for-profit sociology

A few years ago, Tom DiPrete gave a talk at the ASA meetings about the history of the Columbia program. One very interesting section of the talk, in my view, was a description of the social research institute as it was run decades ago. What caught my ear was that the institute took on all kinds of projects from the private sector. That suggested a question: why don’t more sociologists do research based on projects paid for by the private sector?

A few possible  answers:

  1. Soc programs actually do lots of private consulting (e.g., Ron Burt’s data is often drawn from research done for private interests), I just don’t know about it.
  2. It’s easier to stick to to existing data sets like GSS or Census than take on private projects with uncertain outcomes.
  3. Private industry doesn’t care for what sociology can offer.
  4. Private industry doesn’t want to share its data for academic analysis.
  5. Sociologists are allergic to working with private groups for ideological and/or stylistic reasons.
  6. This concept simply hasn’t occurred to most sociologists.
  7. Private groups don’t realize that sociologists can do cool research for them.
  8. Just added: Conflict of interest.

Any other ideas? Does anyone with experience in consulting care to add something?


Written by fabiorojas

May 24, 2011 at 3:06 am

Posted in fabio, research

21 Responses

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  1. Iyengar, Van den Bulte, and Valente are almost sociologists (they are in professional schools but sometimes publish in soc journals) and they just did a study with the cooperation of industry that closely parallels a classic study from the heyday of sponsored research at Columbia.

    Also, you’ve got Duncan Watts at Yahoo. Podolny is at Apple but my understanding is that his primary responsibility is teaching. Also, Marc Smith worked for Microsoft for a few years.

    As for me, I’m not opposed to it in principle and might do it in the future but in a twist on #5 I’d be weary of doing it for particular research questions if it would undermine the project’s legitimacy. For instance, I think people would (understandably) be more skeptical of me saying that Clear Channel gets a bad rap if the research had been sponsored by Clear Channel or National Association of Broadcasters rather than the usual foundation money and intramural grants. On the other hand, a couple years ago I talked to a marketing consulting firm about collaborating on some research but I’ve been so busy with other projects relying on open data sources that I never really followed through on that. It seems like one of the best reasons to collaborate would be if you wanted privileged access to the firm or to make experimental interventions (as with the Iyengar, van den Bulte, and Valente paper).



    May 24, 2011 at 3:54 am

  2. It probably depends on how you define a sociologist. I have first hand knowledge of areas of research that are derivative of sociology and org. research, which have worked with private firms. I did some evaluation research as a graduate student which was funded privately, though admittedly the private work accounted for a small fraction of our total workload.

    But in terms of sociologists, I know scholars like Michael Useem and Steve Borgatti list consulting for private firms as part of their repertoire. And surely the list can’t stop there. But like you I would like to hear more about such opportunities and experiences of sociologists.

    It seems that the sociology of organizations and some of its methodologies would be particularly well-suited for the cross over.


    Scott Dolan

    May 24, 2011 at 4:08 am

  3. @Gabriel: just added the conflict of interest thing. We should never let our sponsor determine our results, but how often is that a problem? How can we accept more sources of funding and ensure the integrity of our results?

    @Scott: I was thinking about academic sociologists, but there must be a whole cottage industry of consultants who import various ideas into industry and thus be considered applied sociologists.



    May 24, 2011 at 4:18 am

  4. So you seem to be talking about individuals or whole departments in the academy developing for-profit sidelines to augment our salaries or department budgets? The regulatory climate in the public sector tends to treat this as something akin to crime, judging by the rules and procedures we operate under. There are certainly incentives for getting out from under that regulatory structure and spinning a department’s research operations off into a private enterprise, but significant impediments to doing it if your starting point is a public institution.

    Not to mention that the for-profit model involves doing work that is of interest to people with money.



    May 24, 2011 at 4:29 am

  5. @o.w.: That’s certainly one outcome of this process. For example, biomedical researchers are expected to patent things that result in considerable income for themselves and the university. It’s also normal in engineering, computer science, the law, economics, and some physical sciences to have income producing activities along these lines. I definitely don’t want the biomedical medical to define sociology, but it exists within the academy.

