The battle between business and sociology majors

Here is one account of the divide in colleges between business and sociology majors:

I attended undergrad at one of the nation’s more so-called “liberal” schools, San Francisco State University. Some of my fondest memories center on the rivalry, for want of a better word, between the College of Business and the College of Behavioral and Social Science.

You could tell that business students hated taking general education courses in the behavioral and social sciences. That came through most clearly in philosophy, sociology, social work, urban poverty and touchy-feely psychology classes. The business students wanted no part of the “useless crap” we learned in those disciplines. They just wanted to fulfill requirements so they could get into Berkeley’s MBA program or somesuch.

Admittedly, social science geeks, serious psychology majors and even the more politically-active policy wonks dreaded business class. For them, a George Bush fundraising rally would have represented better time spent.

Many of us, particularly those headed to graduate school, considered ourselves embarked on a more righteous endeavor than business students. We were making proper use of education, broadening our minds and learning how to think out of the box. Business students were being fed laws that would bring no positive impact to the world and maybe not even apply outside of a classroom. As I have grown older, I have backed off of this rather pompous view of academia and an MBA’s place in it. Of course, it’s all about perspective. Plus, business students often turned that pompous argument around on us.

There are real differences between these disciplines in how they approach the world. Talking from the sociology end, we tend to critique capitalism (or the excesses of “market logic”), look for broad patterns across social groups, and have different aims (crassly put as helping right social wrongs vs. making money – I know these are not mutually exclusive).

But sometimes I wonder why students don’t put these two disciplines together more. Profit-making can be harnessed for good causes. Businesses can provide good jobs, create capital, and enhance a community. It is hard to run a non-profit or a social service agency without knowledge about managing finances. Both disciplines use quantitative analysis (though the variables and the outcomes we care about may differ) so some of these skills are transferable. Sociologists can use real-world training in management and setting up organizations. Doing business requires a lot of interaction with people, something that sociology can help with because you need to have an understanding of what motivates people plus how their context affects their actions (a one-size-fits-all approach is difficult to implement across different social settings). Additionally, sociology can help people in business see the the big picture beyond making money, promoting a longer-term view and more nuanced understanding about where their operation fits within society.

Are there any schools that promote a joint program or have a large number of students who tackle both of these disciplines?

Utah legislator suggests sociology degree may be “degree to nowhere”

A legislator in Utah made some comments recently that sociology, along with several other disciplines, do not provide helpful degrees for some students:

Stephenson, who has a four-year degree and master’s from BYU, said colleges aren’t giving sociology, psychology and philosophy majors the real story.

“These colleges refuse to inform them,” Stephenson said. “They refuse to give them the data.”

Stephenson is clarifying to say he is not calling four-year degrees undesirable. Nonetheless, his message is already being met with opposition from his legislative counterparts.

“Clearly it sends the wrong message,” said Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake. “Basically, what we need to be saying is that these are all important and not to be pitting one against the other, because they all provide value.”

Romero pointed to sociology majors, which sometimes turn into lawyers and earn good paychecks.

“What’s most important is getting a liberal education, getting a well-rounded education and learning how to think,” he said.

Even some Republican colleagues are questioning the strength of Stephenson’s message. Tuesday, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, told Stephenson he was overstating the lack of value in a college degree.

Stephenson appears to be finding support for his rationale in a new Harvard University report out Wednesday. It says the education system is failing a lot of students that need to be career-ready, not college-ready.

Stephenson is calling certain four-year degrees “degrees to nowhere” as he pushes for an increase in funding for applied technology colleges.

While Stephenson is pushing for more vocational training, it is interesting that he picks on sociology (along with psychology and philosophy). A few thoughts about this:

1. These degrees do lead to some jobs or career paths. For example, sociology can often feed into social work or work in the criminal justice field. But some of these ties are not as obvious as perhaps business, pre-law, or pre-med.

2. It would be interesting to see the data to which Stephenson refers. Does this data say these majors can’t find work? Does it say that they earn less over a lifetime compared to some other majors? Do these majors have more student loans or debt after college? Does it say they have less meaningful jobs? Just curious.

3.  The skills of knowing how to interact with other cultures and people from different backgrounds seems valuable. See David Brooks’ argument about the difficulty of working with people.

4. The legislator Romero tries to defend these degrees but makes two interesting points of his own:

4a. The idea that these degrees and the skills developed in earning the degree have value even if it is not monetary value is a broader comment about society. If social workers, for example, are important and needed, shouldn’t the profession be better paying and more prestigious? Pay does not necessarily equate with social prestige or value.

4b. Romero then suggests that sociology can be fine if it is paired with a law degree. So the only way sociology is valuable is when paired with a prestigious and higher-earning degree?

5. The way this story is presented, the argument breaks down along party lines: the Republican thinks these degrees are not as worthwhile, the Democrat tries to defend them. Can we simply say that Stephenson thinks these degrees are not worth much because they support or promote values he disagrees with?

Wanting to fit in leads to interesting behavior

A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research finds that people are willing to alter their behavior in a quest to try to fit in:

“Social exclusion is a very painful experience, which makes it a strong motivator,” explains Tyler Stillman, a visiting sociology professor at Southern Utah University, who is one of the study’s co-authors.

In one experiment, researchers paired study participants with a partner who left midway through the study. Some of the participants believed their partners left because they didn’t like them — and those people were more easily talked into buying a silly school spirit trinket. In another study, people who felt excluded were more likely to say they were willing to try cocaine. Researchers say their findings could have real-life implications.

Interesting results. If these results are all based on lab experiments, how much more willing would people be to change their behavior to fit in when confronted with real people?

I would be curious to find if the study looked at different age groups. If lab experiments were only conducted with undergraduate students, might the results change if the same experiments were done with older adults?

Using undergraduates in research experiments

It is common for research experiments to use undergraduates as subjects: they are a convenient and often willing sample pool for researchers. These studies then draw conclusions about human behavior based on undergraduate subjects.

In Newsweek, Sharon Begley writes about a new study that suggests American undergraduates are unlike many people in the world and therefore, it is difficult to make generalizations based on them.

Three psychology researchers have done a systematic search of experiments with subjects other than American undergrads, who made up two thirds of the subjects in all U.S. psych studies. From basics such as visual perception to behaviors and beliefs about fairness, cooperation, and the self, U.S. undergrads are totally unrepresentative, Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia and colleagues explain in a paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. They share responses with subjects from societies that are also Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD), but not with humanity at large.

One way around such issues is to replicate studies with different people groups. The article describes some of these attempts, such as with the ultimatum game where two people have to negotiate a split of $10. When done with different people, the studies produce different results, suggesting that what we might think is “human nature” is heavily culturally dependent.

Another possible outcome of this study is that researchers may continue to use undergraduates but would have to scale back on their ability to generalize about humanity as a whole.

Finally, this study is a reminder that “typical” behavior in one culture is not guaranteed to be the same in another culture. What we may think of as givens can be quite different with people who do not share our cultural assumptions and practices.