“You can do anything you want” is a self-help refrain that often shows up in the sales pitches of generalist disciplines, not least Sociology. The problem with having too many options is that Sociology graduates-to-be still have no idea which career path(s) to take. Thus many end up as teachers, researchers, HR professionals, or administrators. Secretly we wonder, can we even get jobs in fields for which there are specialized degrees?
Here’s what Max Weber says in ‘The vocation of science’:
“A really definitive and worthwhile achievement is nowadays always a specialist achievement.” (270)
If Weber is right, that specialists deserve the limelight, then what purpose is there for hiring generalists in specialist fields?
“Any work that encroaches on neighbouring fields, which… sociologists in particular must necessarily always undertake, must be resigned to accepting that at best one can provide the specialist with useful questions, which would not occur to him so easily given his viewpoint.” (270)
With this, Weber suggests that sociologists are doomed to be peripheral advisors who allow specialists to thrive. Yet it is all too easy to underplay the value of asking “useful questions”. In every field or organization – especially when most entrants have been schooled the same way – there are norms which are taken for granted. Generalists, with their distanced thinking, are better equipped to alter the direction of organizational actions and even goals in unconventional ways.
In fields like healthcare, research and policy is bridged by a sensitivity to patient and demographic needs. In tech corporations, the boss may have the technical nous, but s/he must have a creative brain to ask the “useful questions” in response to changing social needs. Even in engineering, the debate of generalists vs specialists rages on.
Specialists are vital in their respective fields, but so are generalists.
Barriers to Entry
Entry, however, is an issue for generalists. In real life, the likes of Sociology students do not have a monopoly on generalist thinking. Some trained specialists have, through curiosity or dissatisfaction, developed the capacity to question existing modes of procedures too. The hiring manager, I presume, will be inclined against the generalist, towards the specialist with some elements of unconventionality.
One issue with Sociology students is that in constantly questioning the status quo in all of social life, we usually pledge no allegiance to specific practices in organizations and industries. Such an attitude can be useful, but is a little haughty, and certainly not helpful for our career prospects.To thrive on ‘away’ grounds, we must be willing to first learn the tools of our chosen trade. Only after can we ask “useful questions” that do not draw the immediate ire of our specialist counterparts. We need to gain the trust of these insiders before we show what the outsiders can do.
Take this not as a compromise, because it isn’t. We learn Sociology to envision a better world, and taking the plunge into specialized trades is a very concrete step towards a slight reshaping of the world. Sociology provides the foundation; the student still has to build on it. I hope I soon find the fields I’m ready to plunge into. I hope I helped, too.
Indeed, we can do anything we want. We just have to work doubly hard.
Weber, Max. ‘The vocation of science.’ The Essential Weber: A Reader. Ed. Sam Whimster. 2004. 270-287. Psychology Press.