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15.1 Doing Research for a Living

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify the areas outside of academia where sociologists are most commonly employed.
  2. Define evaluation research and provide an example of it.
  3. Describe the work of a market researcher.
  4. Describe what sociologists working in policy and other government research do.

There are a variety of employers who hire social researchers. These include, but are not necessarily limited to, market research firms, corporations, public relations and communications firms, academic institutions, think tanks and other private research firms, public research firms and policy groups, and all levels of government. Some businesses hire social researchers to assist with personnel selection, many universities hire social researchers for their research institutes,For example, see University of Washington’s Social Development Research Group (http://www.sdrg.org/), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Population Center (http://www.cpc.unc.edu/), Penn State’s Survey Research Center (http://www.ssri.psu.edu/survey), University of Nebraska’s Public Policy Center (http://ppc.unl.edu/), and University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center (http://www.ihrc.umn.edu/), to name just a few. and other firms such as Gallup (http://www.gallup.com/home.aspx) and Nielsen (http://www.nielsen.com/us/en.html) hire social researchers to examine societal trends. The areas where sociologists holding undergraduate degrees in research are most likely to find employment as researchers are in evaluation research, market research, and government research. Each of these represents a particular use of research rather than a research method per se. Evaluation, market, and government researchers may use any of the data collection or analysis strategies we described in Chapter 8 "Survey Research: A Quantitative Technique" and Chapter 12 "Other Methods of Data Collection and Analysis", but their purpose and aims may differ. We’ll explore each of these different uses of social scientific research methods in the following.

Evaluation Research

As you may recall from the definition provided in Chapter 1 "Introduction", evaluation research is research that is conducted to assess the effects of specific programs or policies. Evaluation research is often used when some form of social intervention is planned, such as welfare reform or school curriculum change. It might be used to assess the extent to which intervention is necessary by attempting to define and diagnose social problems, and it might also be used to understand whether applied interventions have had their intended consequences. Let’s consider a couple of specific examples of evaluation research to better understand how and when it is employed.

In Chapter 1 "Introduction", I mentioned my experience conducting evaluation research with a transitional housing program. Among other services, workers at the transitional housing locations counseled residents on finding and maintaining employment. One purpose of the evaluation research therefore was to determine whether residents felt they were able to transition successfully back into their communities after a period of institutionalization by obtaining employment that could sustain a life outside of the transitional housing site. This outcomes assessmentThe act of judging whether a desired goal has been achieved. was conducted in order to determine whether the jobs counseling provided by the transitional housing employees produced the desired goal of preparing residents for finding and maintaining employment.

My first experience with evaluation research occurred during my senior year of college. That year, I conducted an internship at a hospital development office. My main task as an intern was to help the office assess how effective it had been in the preceding years in meeting its goal of raising local awareness of and support for the hospital. Using interview research methodology, I collected data from hospital employees and board members as well as members of the local community to learn about what people knew about the hospital, its development office, and the hospital’s services and needs. This project culminated in written report and a final presentation to several members of the hospital board in which I and the development office director outlined several recommendations for future development office activities based on the feedback provided by the people I had interviewed.

Being able to apply what I’d learned in my research methods class to a real-world problem and solutions was an invaluable experience. Not only that, while gaining this experience I was able to contribute to the well-being of my community by helping a needed local resource (the hospital) find ways improve its relationship with the community. Perhaps you could look for similar opportunities in your community. Of course, this specific example isn’t one of “doing research for a living,” as suggested by this section’s title, but it certainly gave me an experience worth noting on my resume and got me in the door of several potential employers for interviews when I began looking for jobs.

There are many other instances of applied evaluation research conducted by social scientists who are employed by firms for their skills as researchers. Just google the phrase evaluation research firm and you’ll find scores of examples. Different firms may specialize in different areas of research. For example, Hoffman Clark & Associates, a California-based firm, specializes in public health and K–12 education assessment (http://www.hoffmanclark.org/index.php). Arizona firm LeCroy & Milligan Associates Inc. conducts evaluation research in the areas of criminal justice and health and human services (http://www.lecroymilligan.com/index.html). In Colorado, Outcomes Inc. focuses on children and families (http://www.outcomescolorado.com/home). Wilder Research, based in Minnesota, conducts evaluation research designed to help strengthen families and their communities (http://www.wilder.org/research.0.html). Massachusetts firm Social Science Research & Evaluation Inc. specializes in, among other areas, evaluation research on highway safety and transportation (http://www.ssre.org/index.html). Finally, Inventivo Design LLC in Colorado tailors its evaluation research services to corporations wishing to assess whether their investments “meet the goals of management and deliver on objectives” (http://www.inventivodesign.com). As you can see from this very limited sampling of evaluation research firms, employment as an evaluation researcher could take you to just about any area of the country and involve work with any number of industries and sectors.

