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Little academic in big industry:

Bridging the Divide Between Two Worlds - A Sociologist's Journey into Market Research


 Having recently joined Dub’s sister company, Feelr, as a strategy consultant, John Whittle, was quickly asked to share his experience of joining the business world from academia. Here are the results...

On my first day at University I was told that my degree was going to ruin my life. This was unsettling.

I had decided to study Sociology. This was despite never having engaged with the subject at school, and in defiance of educational advisers who told me that this was ill-advised. It was the only course that, when faced with the overwhelming choice of subjects I could pick from (including ‘Simpsons’ studies), appealed to me.

Growing up I had been something of an odd ball, and had never managed to achieve the same sense of social accomplishment as many of my peers (don’t worry, this isn’t a therapeutic blog post meant to produce sympathy). Social unease is a common denominator that I found amongst many successful sociologists. In each passionate social investigator there always seems to be an awkward teenager sat on the outside looking in. Often the drive to understand this gap leads individuals to study the Social Sciences. I had always had a natural propensity to observe human behaviour (like a weird stranger at a bus stop) but had rarely read any actual texts.

Sociologist - Market research - business

So, when faced with my first ever Sociology lecturer amidst a sea of not-so-fresh faced freshers, I was unsure what to expect. Post A-Levels I had elected not to pick up any books that might illuminate what I was in for, and had instead hoped for the best. To be brutally honest, I literally had no clue what Sociology really was and only a vague notion of Karl Marx. Over the course of a two hour introduction, the structure and value of the course was explained to us. Despite a freshers week hangover harassing my attention, a few crucial things stuck with me from that initial day:

  • Sociology is about understanding people. People as in the collective. Within the wider context of society.
  • It tries to identify the underlying social mechanisms which influence human behaviour.
  • Good Sociologists try to apply their knowledge to problems within society and shed light on all areas of social life; often through explaining seemingly normal activities as part of widespread patterns.

Whilst these were nice sounding messages, well suited to the introductory lecture, it was the following three sentiments which struck a chord:

  1. Through constant questioning and research, Sociology teaches you to see what is actually there. Not what we are taught to think is there, or what we are meant to see, but what is.
  2. This requires you to be reflexive. Which means acknowledging that you are naturally biased and subjective, but encourages you to put these things aside and reach to the heart of a study.
  3. In the pursuit of answers that improve society, you must be honest (to others and yourself) and critical of everything.

So why, you might ask, was I told that Sociology would ruin my life?

Answer: In order for these statements to be valid, you must never accept the information you are presented with, and always try to find out the ‘why’.

Why do people do the things they do?

Why do we love social networking?

Why are there gender inequalities?

Etc.

Asking ‘Why?’ is hard to stop doing once you have been shown how to find answers.

I have been told that this can be irritating to live with.

Fast forward seven years, one first class BsC and a doctorate, and these sentiments seem just as important now as they did then. Coming from an academic background and moving into the research industry, there are many things that I am trying to learn (and even more that I am unaware of) which are incredibly important.

Don’t get me wrong, completing a PhD provides you with many of the same skills and challenges that industry researchers contend with on a daily basis. I know full well of the struggle of recruiting the right sample. Of encouraging just the right level of participation, without over-steering. Of staring at streams of data in search of answers that fit with...something. Or the feeling of success in designing the right study and seeing its fruitful application.

However, the values above (promoted steadily to me throughout my time in academia) seem to promote an aspect of research that can get overlooked in the industries attention to sheer volume of inquiry.

I.e. The skill of asking the right question.

When I conducted research with millennials into their social technological practices, it was vital that I knew what queries would elicit the right responses, without alienating them. This required that reflexive touch. I had to understand the baggage I brought to the study (in terms of age, gender and motivation), the subjectivity I imposed and limit these impacts.

As adolescents can be under whelmed by pretty much anything, establishing a successful rapport was pivotal to the success of the research. I had to know when to press for answers, or when to stay silent and allow them to fill the void with justifications. These were skills which were only learnt through a trial and error which was not directly pressured by company managers or brand driven incentives. Through allowing the responses of the participants to guide the focus, and providing only the lightest of topic bounded touches, qualitative and quantitative data was collected which unearthed the rich and complex world of teenage social communication. By advancing and honing my qualitative skillset within the hands-on field, I was able to explain why users are growing disillusioned with Facebook, why Snapchat is gaining in popularity and how identity and gender are negotiated in online spaces.

Whilst Academia can be (rightly) accused of being slow and pompous, with overly rigorous peer testing resulting in content that is already out of date by the time it is published, the industry could profit from its reflexivity. From its ability to admit when it has got it wrong. Or when it encourages the freedom to redesign a study and methodology from scratch; even in the last stages of process. Or even when it takes into account the impact that the researcher has on the research itself and incorporates that into the consideration of the analysis.

Both academia and market research have their merits, and each could seek to learn from each other. As I continue to research, learn and write in my position as consultant for Feelr, I ‘feel’ that those first Sociological sentiments will be vital. At the core of both disciplines is the idea that people matter, and that their experiences are valuable. Ultimately it is about being able to understand the stories of the people that are under focus and placing these at the forefront. Whilst also constantly analysing your own bias as a researcher and perceiving how this might be affecting the questions you ask, the methods you pick and even the motivations behind your research design.

Check out WeAreFeelr.com to read more about ‘Academic Reflexivity’, ‘Asking the Right Question’ and how these tools can boost the value of your research. 

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