Chapter 17: Research Methods in the Real World

17.1 Doing Research for a Living

A variety of employers 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; and other firms, such as Gallup ( and Nielsen (, 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 previous chapters, but their purpose and aims may differ. We will explore each of these different uses of social scientific research methods.

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 to understand whether applied interventions have had their intended consequences. There are many 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 will find scores of examples. Different firms may specialize in different areas of 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 research 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 that specialize in market research 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 non-profits 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 behaviours 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 goods or services. You could conduct covert observations by being a secret shopper or dining somewhere 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 behaviours. Each of these market research methods requires knowledge and skills in collecting data from human subjects—the very thing that sociological researchers do. Many firms that exist for the sole purpose of carrying out market research hire individuals who have a background in or knowledge about social scientific research methodology. Market research firms specialize in all kinds of areas.

Policy and other government research is another way for many social science researchers to be involved in policy and other government-research related work. In fact, the governments are one of the largest employers of applied social science researchers. Government and policy research could be in any number of areas.