UX, sociologists and anthropologists, and changing cars

Design thinking has come to Ford and with it insights from sociologists and anthropologists:

So it came as a surprise last spring when Ford Motor Company selected a chief executive who hadn’t been reared in Detroit and didn’t easily fit established CEO molds. He was a furniture maker. Jim Hackett, 63, is a product of Michigan’s other corporate cluster—the three office-furniture companies around Grand Rapids, including Steelcase, which Hackett ran for two decades.

At Steelcase, Hackett became a devotee of an approach to product development known as design thinking, which rigorously focuses on how the user experiences a product. He forced Steelcase to think less about cubicles—its bread-and-butter product when he arrived—and more about the people inside them. Hiring anthropologists and sociologists and working closely with tech experts, he made Steelcase a pioneer in the team-oriented, open workspaces so common today. In effect, he transformed an office-supply company into a leader of the revolution in the way we work…

Our lives are made up of human-machine interactions—with smartphones, televisions, internet-enabled parking meters that don’t accept quarters— that have the power to delight and, often, infuriate. (“Maddening” is Hackett’s one-word description for 90-button TV remotes.) Into this arena has stepped a new class of professional: the user-experience, or UX, designer, whose job is to see a product not from an engineer’s, marketer’s, or legal department’s perspective but from the viewpoint of the user alone. And to insist that the customer should not have to learn to speak the company’s internal language. The company should learn to speak the customer’s…

This was a profound realization. “The phone was considered an accessory you brought into your vehicle,” says Ideo’s global managing director, Iain Roberts. “Now I think the relationship may have flipped—the vehicle is an accessory to the device.” That’s the kind of insight that previously would have surfaced late in the design process, when the company would ask for customer feedback on a close-to-finished product. Discovered early, it put the team on a path to build a prototype that was ready in an unheard-of 12 weeks.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Both disciplines of sociology and anthropology could benefit from sharing how corporations use them. UX is a growing field and majors in these disciplines could offer unique skills in going after such jobs.
  2. This reminds me of the process social scientists often go through with new concepts. If they pronounce concepts or labels from above, they may then get pushback from those closer to everyday life. On the ground realities should influence how we understand larger patterns. At the same time, the reverse could be true: the user-experience/everyday realities could become so important that they overshadow the larger patterns or constraints.
  3. That Ideo is involved in this process does not surprise me. In class, I use an old Nightline clip of Ideo designing a shopping cart to illustrate how organizations could work.

A working life hints at the connections between sociology and marketing

An obituary for a pioneering female in the advertising industry provides a reminder of how sociology and marketing can be related:

A sociologist with a knack for market research, Ms. Ziff, who died on Nov. 11 at 92 in Jupiter, Fla., spent nearly four decades working her way up the ranks at big ad agencies.

Her work contributed to one of the most famous campaigns of the 20th century, the “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” toilet paper commercials of the 1960s featuring the fictional supermarket manager Mr. Whipple.

Ms. Ziff, then a vice president at Benton & Bowles, conducted research suggesting that consumers were more likely to buy toilet paper if they could touch it. Using her insights, her colleague John Chervokas developed the Mr. Whipple campaign…

Ms. Ziff earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the City University of New York, while continuing to work at Benton & Bowles.

Is the primary difference between these two fields that one aims to sell more products while the other hopes to better understand and explain social life? The two fields can use similar research methods and both want to know how people and groups operate.

I’m guessing it would be frowned upon in many sociology departments to make this suggestion but a number of students might be interested to know that training in sociology could be a great background for going into marketing.

How hot is the sociology of zombies?

An unemployed sociologist discusses his difficulties in securing a tenure track job with papers in the growing area of the sociology of zombies:

My job market struggles are made all more the inexplicable by the fact that I maintain an active publication track in a hot field of study – zombies. In the past year alone I have published three articles, and I have an additional three under review, and numerous projects in the pipeline.

While my research on zombies may be an odd topic for sociologists to tackle, my scholarship garners much interest. My first sole-authored article “Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture,” for instance, can net 100+ downloads in a day on my academia.edu webpage. The same piece has been quoted in numerous press outlets, elicits interview requests, and even gets me open invitations to present at professional conferences that, ironically, I cannot afford to attend.

