Sociology research pushed to margins

September 7, 2007

Sociology is facing a looming crisis in an age when commercial companies can carry out in-depth empirical research by pressing a button, academics have warned.

As supermarkets routinely collect detailed information about customers' spending habits, and journalists are bombarded with commercially compiled surveys, the role of sociologists is becoming increasingly unclear when it comes to generating data, says a paper in the 40th anniversary edition of the journal Sociology .

In the past, policymakers and the public paid attention to social scientists' ground-breaking empirical research methods, says the paper by Manchester University's Mike Savage and York University's Roger Burrows. For example, the National Child Development Study of 1958, which surveyed everyone born in England, Scotland and Wales in one week in March, has been crucial to informing educational development.

"Fifty years ago, academic social scientists might be seen as occupying the apex of the (generally limited) social science research 'apparatus'. Now they occupy an increasingly marginal position in the huge research infrastructure," they write in the paper The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology .

Today, there is a parallel world of "commercial sociology", which can dwarf the work of sociologists when it comes to scale. Professor Savage gives the example of spending two years analysing personal ties among members of voluntary organisations, only to be told by a researcher from a telecoms company that he had access to the records of every phone call made on its system over several years, totalling several billion ties. And "social data" is now big business, with postcode-based statistics formulated by commercial companies used to inform government policy.

Professor Savage says the point is not that sociologists' empirical research has been rendered redundant, as the quality is far higher. But he adds that they should not be "too sniffy" about commercial research, as they could learn from it.

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