Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

In 1998, I traveled across North and South America, Europe, and Asia conducting field tests with prototypes of what we now call tablet computers. The device was originally conceived as a browser-only gadget that operated wirelessly from a base station, much like a cordless phone. Sure you can walk around untethered by wires with your cordless phone but you won’t get far. It was the same with our prototypes.

Build-it-and-they-will-come product engineers had imagined a large, untapped market of families that wanted to sit around the house sharing the browsing experience, looking like a Norman Rockwell illustration on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Our research found what consumers everywhere really wanted was to be able to connect to the interweb while they were out and about, and not just on the couch, huddled together around a small screen.

The researchers also found that yes, people did want powerful, multi-functional, and entirely mobile electronic devices, but none of them wanted to share a screen – they each wanted one of their own. And they wanted it to be pocket-sized. That’s why you and billions of other people own smartphones today — hand-held touchscreen devices that do everything computers, laptops, and tablets do: play music, videos, podcasts, and live TV, answer questions, send messages, translate languages, find things for you, and perform dozens of other functions, including the ability to make phone calls. 

What is Sociology?

For most college grads, Sociology 101 is an elective, the course I taught at Indiana University to hundreds of students. Students or not, most people lump Sociology together with Psychology and Anthropology (The SPA courses), an easy thing to do because they sound alike, have many things in common, and most of us have never met a sociologist. Like psychology and anthropology, sociology requires specialized training, takes a systematic approach, and attempts to make sense of things. 

Sociologists use interviews and surveys to collect qualitative and quantitative data, Psychologists conduct experiments, and Anthropologists observe. All follow the scientific method of asking questions, designing tests, observing carefully, and dispassionately analyzing what they find. 

To make the scientific method work, we have to set aside our own biases and preconceptions about how things “should” be

If we’re going to study social norms (standards of and rules for behavior), the first thing to come to grips with is that our norms aren’t the only ones that exist, and more importantly, ours are not the “right” ones or the “best” ones to have. If you can’t get past that, stop reading here.

What makes Sociologists so different from Engineers and Marketers?

Engineers focus on things. Sociologists focus on people and how they think about, use, and react to things. Marketing’s primary focus is on influencing people to buy things. Sociologists’ primary focus is on understanding people on their own terms.

Look at these three types of sociological questions:

  • Theoretical questions are questions about ideas: Questions about ideas can be answered with other ideas. If I ask, “What is racism?” I’m asking a question that looks for a general definition of what is called “racism.” You might answer it by saying something like, “Racism is the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”
  • Moral questions are questions about how things “should” or “should not” be: If I ask “Should there be racism?” I’m asking you a moral question, one that asks you to make a value judgment about whether it is right to judge people by the color of their skin. Most, not all, would say something like, “No, racism is a terrible, wrong, narrow-minded, bigoted way of thinking.”
  • Empirical Questions are questions that can answered by gathering facts: If I ask, “Does racism exist?” I’m looking for data that can be collected and analyzed. In this case, if we find there are examples of racism and we want to do something about it, we can do so more effectively if we have accurate information about how, when, where, why, and which people act in a racist manner.

Sociologists want to understand how human society works

That’s why they ask questions and find answers in ways that allow them to apply the findings in as many ways as possible. Most sociologists with advanced degrees are researchers who have been trained to design studies, collect and analyze data, and present findings to people throughout the organization. In addition to the SOC 101 courses I taught in the ‘70s, I taught Market Research in the Business School at the University of Miami in the ‘80s and my SPA courses to MBAs at the University of the West Indies in the ’00s. But I spent most of my time conducting research into issues with powerful impact for businesses, including strategy, brand, product development, and customer satisfaction and loyalty. Every big business in the world uses research, and the larger they are, the more of it they conduct. 

Some companies use their research wisely and others don’t

Kodak, Blackberry, JCPenny, Blockbuster, Alta Vista, Theranos, WeWork, and many others all collected lots of information, then made bad decisions. How could this be?

  • The research might have been of poor quality and/or misleading. 
  • Maybe those who analyzed the information weren’t from the top shelf, and confused correlation with causality. 
  • Maybe the information was good but the application was bad.
  • And maybe they ignored the findings. How could would this be?

Why would a company spend millions on research and then ignore it?

Maybe the research said things people didn’t want to hear. Maybe it said things that went against dearly-held assumptions, things that contradicted gut-level decisions that had already been made.

Having sociological insight is being able to see clearly enough to comprehend the nature of things as they are

American diarist Anais Nin said “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Learning to think like a sociologist changes your perspective on the entire world. Sociology helps you learn how to see things and approach situations value-free and without pre-judging. Sociology helps you cut through the confusion so you can focus your attention on the things that really matter. How many business people are so busy “putting out fires” that they have no time for fire prevention, the systemic solution that dramatically reduces the number and size of the fires they have to fight?

Next time your company decides to do research, find a sociologist first.


While conducting one-on-on, in-depth, scientific-method interviews with people in their homes and where they work, I was sometimes accompanied by marketers and engineers who wanted to see the research for themselves. Sociologists call them tag-alongs. In advance, I gave them an overview of the kinds of things we’d be exploring and asked them to listen more closely and carefully than they normally would so they could hear and understand what our study subjects were telling us about their attitudes, values, and experiences. I also told tag-alongs it was very important for them to not interrupt the flow of the conversation between the study subject and the interviewer. Of course they could ask questions, but only when the interviewer invited them to do so.

Wouldn’t you know it? 

In spite of clear and simple instructions, many marketers and engineers would not accept what our study subjects were saying, wouldn’t keep quiet, and wouldn’t listen and learn. They interrupted the interviews to argue with the customers, trying to convince them how wrongheaded they were. 

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