One of my “under review” articles “The New Horror Movie” is required reading for a graduate seminar taught by a friend at Aarhus University in Denmark. While some in sociology may be turned off to my research on zombies (something they do without reading it), I have also published and received grant money in the sociology of race – a topic of perennial sociological interest.

Zombies are a hot area in popular culture so it makes sense that academics would address this and think about what it says about or means for American society. At the same time, I wonder how many people within the larger discipline of sociology are thinking about zombies. Traditional markers of the status of a topic within the discipline include things like papers about the topic at professional meetings of sociologists (conferences involving other disciplines may not matter as much), respected faculty tackling the subject, important programs/departments teaching the course/having a concentration of faculty teaching about it/attracting graduate students interested in the topic, numerous articles/book chapters/books published and in the pipeline, citations of said publications, and perhaps a research network or ASA section or some sort of permanent sociology group addressing the topic. All of this takes quite a bit of time to develop and for the benefits to trickle down to those who study the subject.

I wonder if there is some easy way to track trends in sociological subjects over time to see which hot topics of past decades made it and which did not.

Claim: all media companies have a resident sociologist

This is all tongue-in-cheek but MTV suggests sociologists are in demand:

While falling in love can seem complicated at times, behavior experts can break down the science behind attraction in the simplest terms, so we called upon MTV’s resident sociologist (what media company doesn’t have one?) to deconstruct last night’s “Are You The One?” premiere using her Five Factors of Love thesis.

If there are not real sociologists on TV much, perhaps we could argue many networks and stations have people who play sociologists. Aren’t many of the talking heads pontificating about social forces?

On one hand, if these sociologists were primarily tasked with analyzing the latest reality dating shows, the job may not be that exciting. On the other hand, if there was a sociologist who was able to talk about important issues on TV, areas that consistently match with their research, and was afforded the ability to interact with other experts as well as TV personalities, it could be a very interesting gig. All together, this may mean MTV would not be the best place for a TV sociologist…

New mismatches in sociology job market between grad student interests, job specializations

While the sociology job market is looking up, there is a lingering issue: what graduate students are studying doesn’t line up with specialty areas for the advertised job openings.

Another problem within the sociology job market is the “mismatch” between sociological specializations areas sought after by search committees and areas of interest from graduate students. The area of social control, law, crime and deviance was the most highly-valued specialization based on position advertisements. But graduate students ranked that specialization area fourth.

Likewise, there was a mismatch between the second most frequent advertised specialty, race and ethnicity. This was the ninth most popular with graduate students, which Spalter-Roth said she found surprising, since it is a “central focus” of sociology.

To address this mismatch issue, Spalter-Roth said sociology Ph.D. students should be encouraged to make their studies relevant to multiple specialty areas. So, for instance, someone who is interested in gender studies can also take criminal justice courses and take a closer look into crimes against women.

Globalization and global issues ranked fifth in job listings and 15th among graduate students. This mismatch may be short-lived, since graduate programs are increasingly offering more courses and programs in this area of specialization.

The five areas with the biggest mismatch, according to the full report:


Interesting data. The biggest gaps here do seem to come in important sociological subfields: inequality? Organizations? Deviance? The growing area of medicine? This could be useful information to grad students, at least in terms of having an idea of how they are going to have to pitch themselves on the job market. But, considering the length of grad school plus possible several opportunities a grad student might have to test the market (while writing the dissertation, graduating, perhaps in a post-doc, after a visiting position, etc.), wouldn’t it be more helpful to look at year to year trends? See the report on the 2010 job market here:

One of the widest gaps is in criminology (a.k.a. social control, crime, law and deviance), which made up 31 per cent of all postings on the ASA’s job site in 2010, but was only listed as an area of special interest for 18 per cent of PhD candidates whom were surveyed by the ASA.

The opposite problem exists too. More people are interested in “inequities and stratification” than any other field — 35 per cent of candidates chose it as one of their special interests — but only 19 per cent of jobs advertised were in that area.

There’s also a shortage of jobs for those interested in teaching gender and sexuality. One fifth of students are interested in the subject, but only one tenth of advertised jobs were in that field.

So some similarities and differences a few years ago.

Uptick in sociology job market?

Inside Higher Ed summarizes a ASA report that suggests the number of open jobs in 2011 were near 2008 levels:

In 2011, the number of faculty jobs posted either for assistant professors or positions for which any faculty rank is possible was just 4 percent below the level in 2008, the year in which the economic downturn hit in the fall. And so many of the openings announced in 2008 were canceled that it is possible there were more actual openings in 2011. There are among the results in a new job market report issued by the American Sociological Association.