    What struck me about DiPrete’s talk was that a lot of very important sociology was done under the auspices of for-profit entities. The media studies of Lazersgeld (CBS, I think), the Coleman/Katz diffusion study. I wonder why this model did not survive.



    May 24, 2011 at 4:42 am

  6. So how far are you willing to go? Will you do a sociological study on how advertisers can get children to nag their parents more strenuously to buy them toys? Will you help an oil company use the latest lifestyle trends to better greenwash itself? How about a study on how tobacco companies can better target teenagers in countries with no anti-smoking laws?


    Benjamin Geer

    May 24, 2011 at 10:17 am

  7. Podolny is at Apple but my understanding is that his primary responsibility is teaching.

    He started out initiating and running the “Apple University” program, where he supervised the creation of a bunch of case studies designed to teach Apple execs and managers how the company works. (That it’s meant to codify Apple’s way of doing things in a reproducible, teachable way.) But he was promoted a little while later, and now he’s an SVP who runs the whole Human Resources division.



    May 24, 2011 at 11:09 am

  8. I consider myself a “for profit” sociologist, as are several of my sociologist and anthropologist colleagues. Anthropologists have been working on organizational change and consumer insights for much longer. They have a well known technology design practice at Xerox Parc, and it’s actually in technology design that I do most of my work (either for organizations or consumers).

    There are many sociologists (though few PhDs) working in this kind of area, and far, far more anthropologists.

    Regarding conflict, I and my colleagues decided long ago what was a non-starter for us, and that included objectifying women, advertising or marketing to children, facilitating inhumane treatment of animals, and assisting the selling of tobacco.


    Sam Ladner

    May 24, 2011 at 11:28 am

  9. Sam Ladner: I think you are right that moral issues about the nature of research come up and have to be faced no matter who is paying the bill. The public tab has a different set of constraints. And, of course, for-profit firms do public-funded research.

    How do we get paid is a problem for all research, including “unfunded” in which the pay model is that we teach for pay and do our research “on the side” in which research is treated as part of our job. (The pay model here is to persuade the families of undergraduates or state tax payers to pay enough to the university in general to make this financially viable.)



    May 24, 2011 at 2:57 pm

  10. If you want to keep sociologists from selling their souls to commercial interests and doing the sorts of unethical work I mentioned, reducing the issue to a matter of personal moral commitments won’t work. The problem of the relative autonomy of sociologists isn’t a personal issue; it’s a social issue and needs social, institutional solutions. When people do research that only has to meet the demands of business interests, no one should be surprised if they lose autonomy and do unethical work. The solution is to require sociologists (i.e. anyone who wants to be recognised as a sociologist by other sociologists) to do research that responds only to the scientific demands of their peers in the field of sociology (e.g. in peer-reviewed journals), rather than to any demand emanating from outside the field. This more autonomous “market” provides stronger incentives to do work of real scientific value, and fewer incentives to do work that serves the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Of course, the institutional mechanisms that fund this type of scientific research must also be defended and strengthened.


    Benjamin Geer

    May 24, 2011 at 3:18 pm

  11. @benjamin

    I wholeheartedly agree that this is a social, structural issue! Thank goodness someone is using their sociological lens to understand what is going on!

    However, I disagree that we must “require” sociologists to publish ONLY in peer-reviewed journals, for several reasons. First, the political economy of scholarly journals is actually a for-profit story. The conglomeration of giants like Elseveir has hardly gotten a peep from sociologists (the scientists went off and founded things like the Public Library of Science).

    But secondly, we also know that many unpaid scholars are providing their work to these journals for free. I have never received payment for research or publishing in a peer-reviewed journal (though my tenured colleagues obviously are paid to do so). We are wasting our human capital if we force untenured sociologists to work, for free, and disallow them from finding other ways to earn a livelihood.

    This also is a structural issue!


    Sam Ladner

    May 24, 2011 at 3:25 pm

  12. 10+ years ago, Citigroup under John Reed ran something called The Citigroup Behavioral Sciences Research Council, which gave researchers small amounts of money and, more importantly, good access to HR records, cooperation, etc. A lot of good sociology came out of that (and economics, and social psych) – think Fernandez, Strang, etc.

