Sociological Practitioners Contributing to New Product Development: Mapping the Challenges

by An Jacobs
University of Gent

Sociological Research Online, Volume 9, Issue 4, <>.

Received: 7 Nov 2003     Accepted: 26 Aug 2004    Published: 30 Nov 2004


To continue making profit in industry, companies use extensive research in the development of new products. This complex interdisciplinary process includes some social scientists. By using a SWOT framework as an analytical tool, this paper seeks to summarize the reflections as retrieved from the corpus of scientific publications in which the authors present themselves as sociologists or ethnographers, or as designers or marketers working with sociologists, sociology or ethnography while doing market, consumer, and usability research. This map can be a first step to determine how sociological practitioners can take advantage of the opportunities (e.g. concurrent engineering) in the product-development process through employing their strengths (e.g. context sensitivity), while averting threats (e.g. time pressure) by means of avoiding, correcting or compensating for their weaknesses (e.g. socialization in doing academic sociology).

Keywords: Ethnography, Market Research, Product Development, Sociological Practice, Sociologist, SWOT


1.1 Material artefacts and social life are closely related. The normalization of the freezer in the kitchen, for example, reorganized the way the user shops, cooks and eats. Besides benefiting the user, any material artefact - the freezer in this case - also makes demands on the user (e.g. preparation of food before freezing, the time needed for defrosting) and the broader social organization (e.g. continual electricity supply) (Shove & Southerton, 2000). Because the social construction of the use of an artefact is a dynamic process (Bijker, 1995), the way the development of a product deals with these human aspects influences the product's social usefulness and quality. In our industrialized societies, companies carry out extensive research to develop new products that will deal well with human aspects and thus ensure continued profits. This complex interdisciplinary process includes some social scientists:

Product development is now far from being the province of the individual craftsman, manager or manufacturer: the conception, production, distribution and use of products have become complex parts of corporate strategies and include extensive research based on marketing, but also on anthropology, psychology and sociology (Frascara, 2002: xvi).

1.2 After more than 20 years of social-science practice in product development, it seems reasonable to map the difficulties and opportunities of these practitioners. This paper will focus on sociology and its practice, which seems the least overt discipline in this area of new product development. As Nippert-Eng noted: 'At the moment, I'm one of a handful of sociologists I know who have caught on to the possibilities of working with designers' (Nippert-Eng 2002: 221).

Sociological Practice and Product Development: Relevance and Limitations

2.1 Before mapping the opportunities and concerns of sociological practice and product development, we can first define, connect and put into context the two terms by looking at the contributions sociological practitioners make.

2.2 'Sociological practice' is an umbrella concept for the application of sociology (theory and research) (Bruhn & Rebach, 1986).[1] The different definitions (e.g. Berry, 1999; Olsen, 1992) concur in viewing sociology as a contributor to social change that leads to an improvement in our quality of life, an ideal shared by the designers and engineers (Frascara, 2002). Social change, utility and intervention are all very appealing concepts as such, but promoting change implies determining targets. Therefore, one has to answer three fundamental questions: 'For whom is the social change intended?', 'What is being changed?' and 'How is change achieved?'

2.3 Sociologists[2] have to determine who is the target beneficiary of change. Within the context of society, choosing sides is inevitable. Sociologists do not consider limiting themselves to the definition of the problem by the client as an effective solution. If they do, they are not dealing with the real problem but with the symptom (e.g. Gouldner & Miller, 1965). Should a sociologist take the side of the 'underdog', then? That is an appealing option, but it is not easy to determine who that is in every situation. It seems more profitable for all parties involved to take into account the different viewpoints of all the stakeholders and to facilitate communication (Jones, 1984).

2.4 Besides the 'who' question, sociological practice also deals with the 'what' question. For instance, sociological practice often intends 'to benefit society' and/or 'to improve quality of life'. Many other disciplines, medicine for example, use this multidimensional concept as their goal, as do many companies promising us that their products will improve our quality of life (e.g. Nestlé S.A., 2000). Some limiting thoughts about this concept seem appropriate. Thinking about 'quality of life', the individual human is generally the basic unit. Usually the distinction is made between 'objective' and 'subjective' quality of life. While both are social constructions, the labels insinuate that the objective is more truthful than the subjective. Veenhoven (2000), therefore, suggests a different classification. He makes a quadrant opposing external and internal versus opportunities and results. He concludes that only the combination of 'internal' and 'results', referring to measures of subjective well-being, is relatively well measurable. This 'happiness' reflects an equilibrium between internal capacities and external opportunities. This implies that it is only the individual who can determine, situation by situation, whether her or his quality of life is sufficient (Joyce et al., 1999). This situational, individual character of happiness makes it impossible to reach a level that satisfies needs and wants for everybody, as some hierarchies of needs suppose (e.g. Maslow, 1954). Earlier research shows that our material standard of living is not sufficient to increase our well-being continually. Although consumption - as an important and continual aspect of our life - has a crucial influence on our well-being, it is not only the quality of goods that determines satisfaction. It depends at least as much on the mood of their owner (Lane, 2000). These diverse situational moods are difficult to control, but developers can at least work on the quality of goods. An important aspect of this quality is the products' 'usability'. Usability can be defined as:

the ease of use and acceptability of a system or product for a particular class of users carrying out specific tasks in a specific environment; where 'ease of use' affects the user performance and satisfaction, and 'acceptability' affects whether or not the product is used. (Bevan et al., 1992:2)

