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Hilary Burrage, MSc: Sociology Theory, Research, and Praxis

Editorial Note:

This profile of Hilary Burrage is presented as part of a larger project with the intentions of: 1) providing students with examples of applied sociology, 2) providing market value to sociological skills and services, and 3) promoting the work of individual sociological practitioners and organizations. Browse the full series of profiles here.

Hilary Burrage, MSc

Hilary Burrage, like many other sociologists in the UK, began her career teaching sociology to college students. She also got an early start to writing, launching a website for her work as soon as that was an option. From there, publishers slowly started contacting her about her work. In a professional capacity she spends a lot of time writing and also provides research and consultancy services and teaches and mentors students and young researchers. Additionally, Hilary reviews academic work submitted to journals for potential publication. Her work, both as a paid professional and pro bono, has covered many different issues, including teenage pregnancy, violence against women and girls, and environmental sustainability, among others. She is also an Adjunct Professor at the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Hilary resides in London UK.  She is a full Member of the Institute of Health Promotion and Education (IHPE) and the author of two books on female genital mutilation (FGM)

When we asked Hilary to describe the work she does, she told us:

My training has enhanced my perception and understanding of who has influence and power. That’s very important when examining ‘difficult’ situations, to see who can enable improvement—and what they need to be persuaded about, to do so. A while ago I described my approach this way: The Tale of a Jobbing Sociologist

…In almost all fields of public engagement and concern the sociological perspective will be of value in working out what’s happening and what needs to be done.

Continue reading for more insight and advice on applied sociological work from Hilary Burrage. You can also connect with Hilary on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Using Sociology in Practice

How do you use sociological research methods in practice?

I studied research methods and statistics at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level. I do not much use sophisticated statistical analysis (though I can follow it in others’ work) but I am very conscious of the need to have properly structured and rigorous inquiry methods. In the largely (not entirely) qualitative research and consultancy I conduct I often use an iterative approach—one question leads to the next in terms of inquiry, until a decent questionnaire or other line of investigation has been achieved. This female mutilation questionnaire is one example.

I try always to be open about the sorts of inquiries I am conducting—what does the client think they want? Is that the same as your expectation? Are you both willing to consider further?—and I include my questionnaires etc, in final reports; we have to ensure that others who may want to follow on are aware of how currently available information was garnered.

Increasingly, my research as been based on the almost-always pertinent advice to ‘follow the money.’ Here are two examples:

(One chapter of my academic book ‘Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: a UK perspective’ is entitled ‘Socio-economic analysis‘)

This follow-the-money approach is now leading me to much deeper investigation into who actually profits from FGM and what the costs are to those who are ‘cut,’ to those who depend on the damaged person, and then how their communities and states also suffer as a result. These are critical questions for any attempt at eradication.

How do you use sociological theory in practice?

The main ‘theoretical’ perspective I have developed over the years is ‘Patriarchy Incarnate.’ This concept could be developed in several directions, according to whichever formal theoretical perspective one chooses, but I employ it very consciously in the context of PRAXIS—I am trying to find meaningful routes away from gendered harm, rather than to elaborate theoretical takes per se. For others within academe a different emphasis will serve better. My priorities just now are applied rather than abstract, and I suspect such a position is also quite common amongst other practising research sociologists too.

But I needed way back first to understand the various sociological theories as an underpinning to my future work.

Lessons for Future Practitioners

What types of courses should undergraduate students take in preparation for a career similar to yours?

The most important thing of all is to ensure that your C Wright Mills sociological imagination is fired up! Learn to ask questions and, crucially, connect them up; so take courses which open you to new social concepts and lead you to ponder them. Be willing, constructively, to reconsider matters you have previously taken for granted. Try (as far as is comfortable for you, yourself) not to accept group/cult think about what’s ‘obvious.’

Amongst the courses I took, as an erstwhile natural scientist ‘defecting’ to Sociology were ones such as Modern Britain, Social Theory, Social Psychology, Economics, Social Philosophy and Ethics, Sociology of Religion (Beliefs), as well as formal instruction in Survey Methodology, Statistics and so on.

I would recommend these sorts of quite structured courses (B.Sc. (Soc.)) rather than a B.A. if you want to become a research/investigative sociologist.

What types of courses should graduate students take in preparation for a career similar to yours?

For the sort of approach I have adopted over the years, both as a teacher and as a researcher, it is critical in postgraduate studies to get a good grasp of (multiple) research methods and of quantitative analysis—this latter is rapidly growing in significance, BUT wonderful numerical data is useless if it is a cover for poor conceptualization (I see these ‘pretend outcomes’ in some submitted papers I referee for journals). Don’t be bedazzled by numbers. They have to mean something and they should not be analyzed beyond what feels to be good, sensible enquiry. They are not of themselves an ‘answer’ to many sociological or socially meaningful questions.

What types of experiences should undergraduate students seek in preparation for a career similar to yours?

I chose—all those years ago—to use my vacation time working in as many ‘social’ fields as I could—social work, nursing (and dental!) assistant, children’s play leader, factory worker etc. And I chose too to train as a teacher, so I would understand better how to deliver my enthusiasm for my subject.

What types of experiences should graduate students seek in preparation for a career similar to yours?

I’d suggest you need to read a lot (books, good in-depth news media, etc.) about whatever most interests you, and then write about it. (Maybe have a website to share your findings and thoughts? This helps also to formulate ideas; keep it as a diary rather than initially public, so you can later edit as you wish!) Try to affiliate to interesting research projects, explore the contexts of whatever work you do. Join your national sociological association. Let people know—in a sensibly modulated way—that you want to be involved. And maybe don’t imagine that a career just in academia (universities) will be the only route to what you may decide is ‘professional success.’

What texts or authors can people reference to learn more about the work you do as an applied or clinical sociologist?

My website,—which I have now had for some 15 years—carries most of what I write and do. I have authored several chapters, books and papers etc which are easily accessed via the website or a simple search for my name. I also subscribe to Academia and ResearchGate.