The number of faculty jobs in 2009 fell 35 percent, and the 2010 total was 14 percent below the 2008 level, so the new figures represent a significant rebound in job openings.

The data are based on openings listed with the ASA. Not all departments list positions there, so the totals don’t reflect every opening, but sociologists say that the ASA reports accurately reflect trends in the discipline, even considering positions listed elsewhere.

The top 5 specialties in demand: social control/law/crime deviance, open, race and ethnicity, medicine and health, and work/economy/organizations. The bottom 5 (last being the lowest): comparative and historical approaches, sociology of culture, education, qualitative approaches, and application and practice.

Overall, this would seem like good information though it will likely take some time to sort through the backlog of candidates who couldn’t find jobs in recent years.

Just a thought: I wonder what exactly the job figures from year to year tell us. Overall, is there a better way to get at whether the discipline is expanding or is doing well? Is it better for big departments to get bigger? For new schools to add sociology undergraduate and graduate programs? For the beginning of new graduate programs? For existing faculty to get more recognition or better salaries? To compare the growth in sociology to other disciplines?

The sociologist director of the Natural Hazards Center discusses how sociology helps us understand responses to disasters

While disasters seem to be a growing area of interest across academic disciplines, a sociologist who is the director of the Natural Hazards Center talks about how sociology approaches the topic:

What’s sociology’s role in emergency management?

Sociology is a broad area, and sociologists are interested in a variety of things related to disasters and emergency management. They certainly do research and know a lot about individual, group and organizational behavior in disasters; a good deal about warning processes and warning systems; risk perception; the social factors that are associated with preparing for disasters, disaster recovery and some of the social factors that contribute to differences or disparities in the recovery process and outcomes; the politics and economics of disaster mitigation. These are some topics sociologists are interested in.

Have you done any research on what motivates people to prepare for disasters?

There’s been a lot of research on preparedness, especially household preparedness, and the research has [found] that being better prepared is associated with having higher levels of income, homeownership, to some extent with previous disaster experience, and having children in the home. These are all sociological factors that help to explain preparedness…

During your research, has there been a finding that most surprised you?

I found a lot of things that are contrary to common sense or the way most people might think about disaster behavior. One is the overwhelming altruistic pro-social response that most people engage in during disasters. It’s not like the disaster movies. I also think there are many important findings about the importance of volunteer groups and emergent groups in disasters. Ordinary community citizens can be very resourceful and can engage extensively in self-help and mutual aid when disasters happen. They don’t need to be told what to do by others. I’m seeing growing recognition that while we need experts in emergency management — we need well trained, well educated people — that the whole community is involved in mitigating, preparing for and responding to and recovering from disasters. That whole community approach was a big focus last year and will be this year from FEMA and other agencies. But it’s what sociologists have been saying all along.

I like the reference to how disaster movies tend to play up the atomistic responses to disasters. Movies, books, and TV shows tend to play up the image of the lone wanderer (typically a male?) or a few people trying to pick their way through issues with other people and the natural environment. Some of this seems to underlie recommendations about disaster preparedness: you can’t count on others to help and indeed, you might need to protect what you have from others. Granted, a large enough disaster will disrupt the response of organized government but ordinary citizens can still help each other.

This reminds of a humorous scenario I’ve discussed with several family members. In this hypothetical situation, family members would live on some sort of large piece of property where everyone could have a house yet still have some space. On this “compound,” different people could carry out different tasks that could serve the group in the event of some large disaster in the larger world. For example, being a nurse would be really useful here. However, when the conversation turns to what I could contribute to the larger group as a sociologist, I’m left suggesting something like I could help “enhance critical thinking skills.” Now I know I can contribute something else: I can help everyone work together and can helpfully point out the social factors that will aid or hinder our efforts.

Also, perhaps sociology majors would be uniquely suited to work in the area of emergency management?

Path for sociology PhDs: official demographers

Amidst conversations that graduate programs could provide students more help in pursuing non-academic positions, I was reminded of this career path that sociologists can pursue: demography within the public sector.

Steve Murdock, the former head of the U.S. Census Bureau, will be the keynote speaker at the annual general assembly of the Golden Crescent Regional Planning Commission on Tuesday.

