. 1991). The common traits of effective leadership include:

    • Drive or a strong desire to achieve accompanied with ambition, energy, tenacity, and initiative
    • Motivation to lead others
    • Commitment to truth, honesty, and integrity
    • Self-confidence or assurance in one’s self, ideas, and ability
    • Cognitive ability or analytical ability to think conceptually and strategically
    • Industry knowledge or understanding of the community and social conditions or needs
    • Miscellaneous traits such as charisma, creativity, flexibility, and self-monitoring or alter one’s behavior in context to social cues as necessary

    Sociological practice emphasizes a transformational leadership style where the focus is on inspiring others to action and helping people understand they can influence outcomes. Transformational leadership centers on engaging and energizing others through procedural justice whereby people effected by a condition or issue play an equitable role in confronting or solving the problem (Pillai, Schriesheim, and Williams 1999). This form of leadership motivates individuals to transcend their own centric thinking or self-interest for the benefit of the group, community, and society (Manz and Sims 1987). Through this process, collaborators focus on higher-order needs such as self-esteem, self-actualization, and get a voice in influencing decisions and outcomes that effect and are important to them.

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    Figure 4: This image "Boy and Girl Sitting on Bench Toy" by June Intharoek is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    Interpersonal conflict involves situations when a person or group blocks expectations, ideas, or goals of another person or group. Conflict develops when people or groups desire different outcomes, opinions, offend one another, or simply do not get along (Black, et al. 2019). People tend to assume conflict is bad and must be eradicated. However, a moderate amount of conflict can be helpful in some cases. For example, conflict can lead people to discover new ideas and new ways of identifying solutions to social problems or conditions and is often the very mechanism to inspire innovation and change. It can also facilitate motivation among clients, communities, and organizations to excel and push themselves in order to meet outcomes and objectives (Black et al. 2019). According to Coser (1956), conflict is likely to have stabilizing and unifying functions for a relationship in its pursuit for resolution. People and social systems readjust their structures to eliminate dissatisfaction to re-establish unity.

    The appropriate conflict resolution approach depends on the situation and the goals of the people involved. According to Thomas (1977), each faction or party involved in the conflict must decide the extent to which it is interested in satisfying its own concerns categorized as assertiveness and satisfying their opponent’s concerns known as cooperativeness (Black et al. 2019). Assertiveness can range on a continuum from assertive to unassertive, and cooperativeness can range on a continuum from uncooperative to cooperative. Once the people involved in the conflict have determined their level of assertiveness and cooperativeness, a resolution strategy emerges.

    In the conflict resolution process, competing individuals or groups determine the extent to which a satisfactory resolution or outcome might be achieved. If someone does not feel satisfied or feels only partially satisfied with a resolution, discontent can lead to future conflict. An unresolved conflict can easily set the stage for a second confrontational episode (Black et al. 2019).

    Sociological practitioners can use several techniques to help prevent or reduce conflict. Actions directed at conflict prevention are often easier to implement than those directed at reducing conflict (Black et al. 2019). Common conflict prevention strategies include emphasizing collaborative goals, constructing structured tasks, facilitating intergroup communications, and avoiding win-lose situations. Focusing on collaborative goals and objectives prevents goal conflict (Black et al. 2019). Emphasis on primary goals help clients and community members see the big picture and work together. This approach separates people from the problem by maintaining focus on shared interests (Fisher and Ury 1981). The overarching goal is to work together to address the structure of the overarching social concern or issue.

    Table 6. Five Modes of Resolving Conflict. Source: Adapted from Thomas, Kenneth W. 1977. “Toward Multidimensional Values in Teaching: The Example of Conflict Behaviors.” Academy of Management Review 2:487. Attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

    Conflict-Handling Modes

    Appropriate Situations

    Competing

    (Assertive-Uncooperative)

    1. When quick, decisive action is vital—e.g., emergencies
    2. On important issues where unpopular actions need implementing—e.g., cost cutting, enforcing unpopular rules, discipline
    3. On issues vital to company welfare when you know you’re right
    4. Against people who take advantage of noncompetitive behavior

    Collaborating

    (Assertive-Cooperative)

    1. When trying to find an integrative solution when both sets of concerns are too important to be compromised
    2. When your objective is to learn
    3. When merging insights from people with different perspectives
    4. When gaining commitment by incorporating concerns into a consensus
    5. When working through feelings that have interfered with a relationship

