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 dont pursue business careers. At this years conference
for the Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology, some explanations for
this rang clear as sociologists referred to themselves as societys 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 disciplines 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
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 knowledgenor to improve society directlybut 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 Research1
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
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.
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
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. 7586 in The Sociologist as Consultant, edited by J. M. Iutcovich and M. Iutcovich. New York, NY: Praeger Publishing.