What is Policy Sociology?

What is policy sociology? How does it differ from public sociology?

Policy sociology applies sociological research to solve social problems. It is one of Burawoy’s (2005) four sociologies, alongside professional, public, and critical sociology. These four sociologies make up the broader discipline and are categorized along two dimensions: Knowledge for what? and Knowledge for whom? For example, both critical and public sociology produce reflexive knowledge (“a dialogue about ends,” Burawoy 2005:11), but they differ in their audience. Public sociology engages with an extra-academic audience (“the public”) and leads a discussion about society’s values and direction. Critical sociology leads a similar discussion about the field of sociology itself, often by questioning the tenets of professional sociology. Conversely, both professional and policy sociology are concerned with instrumental knowledge (“puzzle solving”). Professional sociology creates disciplinary knowledge through academic discourse, whereas policy sociology applies its knowledge to solve problems defined by “clients” (e.g., firms or governments).

Policy makers, like most people, normally feel that they already know all the psychology and all the sociology they are likely to need for their decisions. I don’t think they are right, but that’s the way it is.

Daniel Kahneman, Behavioral Economist and Nobel Laureate


Each of the “four sociologies” plays a role in shaping the discipline and creates important knowledge for its respective public. Yet, while public sociology has increased significantly since Burawoy’s influential 2004 ASA Presidential Address (watch below), sociological research is still under-cited in policy discourse. Sociologists were mentioned just 57 times in the U.S. Congressional Record over the past decade, compared to 3,333 times for economists. A similar pattern holds for mentions in The New York Times, where economists were cited nearly six times more often. As the NYT (“What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?”), Bloomberg (“Calling All Sociologists: America Needs You,” “Hey, Sociologists! Speak Up!”), and others have noted, sociologists speak to issues of national importance but rarely have a seat at the Cabinet Room table.

The mission of Sociology Policy Briefs is to promote policy sociology by spreading sociological research to policy makers. SPB’s goals are (a) to encourage sociologists to bring their expertise to bear on issues of public policy and national security and (b) to help sociologists better communicate their research to policy makers.

Why Policy Briefs?

Sociology Policy Briefs believes that the best way to promote sociological ideas in policy discourse is by making sociologists’ research as accessible as possible. Journalists, activists, and policy makers do not always have access to academic research (often behind expensive paywalls), nor the expertise needed to parse it for policy implications. Policy briefs are an effective way of presenting sociological research to policy makers.

To date, no other project aims to help sociologists spread their research to policy makers via the medium of policy briefs. Other organizations (e.g., Scholars Strategy Network) help social scientists connect and work with policy makers. However, they are not explicitly focused on writing and distributing policy briefs, which is an ideal way for sociologists new to policy to have a voice in policy discourse.

SPB’s policy briefs are concise (about 1,000 words long) and convey background on a particular social problem, a summary of relevant sociological research, and one or more policy recommendations. SPB’s briefs speak to a broad range of public policy and national security issues, including economic development, health care, education, immigration, and criminal justice, among others. Moreover, the policy recommendations made by our authors are always based on rigorous, peer-reviewed sociological research.

Policy Sociology Syllabus

Public Sociology

Burawoy, Michael. 2004. “Public Sociologies: Contradictions, Dilemmas, and Possibilities.” Social Forces 82(4):1603–1618.

Burawoy, Michael. 2005. “For Public Sociology.” American Sociological Review 70(1):4–28.

Burawoy, Michael, William Gamson, Charlotte Ryan, Stephen Pfohl, Diane Vaughan, Charles Derber, and Juliet Schor. 2004. “Public Sociologies: A Symposium from Boston College.” Social Problems 51(1):103–130.

Clawson, D., R. Zussman, J. Misra, N. Gerstel, R. Stokes, and D.L. Anderton, eds. 2007. Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-first Century. Berkeley, CA:University of California Press.

Policy Sociology

Lauder, Hugh, Phillip Brown, and A.H. Halsey. 2004. “Sociology and Political Arithmetic: Some Principles of a New Policy Science.” The British Journal of Sociology 55(1):3–22.

Paul Johnson. 2004. “Making Social Science Useful.” The British Journal of Sociology 55(1):23–30.

Paul Wiles. 2004. “Policy and Sociology.” The British Journal of Sociology 55(1):31–34.

Jarrett Thibodeaux. 2016. “Production as Social Change: Policy Sociology as a Public Good.” Sociological Spectrum, 36(3):183-190.

Policy Sociology Examples

Brief of Amici Curiae American Sociological Association and the Law and Society Association in Support of Respondents, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Betty Dukes, et al., 564 U.S. 338 (2011) (No. 10-277).

U.S. Senate. 2019. Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. “Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: Strengthening Accountability to Protect Students and Taxpayers.” 115th Congress.

(Have something to add to the Policy Sociology Syllabus? Contact us via email.)


Scholars Strategy Network - SSN was founded in 2011 by Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol to “connect journalists, policymakers, and civic leaders with America’s top researchers to improve policy and strengthen democracy.” Academics from all disciplines can join local SSN chapters and participate in SSN events and training.

American Sociological Association Communication Tools - ASA offers great resources for sociologists (and other academics) interested in shaping public discourse. These include tips for writing press releases, writing op-eds, speaking with journalists and legislators, as well as guides for promoting research on social media.

American Sociological Association Experts Database - ASA keeps a database of sociologists who are willing to act as “subject matter experts” (SMEs) for media requests. ASA members can join this list via the online member portal.

American Sociological Association Amicus Briefs - ASA has submitted a number of amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court summarizing sociological research in support of various social policies (e.g., affirmative action, marriage equality), as well as in support of sociological research generally (Walmart v. Dukes 2011).

Contexts Magazine - Contexts is ASA’s quarterly, general audience magazine and the “public face of sociology.” Contexts publishes short articles based on sociological research, interviews with academics and public figures, and even policy briefs.

Section on Sociological Practice and Public Sociology - SSPPS is a current section of the ASA whose mission is “to advance sociologically-informed research and public action, to further public discussion of sociological issues at local, national, and global levels, and to promote the use of sociology to inform public policy.” Their website includes the section newsletter and some resources for public and policy sociology.

(Do you know of other resources that we should include? Contact us via email.)