Market Research

Market research is another way that you might engage in social scientific research to make a living. Just as with evaluation research, market research is not a particular research method per se. Instead, it is a particular way of utilizing research methodology for a particular purpose. Market researchResearch that is conducted for the purpose of guiding businesses and other organizations as they make decisions about how best to sell, improve, or promote a product or service. is research that is conducted for the purpose of guiding businesses and other organizations as they make decisions about how best to sell, improve, or promote a product or service. This sort of research might involve gathering data from and about one’s core market and customers, about competitors, or about an industry more generally. Market research occurs in a variety of settings and institutions. Some firms specialize in market research specifically and are hired by others who wish to learn more about how to best promote or sell a product or service. Market research might also be conducted in-house, perhaps by large businesses that sell products or by nonprofits that wish to better understand how best to meet the needs of their clientele or promote their services.

Market researchers assess how best to sell, improve, or promote a product by gathering data about that product’s consumers. Understanding consumers’ preferences, tastes, attitudes, and behaviors can help point an organization in the right direction in its effort to reach and appeal to consumers. There are many ways to do this. You could observe customers in a store to watch which displays draw them in and which they ignore. You could administer a survey to assess consumers’ satisfaction with a good or service. You could conduct covert observations by being a secret shopper or dining someplace as though you, the researcher, are a real customer. You could conduct focus groups with consumers. As you already know from reading this text, social scientific research is an excellent way to gauge people’s preferences, tastes, attitudes, and behaviors. Each of these market research methods requires knowledge and skills in collecting data from human subjects—the very thing that sociological researchers do.

Figure 15.2

Administering satisfaction surveys, observing shoppers, and conducting focus groups are all methods that market researchers use to collect data about consumer behavior.

In the preceding section I identified just a small sampling of the many evaluation research firms that exist throughout the United States. There are also many firms that exist for the sole purpose of carrying out market research, all of which hire individuals who have a background in or knowledge about social scientific research methodology. Market research firms specialize in all kinds of areas. For example, Arbitron Inc. focuses on media, gathering data about radio audiences around the globe (http://www.arbitron.com/home/content.stm). From Maine, Market Decisions conducts market research on “a wide variety of topics from public policy to branding to feasibility” (http://www.marketdecisions.com/index.php). Nielsen, a company many are familiar with, conducts media research of all kinds (http://www.nielsen.com/us/en.html) but is perhaps best known for its ratings of television programming in the United States (http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/top10s/television.html). Specializing in the area of information technology, Gartner collects data to help its clients make IT-related decisions (http://www.gartner.com/technology/home.jsp). These are just a few of the many potential market research employers that seek individuals with research skills.

Policy and Other Government Research

Finally, many social science researchers do policy and other government-related kinds of work. In fact, the federal government is one of the largest employers of applied social science researchers. Government and policy research could be in any number of areas. For example, nonpartisan private firms such as Child Trends (http://www.childtrends.org/index.cfm) conduct research that is specifically intended to be useful for policymakers. In the case of Child Trends, researchers aim to improve the lives of children by “conducting high-quality research and sharing it with the people and institutions whose decisions and actions affect children” (http://www.childtrends.org/_catdisp_page.cfm?LID=124). Other private firms, such as Belden Russonello & Stewart, conduct research aimed at helping create social change, including projects on biodiversity, education, and energy use (http://www.brspoll.com/index.htm).

Figure 15.3

The federal government is one of the largest employers of applied social science researchers.

As for government work, Contexts magazine recently published an article featuring four sociological researchers to whom President Obama’s administration has turned, “relying on their unique understanding of American society to apply the most relevant research to policy-making” (2010, p. 14).Working for the G-man. (2010, Fall). Contexts, 9, 14–15. Those researchers include James P. Lynch, Bureau of Justice Statistics Director; John Laub, Director of the National Institute of Justice; Robert M. Groves, US Census Bureau Director; and David Harris, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Services Policy in the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Key Takeaway

  • Sociologists are employed in many arenas. Some of the most common include evaluation research, market research, and policy and other government research.

Exercise

  1. If you’re interested in hearing more from sociologists who do research, or sociology more generally, for a living, check out Contexts’ article on “embedded sociologists” (Nyseth, Shannon, Heise, & McElrath, 2011)Nyseth, H., Shannon, S., Heise, K., & McElrath, S. M. (2011). Embedded sociologists. Contexts, 10, 44–50. who work in fields as diverse as epidemiology to housing rights to human resources. The article can be found online at http://contexts.org/articles/spring-2011/embedded-sociologists/.