    If it is the case (and I fear it is) that many sociologists feel that the GSS and Census data are preferable because they are more certain, then the discipline will go nowhere fast. At this point there are probably more papers written using the GSS than the product of the number of variables and the number of cases. It would be fascinating to take a given variable in GSS and see how many different concepts it is claimed to measure.

    The real value of the Citi initiative was less the research funding (a lot of the grants were very small), but the cooperation – the official willingness to share internal data, help field surveys, arrange interviews, etc. This level of cooperation was very unusual and reflected the personal preferences of Reed (and ended when he was pushed out). But many organizations have social science-y problems and questions, and can be quite cooperative as long as the researcher is willing to share insights.

    Re conflicts of interest, these are very real. Funders would almost always prefer to see researchers as consultants/contractors, will want non-disclosure agreements, etc. Researchers have to be clear with funders. But it is hard to see how this has anything inherently to do with the for-profit status of the funder. The Gates Foundation funds a lot of research; they have an agenda. The Koch brothers surely fund research through some foundation. These conflicts are an argument for increasing the level of public funding, but not, per se, for avoiding money from for-profit sources. The for-profit and foundation money should have to compete with public funding; sociologists should take on projects with for-profits because it gives them great research opportunities, not because it gives them money they are desperate for. (The US is not currently in this state of the world.)


  13. I do not know how for-profit work is automatically inimical to the interests of “real scientific value.”

    I for one can see value-added for all parties. Sociologists doing research in the private sector may be able to gain access to data and information otherwise unavailable to them as an “outsider.” Private companies gain access to the know-how and specific expertise of sociologists. All of this can be used to understand real world processes or help solve real-world problems.

    Obviously, there is a distinction between pure/basic research and applied research. And there is plenty of research operating between the two extremes. I do not think, however, one type of research should be privileged over the other, no matter who the contracting party is.

    I agree with Benjamin that this is a socio-institutional issue, but I think we as sociologists have developed and are continuing to develop solutions to deal with the ethical issues that arise in our research. As with all research done by sociologists, I think the standards of the field should be the guiding principles.

    Finally, I do think that we as sociologists should be more careful in assuming that the private/commercial sector have interests that are in conflict with our own. These assumptions could be part of the reason why the private sector isn’t willing to do more work with us, they are hesitant that we might be coming into it with preconceived notions.


    Scott Dolan

    May 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm

  14. “That suggested a question: why don’t more sociologists do research based on projects paid for by the private sector?”

    Here is one you did not think of: when Bogdan Denitch came here to speak about the grants the Columbia research center received from Ford, he said Paul Lazarsfeld considered them only a way for the center to have the resources to continue functioning while more interesting research was carried “on the side”.

    “Sociologists not considering consulting serious work” and “seeing consulting as a side activity which subsidizes other, “worthwhile” research projects” is likely the answer, at least in some cases.



    May 24, 2011 at 4:48 pm

  15. Benjamin,

    I don’t have any intentions to do the kind of research you’re talking about but I resent the idea that it necessarily reflects “selling our souls” (even as I recognize how serious conflicts of interest can be) and I definitely don’t think that a disciplinary body has any business telling its members what kinds of research they can do. You’ll take my copy of Stata when you pry it from my cold dead hands.

    I know how such a “social, institutional solution” would work because I’ve seen it here at UCLA. Our public health department recently fired Jim Enstrom, a soft money non-tenured research faculty member, for giving his findings interpretations they didn’t like and for taking money they weren’t comfortable with (and arguably also for whistleblowing outright fraud in his field). In particular, Enstrom argued that diesel exhaust and secondhand smoke aren’t as bad as is generally made out. My understanding is that some of the funding for his work on these matters came directly or indirectly from industry. This sounds like a case of selling your soul and perhaps a case for “social, institutional solutions” but I know Enstrom personally and I can assure you that he was not “bought” but is a 100% true believer in both the scientific veracity of his work and the policy conclusions he draws from them. So in practice “social, institutional solutions” can cash out as meaning that the majority suppresses the perhaps mistaken but nonetheless good faith work of a minority. This doesn’t even necessarily benefit the majority, as can be seen with how readily climate change skeptics invoke the leaked CRU e-mail that discussed rigging peer review. Any hint that the consensus position achieves that status in part by bullying only serves to undermine the legitimacy of the consensus to those people who prefer to doubt it. I’d go so far as to say that a really blunt ban on doing pro-industry / anti-regulatory research could benefit industry as it would let them make a plausible case to courts, Congress, what-have-you that the scientific literature is rigged against them and should be thrown out.

