A Sociology Clinic: A Sociology of the People, by the People, for the People?

Tor Anders Bye, Sociologist and Fellow, Sociology Clinic, Trondheim, Norway

The ‘sociology clinic’, established in the middle of the city of Trondheim in Norway by Aksel Tjora, Professor of Sociology at NTNU, was opened on 1st July 2014. It was a concept he had been nurturing for nearly a decade before a suitable and affordable location presented itself. The overriding aim was to take the practice, craft and trade of sociology out of its normal university setting and into the community. The rental agreement was concluded, the clinic formally registered as a business, and the venue adapted and decorated to – quite literally – present a shop window for sociology in Trondheim. Aksel set about recruiting a team of skilled and imaginative sociologists of all ranks to take up the challenge of introducing and integrating sociology into the local community.

The original vision for the sociology clinic was to take sociology from NTNU’s out-of-town, out-of-sight and therefore out-of-mind Dragvoll-campus, which is several miles from the city and as many thousand feet above it, and into the vigorous and challenging environment of the city centre.

As well as physically bridging the gap between ivory tower and the day-to-day life of citizens, the clinic team set about putting its expertise to use and out to tender. ‘We can cure anything but disease’, Aksel Tjora proclaimed! Nor was this a cry in the wilderness. The background research had been done and solid grounds existed for two complementary premises: first, that there was a need for community-based studies to inform and guide urban planners and commercial endeavours; and second, that it was possible and desirable to involve community bodies and citizens as participants in the research process. On a more ambitious scale, the clinic might prove a focus for professional sociological and policy-oriented investigations into the far-reaching effects of socio-cultural and institutional change on the city environment.

These themes find an echo in early projects based in the clinic. For example, a team of sociologists used qualitative methods to evaluate the deployment of Trondheim’s ‘culture fund’, and went on to appraise its effectiveness in relation to the fund’s long-term goals. At the same time, this study contributed to the broader understanding of the politics and economics of the cultural field. Another project involved collaborating with ‘Agraff’, a small architectural firm located not far from the clinic. One outcome was the genesis of the concept of ‘passiar social’, the sociability of passing by, of happenstance, which fed back into local planning. Localities are interrelated in complex and potentially dynamic ways:  how one area is revitalised can impact directly on another. In this case the significance leading people to walk by the docks of ‘Ravnkoa’ was maximised. These sociologies – of space, neighbourhood and community – have tangible ramifications for the health of citizens.  As we hoped, such projects yielded a twofold return: first, they informed municipal and commercial plans; and second, they refined C. Wright Mills’ ‘sociological imagination’ by requiring constant theoretical and conceptual innovation and improvisation away from the university campus.

A final, related aspiration long articulated by Aksel Tjora is relevant here. The sociology clinic has had a liberating effect for and on the discipline. Its physical separation has given it a degree of autonomy from the traditional or conservative constraints of the university bureaucracy. The clinic is an independent initiative, unattached and unaffiliated to NTNU. With this comes the opportunity to step outside a ‘McDonaldised’ academic culture that can value the mass production of peer-reviewed papers in high impact journals above originality, creativity, real-life problem solving and even education.

The concept of the sociology clinic is commended here. The work done within its confines in Trondheim has been very encouraging across all the fronts mentioned here. The sociologists who have shared coffees and conversations and studied and researched there have been able to do outside the conventions and canons found on the NTNU campus. Studies that could not have been conducted from the campus base have flourished from the clinic, most notably those involving close liaisons with local politicians, planners, commercial concerns and citizens. Engagement and participation have been constant motifs. The ever-evolving clinic team firmly believe in the concept. They believe too that work done within and from the clinic will in time feed its scholarship back into the mainstream discipline and enliven its orthodoxies.

Perhaps most of all, the clinic opens its door to the wider community. Sociologists come by, but so also do others, maybe just to ask questions or exchange an idea or two. The sociology clinic is proving an important step towards a sociology of the people, by the people, for the people.

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