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Sociologists in Research and Applied Settings

This occasional column focuses on the interesting career paths and achievements of sociologists whose primary work in sociology is not in the academy or whose “extracurricular” work outside academic settings is noteworthy for its societal or policy impact. These sociologists are engaged directly with the public, applying methods of science and their sociological expertise.

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A Perspective on Business Careers for Sociologists

by Joe Mercurio, Eastern Michigan University and Walgreen Co.

It seems sociologists typically don’t pursue business careers. At this year’s conference for the Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology, some explanations for this rang clear as sociologists referred to themselves as “society’s doctors” with the role of “fixing society.” These comments displayed sociologists’ strong commitment to implement social change with their tools and concepts. This legacy has commonly lead to non-academic advocacy careers close to the discipline’s roots, with employment in organizations such as schools, churches, hospitals, or social service agencies. It may be that the light representation of sociologists in business is partially due to a strong value towards positive social change and perhaps a lack of awareness of the opportunities in the forprofit business sector.

Recently retired after a 36-year business career, I have always considered myself an applied sociologist. College educated in the 1960s with a passion for sociology and without a business class to my credit, I was not a likely candidate for success in business. However, sociology prepared me in ways that I could not have imagined at the time. It provided skills for a business career that culminated as head of strategy and research for one of the largest and most successful retailers in the United States.

Sociological Skills for Business

My perspective on the applicability of sociology in business comes from my experience as a strategist and researcher for a national retail chain. My adaptation of sociology to business was relatively easy, as retailing is a vital element of society. Shopping is a basic function, largely social in nature, and requires successful retailers to thoroughly understand and anticipate market factors such as their customers’ habits and preferences.

Applying sociological skills and concepts in the business world was not much different than applying them in traditional sociological fields. Many of the same concepts and tools are used but with different goals and objectives. Sociology in business is about understanding human behavior in order to better predict it. The goal is not the generation and dissemination of knowledge—nor to improve society directly—but rather to be used as a foundation upon which to build business strategies.

The ultimate goal of for-profit companies is to create financial value for shareholders, and this is typically accomplished by implementing strategies that include such goals as building market share, improving the customer experience, and offering desired products and services. Developing these types of strategies is where sociological skills become valuable. These strategies often result in improving society through the creation of jobs and the fulfillment of various needs.

One obvious application of sociology in business is through consumer research. Today there is heightened awareness by business leaders of the need to understand their customers. This activity is usually focused on understanding the consumer decision-making process. Employers of consumer research go well beyond retail firms and include entities such as consumer packaged goods companies, specialized consumer research companies, and advertising agencies. Careers in consumer research may be the single largest opportunity for sociologists in business.

Site selection research is another major function in modern retail firms relevant for sociologists. This career involves the planned geographic expansion of a chain. This is a direct application of sociology, and as described in “Sociology in Marketing Research”1 is the application of concepts of human ecology, expanded to include consumer spending patterns. This field makes use of sociological knowledge of urban communities, demography, and fluency with census and similar data sources. In addition to growing retail companies, this career opportunity is provided by niche consulting firms and GIS (geographic information systems) organizations that provide technology and information solutions to site analysts.

These are only two business career opportunities relevant to sociologists. Other direct applications of sociology, in my experience, include concept and product testing (utilizing experimental design), the evaluation of global market opportunities (drawing on cross cultural understanding), and long-range planning (borrowing futurist perspectives). Other opportunities certainly exist in traditional marketing, advertising, and human resources from recruitment through training and development.

In these careers, perhaps the greatest skills that sociologists have to offer are their ability to think critically, objectively, and conceptually to solve abstract problems. Additionally, sociologists bring their proficiency with the research process and are skilled at project management (highly valued in business) and design, through analysis and communication of results.

Moving Forward

There are significant career opportunities in business for sociologists who are aware of them and interested. Sociologists have powerful skills and can add value to business organizations in significant ways. However, this may require sociologists to take a fresh view of the positive contribution business can have on society.

Most for-profit companies today recognize their social responsibility and make significant contributions. At the broadest level, business-generated profit is a source of funding for research or community outreach foundations. Many corporations support social causes, and publish the percentage of profit given to charitable organizations. Perhaps the highest profile recent contribution has been made by those companies providing free supplies and medicine to victims of disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the southern California wildfires.

As the number of sociologists in the business workplace grows and their value is demonstrated, these employers may likely become a source of scholarships, internship programs, and other sources of support. I believe there are opportunities for sociologists and sociology departments to build relationships with the business community to their mutual benefit and to the broader communities which they both serve.

1 Mercurio, Joseph. 1987. “Sociology in Marketing Research.” Pp. 75–86 in The Sociologist as Consultant, edited by J. M. Iutcovich and M. Iutcovich. New York, NY: Praeger Publishing.