    Compromising

    1. When goals are important but not worth the effort or potential disruption of more assertive modes
    2. When opponents with equal power are committed to mutually exclusive goals
    3. When attempting to achieve temporary settlements to complex issues
    4. When arriving at expedient solutions under time pressure
    5. As a backup when collaboration or competition is unsuccessful

    Avoiding

    (Unassertive-Uncooperative)

    1. When an issue is trivial, or when more important issues are pressing
    2. When you perceive no chance of satisfying your concerns
    3. When potential disruption outweighs the benefits of resolution
    4. When letting people cool down and regain perspective
    5. When gathering information supersedes immediate decision
    6. When others can resolve the conflict more effectively
    7. When issues seem tangential or symptomatic of other issues

    Accommodating

    (Unassertive-Cooperative)

    1. When you find you are wrong—to allow a better position to be heard, to learn, and to show your reasonableness
    2. When issues are more important to others than yourself—to satisfy others and maintain cooperation
    3. When building social credits for later issues
    4. When minimizing loss when you are outmatched and losing
    5. When harmony and stability are especially important
    6. When allowing subordinates to develop by learning from mistakes

    When collaborative partners clearly define, understand, and accept tasks and activities aimed at shared goals, conflict is less likely to occur (Black et al. 2019). Conflict is most likely to occur when there is uncertainty and ambiguity in the roles and tasks of clients and community members. Dialogue and information sharing among collaborative partners is imperative and eliminates conflict. Understanding others’ thinking is helpful in collaborative problem solving. Through dialogue people, are better able to develop empathy, avoid speculation or misinterpreting intentions, and escape blaming others for situations and problems which leads to defensive behavior and counter attacks (Fisher and Ury 1981). Sharing information about the state, progress, and setbacks helps eliminate conflict or suspicions about problems or issues when they arise.

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    Figure 5: This image "Two Women Chatting" by mentatdgt is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    As clients and community partners become familiar with each other, trust and teamwork develops. Giving people time to interact and get to know each other helps foster and build effective working relationships (Fisher and Ury 1981). It is important for team members to think of themselves as partners in a side-by-side effort to be effective in their work and accomplish shared goals. Avoiding win-lose situations among collaborative partners also weakens the potential for conflict (Black et al. 2019). Rewards and solutions must focus on shared benefits resulting in win-win scenarios.

    Conflict can have a negative impact on teams or collaborative work groups and individuals in achieving their goals and solving social issues. Sociological practitioners cannot always avoid or protect people from conflict when working collaboratively. However, there are actions practitioners can take to reduce or solve dysfunctional conflict.

    When conflict arises, sociological practitioners may employ two general approaches by either targeting changes in attitudes and/or behaviors. Changes in attitudes result in fundamental changes in how groups get along, whereas changes in behavior reduces open conflict but not internal perceptions maintaining separation between groups (Black et at. 2019). There are several ways to help reduce conflict between groups and individuals that either address attitudinal and/or behavioral changes. The nine conflict reduction techniques in Table 2 operate on a continuum, ranging from approaches that concentrate on changing behaviors at the top of the scale to tactics that focus on changing attitudes on the bottom of the scale.

    Table 7. Conflict Reduction Techniques. Source: Adapted from Black, J. Stewart, David S. Bright, Donald G. Gardner, Eva Hartmann, Jason Lambert, Laura M. Leduc, Joy Leopold, James S. O’Rourke, Jon L. Pierce, Richard M. Steers, Siri Terjesen, and Joseph Weiss. 2019. Organizational Behavior. Houston, TX: OpenStax College. Attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

    Technique

    Description

    Target of Change

    Physical separation

    Separate conflicting groups when collaboration or interaction is not needed for completing tasks and activities

    Behavior

    Use rules

    Introduce specific rules, regulations, and procedures that imposes particular processes, approaches, and methods for working together

    Behavior

    Limit intergroup interactions

    Limit interactions to issues involving common goals

    Behavior

    Use diplomats

    Identify individuals who will be responsible for maintaining boundaries between groups or individuals through diplomacy

    Behavior

    Confrontation and negotiation

    Bring conflicting parties together to discuss areas of disagreement and identify win-win solutions for all