    Similarly, as Disgruntled Jimmy noted above, it’s not as if foundation money is completely disinterested in politics. I once took a grant that was explicitly tied to providing research that would benefit the media reform movement. I feel like this is every bit as much a conflict of interest as if I had taken a grant from the National Association of Broadcasters. Who among us has not played up the “policy significance” or “broader impacts”? Don’t kid yourself into thinking this is not a conflict of interest.

    Finally, to go back to the discussions of the Bielby report and ASA AC in Dukes v Wal-Mart, would we want to say that in labor/bias cases it is OK for sociologists to consult/testify for plaintiffs but not defendants? This is hypothetical and I am not implying that Laura Beth or ASA Council or anybody are actually arguing this. To her credit, Laura Beth has consistently said that she is comfortable with seeing sociologists testify for both sides and I haven’t heard any pro-AC people say otherwise. However the logical outcome of “social, institutional solutions” to “unethical work” is to say we can only work for plaintiffs. Again, this would not only be a restriction of the academic freedom of individual researchers but also undermine the credibility of the discipline in general and the expert in a particular case.



    May 24, 2011 at 4:59 pm

  16. ps, I would however have absolutely no problem with ethical rules of a procedural nature, such as that we cannot accept money that includes a non-disclosure agreement or restriction on our ability to publish.



    May 24, 2011 at 5:03 pm

  17. I think some people are taking for granted the idea that private money makes the outcome dirty while state money remains clean and unproblematic. The belief that the government doles out money without regard to poltical interests is at best naive. Given this reality, it would be best to examine the actual research being done rather than its funding source. Do we have so little faith in the peer review process?



    May 24, 2011 at 5:59 pm

  18. Sociologists do a lot of consulting: expert witnesses, jury selection, marketing research, HR consulting, public opinion research, etc.

    Re: Selling our souls to business interests. Part of the reason may be that a lot of sociologists see themselves as some type of moral crusaders, who are fighting evil business interests to defend regular people.

    Personally, I wouldn’t hire someone like that, and not because they would destroy the evil plans that I’m trying to hatch. The idea that business and public interests are by nature locked into some zero-sum game is very simplistic, ideological and non-productive. No one is going to pay money for that.



    May 25, 2011 at 6:15 pm

  19. “Also, you’ve got Duncan Watts at Yahoo.”

    Something I think is being glossed over is the difference between a sociologist working as a full-time employee in the private sector, on one hand, and doing external consulting work while holding primary employment in a university or other type of institution. This post seems to be about the second (ad the Columbia example mentioned was definitely in this category). The experiences of both are very different.



    May 25, 2011 at 6:45 pm

  20. I’m surprised the discussion thus far has been largely about conflicts of interest and politics alone. What about this explanation?

    * Sociologists are interested in the broadest possible generalizability
    * Firms are interested only in their own specific case

    * Sociologists are interested in wide dissemination of generated knowledge
    * Firms prefer to keep knowledge proprietary

    * Sociologists are interested in large-scale social forces and structure
    * Firms are interested in only those forces over which they have some agency

    These are generalizations, of course, but part of the issue here is that though firms have ‘social science problems’, but they don’t care about generalizability, the creation of theory, social forces beyond their control, etc. No wonder Sam Ladner finds more anthropologists in industry than sociologists: Anthro folks are interested in the specific case, without the same need to generalize more broadly.



    May 26, 2011 at 1:02 pm

  21. Kind of late here, but still interested to comment. I think for-profit companies largely have no idea about what sociology can offer them. There seem to me limitless possibilities — organizational work (improving an organization), statistical analysis of data (i.e. mobile phone network data analysis could be amazing!), and on and on. I don’t think sociologists have done a good job branding ourselves. Most lay people either seem to have no idea what sociology really is, or have a very odd view (say, that I spend all my time with remote inidigenous tribal populations).



    June 22, 2011 at 3:37 am

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