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Drew Dalton: Why Social Sciences make you think differently

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We caught up with Drew Dalton, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Sunderland, to find out why Social Sciences are a great area to study at degree level.

Andrew Dalton

What do you teach and what is your academic background?

“I’m Programme Leader for our unique MSc Inequality and Society programme which looks at the major causes of inequalities in our world. Our students examine inequality through a vast array of lenses such as gender, age, mental health and sexuality. I also teach on our BSc (Hons) Sociology programme which covers some of the most important issues facing our society today, from poverty and religion to social justice and immigration.

“I’m a sociologist by trade. I worked for 16 years in the charity sector – I managed charities, groups and took part in research and campaigns for charities, so I’ve done quite a bit, as well as taught! I’ve always had charity work and teaching in schools, colleges and now a university.

What do you enjoy most about Social Sciences and why should students study it?

“It's ace! Social sciences make you think differently about the world that you live in. Whether you’re looking at crime, society, health, community or culture, social sciences make you more critical. They make you see the world in a different light; how it operates and how it works. I think part of that is identities and how we form them, or thinking about global issues and understanding why some of these things happen.

“Social Sciences make you think differently about the world.”

“The other day, for example, I was doing a lecture on genocide and how globalisation impacts on genocide. So you can go from genocide one day to the sociology of the family on another, and do prison work on another day – it’s varied and I think that’s the best thing about the discipline of social sciences. It gives you a taste of everything and you can specialise in something that interests you.

"Obviously, it’s also a subject that makes you employable. But, to me, it also changes you personally. We know that you want to come to university and you want to get a good job out of it, and we’re very good at doing that for students. But I also think you change so dramatically between the ages of 18 and 22, and the course helps you understand some of those processes and why they take place.

What skills does a Social Science degree give you, and how can they help students in their careers?

“First of all, you end up being a trained social researcher. A lot of people forget that! You come out with your degree, but also with your training in quantitative and qualitative methods, so you can understand statistical research as well as face-to-face interview research and be able to do that and face the problems that come with it.

“We give the critical thinking skills, but we also offer that kind of worldly wisdom because we understand societies. I think we manage to fire people up without them realising sometimes! Some of our students have set up an amnesty international human rights group and one of my students is doing a fashion show for HIV, then we have another who’s setting up a food bank. It makes people more humanitarian, and I think that’s a massive part of it. A lot of people come into Social Sciences wanting to change the world but they don’t know how. We get them to think about how to do it – we don’t push them – we get them to think about it by offering them options.

What kind of careers can students look forward to after graduating?

“That’s a question we always get! Our students go into such a mix of areas. We get the ‘change the worldies’ – those who want to affect the world in some way and go into third sector organisations like Oxfam and Red Cross, or even set up their own charities!

Quite a lot of students go into the police force or the justice system and probation because they're interested in crime and justice. We’ve got students that go into health and health-related things such as the NHS or mental health, and we’ve got students who go into youth and community work who want to make a difference in their communities. Teaching is also very common, as well as nursing and social work. So it’s varied! 

What areas of Social Science can students specialise in?

“You can specialise in all sorts. With Sociology, you might look at gender and gender equality, domestic abuse, sexuality, or race and ethnicity, so you can specialise in quite unique areas. Although the degree might look broad on paper, it’s meant to be, because you are meant to specialise as you go through.

“We’re a great department with a lot to offer!”

What kind of opportunities are there for students whilst they are studying?

“Tonnes! We go a bit above and beyond I think – I get a bit carried away! We offer support for students seeking work placements and research projects. We’ve got strong links with local employers including Durham and Northumbria Police and the NHS. A lot of students have self-initiated their own things, like the fashion show and the food bank. But we do a lot of stuff on volunteering because I am an ex-volunteer manager. So I promote volunteering a lot and the benefits of it.

“We’ve also got a really lively social group. We go out of our way to offer things away from the classroom because I think studying social sciences isn’t just in the classroom, it’s going out into the social world and seeing it. We've seen exhibits in London on slavery – modern day and historical – and we went to the Jewish museum and saw the Holocaust exhibitions to see what happens when societies become too controlling and isolate certain members.

“We have a lot of guest speakers too. We’ve had someone come in from Gay Advice Darlington to talk about transphobic crime and what it’s like to be trans. Someone came in from freedom from torture, amnesty international, and someone from Changing Lives to talk about sex work – how it operates and the changing nature of sex work and human trafficking.

Why is the University of Sunderland a great place to study Social Sciences?

“Our Sociology programme has 100% Overall Satisfaction for two consecutive years (National Student Survey 2021, 2020). It’s a great place to come to university because it’s a home which offers a lot of support. We offer above and beyond in terms of things I wish I had when I was at university!

“For the School of Social Sciences we’ve got a set of lively programmes. We’ve got the Centre for Applied Social Sciences where students can come to and get involved with free public talks – the last one was on Jack the Ripper. We offer loads of extra training and courses that the students can go on. I just think we’re a great department with a lot to offer!

“You can’t get another version of this programme anywhere else in the country.”

What resources and facilities do students studying Social Sciences have access to?

“We offer them a lot of specialist equipment. Students doing their research have to be able to use special software, so although we don’t have labs (our research is done in the real world!) we offer the computer software programs. A lot of the facilities come through our CASS (Centre of Applied Social Sciences). We also have links with research departments at other universities that allow students to use a variety of facilities.

What positive advice would you give to students thinking about studying Social Sciences?

“Be open-minded and be prepared to have your world totally changed. The things that you take for granted have to be explored as to why you take those things for granted. For example, I was teaching earlier about love and marriage and the concept of romantic love. It was really interesting because students had this perception that we’ve always had this option available to us that we could marry who we wanted when we wanted. But actually, if you lived about 170 years ago you would’ve had an arranged marriage – we practised arranged marriage for about 800 years in the UK. So the concept of romantic love and marrying someone for that reason is relatively new. It’s common sense things that we take for granted, where once we scratch beneath the surface, we get a lot more depth. I think it’s being prepared to have your mind opened a little bit and becoming a researcher, getting used to research and how it operates.

“Be prepared to get passionate! Because people sometimes come in not knowing who they are or where their place is in the world and what that little fire in their belly is! Some of them come out and decide to help refugees for example, or students become passionate about different causes and quite politicised, and I think that’s what we do very well as a subject – and teachers as well I hope!"


Published: 11 August 2021