    Attitude and behavior

    Third-party consultation

    Bring in outside practitioners or consultants to speak more directly to the issues from a neutral or outsider vantage point to help facilitate a resolution

    Attitude and behavior

    Rotation of members

    Rotate individuals from one group to another to help understand frame of reference, values, and attitudes of others

    Attitude and behavior

    Identify interdependent tasks and common goals

    Establish goals that require groups and individuals to work together

    Attitude and behavior

    Use of intergroup training

    Long-term, ongoing training aimed at helping groups develop methods for working together

    Attitude and behavior

    LEADING A TEAM

    1. Describe a time you held a leadership position among your family, friends, at school, or with co-workers.
    2. In reflecting back on the skills and competencies presented in the module, did you use any of them in the leadership position you described? Explain.
    3. Which skills and competencies from the module do you think are the most important in leading others?

    Other Abilities and Proficiencies

    Working as a sociological practitioner, you must develop knowledge and historical information about the social problem you wish to address, the nature or origin of the condition, and possible methods for solving the issue (Lau and Chan 2019). Understanding a social problem aids in formulating the structure and approach to tackling it. This also ensures change agents are targeting and developing an accurate plan to address the “real” problem or issue.

    Solving problems requires critical and creative thinking. Critical thinking is the process of reflection and questioning aimed at confronting assumptions, examining context, and investigating alternatives (Brookfield 1986; Tice 2000). This process emphasizes assessment of one’s thoughts and interpretation of thoughts to validity, authenticity, and accuracy of understanding and reasoning. Creative thinking supports critical thinking as a process of developing new and useful possibilities to one’s thoughts (Lau and Chan 2019). Creative thinking aids in discovering new or alternative ideas and options. The inventive qualities of creative thinking aids sociological practitioners in constructing potential solutions to social problems.

    In addition, when working toward social change, practitioners and collaborators must employ strategic thinking. This cognitive activity improves decision-making, strengthens the ability to cope with change, and instills a mentality of continuous improvement. Strategic thinking is a critical thinking process people use to analyze, evaluate, and problem solve. The application of this process challenges conventional thought by emphasizing foresight or predicting human responses and outcomes. Strategic thinking requires aptitude in self-development (e.g., learning new skills and overcoming bad habits), organizational strategies that are productive and responsive to challenges and innovations, and tactical thinking to deal with confrontation, competition, maximize impact, and protect selves (Lau and Chan 2019). The purpose of strategic thinking in addressing social problems is to establish a systems perspective focusing on client needs and the barriers preventing success or change.

    SOCIOLOGICAL PRACTITIONER QUALITIES

    Below are a list of general traits and skills needed in the field of sociology. Review the items and complete a self-assessment for further preparation as a sociological practitioner. These items will give you a sense of where your strengths are and what you have to offer clients, communities, and employers.

    _____ I am comfortable speaking with and in front of people.

    _____ I am authentic and self-confident when working with others.

    _____ I have effective written and oral communication skills.

    _____ I am not afraid to say “no” or disappointing someone.

    _____ I am self- motivated and self-disciplined to complete my work on time.

    _____ I accept criticism and am willing to learn from my mistakes.

    _____ I am aware of my personal and professional weaknesses and strengths.

    _____ I have strong organizational skills (i.e., time management, recordkeeping, meeting deadlines, etc.).

    _____ I am flexible and tolerant when working with others.

    _____ I am able to reflect and synthesize what others share with me.

    _____ I am able to work collaboratively or on a team.

    _____ I am able to manage conflict without getting defensive.

    _____ I am able to use a variety of data collection, analysis, and reporting methods.

    _____ I am able to use software (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, statistical analysis (SPSS or Nvivo, etc.) for creating, recording, and presenting data and reports.

    _____ I can apply a variety of theoretical models and approaches to solving social problems.

    EXPLORING SOCIOLOGICAL PRACTITIONER METHODS AND SKILLS

    1. Review the Public Sociology Toolkit (https://publicsociologytoolkit.com/public-sociology-toolkit/).
    2. Explore each of the 18 methods and skills sociological practitioners use to investigate social issues and work to create social change.
    3. Think about a social problem that is important to you and describe how a team of practitioners, clients, and community stakeholders might apply each of the 18 methods in the toolkit to improve the social condition you identified.

    This page titled 4.1: Skills and Competencies in Sociological Practice is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Vera Kennedy.