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In my opinion

Canadian businesses need our social science PhDs

Few academic supervisors ever advise their social science PhD students to seek employment in the private sector. It is time that changed.

BY SAM LADNER | APR 04 2011

Now, more than ever, social scientists should consider working in and for business, both for practical and for moral reasons.

The practical argument is simple: it’s a tough job market in academia. Fewer than 35 percent of Canadian PhD graduates land tenure-track jobs. But, for the others, there is the potential to gain meaningful, sustainable employment in the private sector. This is particularly true for social scientists. Businessweek calls social science research the “new competence,” and Gartner Research calls social scientists “the next big thing in business.”

Social scientists can and should have closer ties to the study of business, which makes up a huge proportion of social life. People work in businesses, purchase goods and services from businesses, align emotionally with products made by businesses. Social interactions frequently intersect with market transactions, notes economic sociologist Viviana Zelizer. And, it’s a myth to believe that the university is a “purer” research environment, untouched by corporate interests.

There is also a moral argument in favour of this career path: business leaders need to hear directly the critiques of social science. They rarely hear their marketing practices analyzed using a sociological lens. Consider, for example, the automotive company that provided me a creative brief that featured only men as the “target market.” Or the computer executive who told a Toronto audience that “consumers” used to want beige computers but “now they want the pink one.” These executives need the insight about gender that comes from social scientists, if for no other reason than to learn to respect their (women) customers.

Business leaders also need to be directly confronted with the kind of moral questions that emerge from social inquiry. Take, for example, Wal-Mart’s employment practices. While there is no shortage of academic critiques of the company’s practices, there is a dearth of social scientists advising Wal-Mart directly. The further away social scientists are from everyday business practices, the less informed their research is about those practices.

The usual objection is that when social scientists are paid directly by the subject of study, they may be co-opted. And, even if they’re not, it is extremely difficult to “speak truth to power.” This is assuredly true. When a social scientist relies on providing advice to a business, she runs the risk of alienating her clients should she report something un-popular. But social scientists can guard against excessive influence of their private-sector clients in the same ways that they guard against excessive influence of grant funders in academia.

Just as the academic applies for multiple grants to mitigate the over-reliance on one funding source, a private-sector social scientist can seek out multiple clients. Not every client will exert inappropriate influence over the findings. Not every client will be averse to hearing criticism. My colleagues in academia might doubt this, but there is a true hunger for thoughtful, authentic social analysis in the business world. No leader can rely on sycophants to make good decisions, and good business leaders are no different.

Social scientists can improve business outcomes by doing what they’ve been trained to do: examine the social practices around the product or service. We are studying the social practices first, and the product’s role in those social practices second.

In this way, I have shown my clients their own prejudices and biases. They have become aware, for example, of how their assumptions about gender have shaped their thinking patterns. I have shown them that their beliefs about economic class are often wrong, both bad for their business and morally indefensible. I have witnessed clients recognize that their own organizations are built on these same erroneous assumptions.

Have I started a revolution? No. Have I offered a “radical” solution to inequality? Absolutely not. But, nor do I think I did that when I taught undergraduates, wrote articles and attended faculty meetings. Teaching students and writing articles are no more radical than advising my clients that women do, in fact, buy cars.  With my clients, I open their minds to sociological ideas, just as I did with students.

I invite other social scientists to join me in this transformation.

Sam Ladner holds a PhD in sociology from York University. She is founder and principal consultant of Copernicus Consulting Group and an adjunct instructor at OCAD University.

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  1. Dr.Doinglittle / April 5, 2011 at 22:41

    I have to wonder if the author has spent much time on today’s job market. If corporate employers “needed” social scientists so much, why are there so many under- and unemployed grads out there? A social science degree is no free ticket to a job, especailly when there are so many other qualified people looking for work nowadays.

    Shouldn’t the question be how can social scientists make themselves more attractive to Canadian businesses?

  2. Sam Ladner / April 7, 2011 at 11:23

    Why indeed I *have* spent time in today’s job market. I’m not talking about “employers” but “businesses.” There is a distinct difference.

    Organizations hire full-time employees they think they need. It’s not surprising there aren’t a lot of job postings for “sociologist,” because businesses don’t often know what a sociologist even does, much less how valuable their skills are.

    Instead of looking for a “job” (although I have succeeded in getting several full-time jobs with my sociology), I instead spend most of my time convincing businesses that I and my colleagues have real skills to offer.

    You can help: get out there and start talking about sociological approaches to understanding everyday problems!

  3. Jo VanEvery (JoVE) / April 7, 2011 at 20:59

    Great argument Sam. Too many people think like Dr Doinglittle that there is a free ticket to a job. Nothing gives you one of those. But PhDs in the social sciences should have the intellectual skills necessary to examine their own knowledge and experience and figure out what they have to offer businesses, either as consultants or employees.

    Most businesses are looking for employees that will contribute to the success of the business. I agree with your argument that social scientists have a lot to offer in that realm.

  4. Dr. Skeptic / April 21, 2011 at 19:47

    I think the more important question isn’t how social scientists should make themselves more attractive to business but IF they should.

    One of the things the social sciences have to offer is a critique of the how the pursuit of knowledge is sullied by the pursuit of profit. Social scientists (or, at least sociologists) are trained to create knowledge that’s liberating and that combats oppression. Capitalism is one of those sources of oppression. That’s not saying that businesses can’t make the world a better place through the products they create and sell, just that most don’t.

    I’d love to see more social science graduates use their degrees working for environmental not-for-profits, going into the public health field, etc. In other words, they’d be doing work that actively makes society better, rather than crunching numbers for Blackwater or Syncrude.

  5. Sam Ladner / April 24, 2011 at 16:21

    @drskeptic

    Your post makes me wonder if you actually read the article. You’ll note I specifically said that sociologists can and should be using their sociological lens to make business more humane for their employees and their customers.

    In no way did I suggest that we all throw in the towel, forget our Marx, Weber, Durkheim (and Dorothy Smith!) and “crunch numbers for Blackwater.”

    This kind of hyperbole is part of the problem; sociologists are not trained to even consider bringing their values into business because of comments like these. Your comment has a way of silencing even the slightest desire to work in the for-profit world.

    Most business don’t make the world a better place? Is that perhaps because more sociologists don’t work there? And as I mentioned in my article, I have my doubts that academic sociologists are doing anything close to making the world a better place.

    If anyone has read this comment and thought, “That Dr. Skeptic pisses me off. Just because I want to build a better baby carriage doesn’t make me a bad person,” well, I want to meet you.