Murdock, now a sociology professor at Rice University, was also the first official state demographer for Texas.

He was named one of the 50 most influential Texans by Texas Business in 1997 and as one of the 25 most influential persons in Texas by Texas Monthly in 2005.

According to Murdock’s CV, he has spent much of his career in government, working at the Texas State Data Center, serving as Texas’ first state demographer, and heading the US Census Bureau in 2008 and 2009. This position also seems to have led to some notoriety. How many states have official demographers?

Between Murdock and his successor at the US Census Bureau, Robert Groves, the Census Bureau seems like a good non-academic place for sociology PhDs to land. I wonder how many current and past employees have sociology backgrounds.

One problem area in Sociology PhD job market: a mismatch between advertised fields and PhD student’s interests

MacLeans points out one of the issues raised by a recent ASA publication titled Moving Toward Recovery: Findings from the 2010 Job Bank Survey:

It’s not all good news, however. The report also surveyed PhD candidates and found some major mismatches between their “areas of special interest” and the jobs that were available in 2010.

One of the widest gaps is in criminology (a.k.a. social control, crime, law and deviance), which made up 31 per cent of all postings on the ASA’s job site in 2010, but was only listed as an area of special interest for 18 per cent of PhD candidates whom were surveyed by the ASA.

The opposite problem exists too. More people are interested in “inequities and stratification” than any other field — 35 per cent of candidates chose it as one of their special interests — but only 19 per cent of jobs advertised were in that area.

There’s also a shortage of jobs for those interested in teaching gender and sexuality. One fifth of students are interested in the subject, but only one tenth of advertised jobs were in that field.

The article misses one other subfield with a large difference: 8.4% of advertised jobs were looking for someone in the sociology of culture while 24.3% of students had an interest in this area.

Will the free market work this out? Who needs to change in this area: should students start pursuing these in-demand sub-fields or do graduate programs hold any responsibility, perhaps for encouraging students in subfields that reflect their faculty more than the jobs available in the field?

Helping PhDs find “alternative careers” outside of academia

The academic job market is tough. Therefore, it’s not surprising to read about programs and seminars being held to help PhDs pursue job opportunities outside of academia:

“Ph.D.’s often don’t know how to leverage and sell themselves to a nonacademic world,” says Steinfeld. “We can do that for them.” Steinfeld and other career counselors at Wasserman stress that the discipline that is needed to earn a doctorate degree makes Ph.D. candidates attractive to financial firms like Morgan Stanley and service firms like McKinsey and Boston Consulting.

One recent Wasserman workshop on alternative careers, “What You Can Do With a Ph.D. in the Humanities,” featured Michael Shae, who earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale in 1992, and two years later began work at the New York Review of Books as an editorial assistant; he is now a senior editor. Another annual workshop, “Careers Outside the Academy: Sociology and Social Science Options,” featured a panel of career switchers with Ph.D.’s, including Preston Beckman, the executive vice president of scheduling for Fox Network. Beckman holds a Ph.D. in sociology from NYU.

Emi Lesure, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at NYU, says she attended the workshops every year for the past few years and found them heartening. The panelists, she says, noted the perks of their jobs over academic careers: intellectual stimulation, reduced hours, better pay. “I’ve lived the life of a poor, stressed-out, overworked grad student for seven years now,” says Lesure. “I can’t keep that up for another decade.”

The good news, says Steinfeld, is that considering non-academic jobs is no longer career suicide. “Years ago, if you were a Ph.D. student at NYU and you talked in public about looking outside of academia for a job, you were put aside as not a serious candidate,” she says. “Faculty today have a much more realistic understanding of the pressures of job hunting.”

A few thoughts about this:

1. How many big-name graduate programs in different disciplines present jobs outside of academia as viable options?

2. Do graduate programs advertise the fact that some of their students now work outside academia? Since most programs list their recent graduates and their jobs somewhere, someone could look into this.

3. It sounds like hearing from PhDs who have successfully worked outside of academia could make a big difference. It would be nice to have some sort of database of “career switchers” who have sociology PhDs.

4. With the growing prevalence of master’s degrees within certain fields, will the PhD become the next step for non-academic employees who want to get a leg up on their coworkers and competition? If so, will graduate programs be willing to accept more students who they know have no interest in careers in academia?