2.5 Within the discipline of sociology, there has never been consensus on how sociologists can affect social change. However, sociology originated from the Enlightenment position that, by systematic study, one gains knowledge of the problems of modern society, which knowledge can then be used to solve the problems (Hamilton, 2002). Hamilton distinguishes three sociological traditions on contributing to social change: the rational-scientific, the political and the expressionist.

2.6 The rational-scientific tradition claims a value-neutral position - not a value-free researcher - of producing general insights using scientific methods. The contribution made to social action is to do research on commission and then present the results. Within this tradition, some sociologists accept the possibility of formulating different options for social change (applied sociology, social engineering); others see their task as finished when they have provided their research results.

2.7 In the political tradition, the sociologists participate in some kind of action. In their view it is not possible to produce value-free knowledge. Participatory-action research as developed by W.F. Whyte (1991) is representative of this tradition. The definition of clinical sociology with its emphasis on intervention (Fritz & Clark, 1993) also belongs to it. Besides the role of the researcher who actively participates in the change process and evaluates it, there is also the role of advocacy: using sociological knowledge to campaign for a specific group or belief (Glassner & Freedman, 1979; Bulmer, 1990).

2.8 Sociologists within the expressionist tradition also take a relativist stance to value freedom but aim to express instead of to explain. They concentrate on the meaning of social experience. Their central tenet is that research results are idiosyncratic. Social change is therefore not their main target. This tradition includes ethnographic approaches dealing with meaning and symbolic processes (Hamilton, 2002).

2.9 A more implicit contribution to social change is in the role of educator, communicator or 'enlightener'. Within this role, sociologists transpose their knowledge and insights on society to an external audience (Bulmer, 1990). Depending on the tradition of social action to which they adhere, sociologists communicate general or situated insights, or debunk everyday knowledge (e.g. Berger, 1963; Garfinkel, 1967), with or without taking sides.

2.10 For the purpose of this paper, we will concentrate on the contributions sociologists make by doing research on commission, working mostly outside academic institutes, to inform the product-development process.

2.11 After this rough sketch of the domain of sociological practice, we must define the field of product development. 'Product' is a very broadly used concept. It covers goods as well as services and sometimes also includes ideas and persons. The focus here is on three-dimensional objects as well as communication products like software.

2.12 The profitable lifecycle of products is limited, and the risk of failure of a new product is high (Buijs & Valkenburg, 2000; Baxter, 1996). A product can be new because of many factors: a new look, new user functions, a new user population, etc., without the introduction of any new technology. It is important to see that innovation is not only technology driven. How 'new' new products are - for example, not new to the world but new only to the company - does not fundamentally alter the product-development process (Verhaert, 1998). In this paper, a new product is one new to the company, because even imitations can require extra research. For instance, research on the users and their social context can help develop an improved profitable 'copy' for the company's target market.

2.13 Many systematic models of the product-development process have grown out of theory and practice. The first models were sequential: for example, developing first the technological aspects, then the economical features, and at last giving attention to the human aspects of the product. However, this method underrates the human aspects (Saren, 1984), because of the large costs of redeveloping the technological and economical aspects. Models that are driven by marketing or users have the same weakness (Verhaert 1998). Sequential models generally result in long development times and quality problems, due to a lack of understanding of the different aspects. Product development is best served by adapting evolutionary, iterative, parallel models instead, also called concurrent (Haque et al., 2000), integrated or simultaneous product development (Erhorn & Stark, 1994). These models take into account the human, economic and technological aspects from the start of the process. In this way, the developers make the important decisions on all aspects at the least expensive stage of the process, so that all aspects can be equally influential. Because concurrent product development is multidisciplinary, there are many stakeholders. Concurrent product development takes place within very dynamic organizational structures (Verhaert, 1998). A key role is reserved for research that provides a systematic way of eliminating options. This includes research on the human aspects of the product (Dodd, 2001).

2.14 A simplified version of the model of Buijs & Valkenburg (2000) illustrates the current ideal way to organize product development of new consumer goods in profit companies. The model tries to integrate the different international product-development models, and it has proven itself in the field tests. Our simplification removes the attention of this model to different phases being simultaneous and iterative. We focus on the contributions of human aspects research, used as a global term to signify market, consumer or user research. Strategic planning, goal definition and development are the main phases we distinguish.

2.15 In the strategic planning phase, analysis of the present and future internal and external situation of the company generates and selects the 'search fields' for new products. Human aspects research gathers information about the future developments in the company's micro-environment (e.g. competitors, customers and market structure) and macro-environment (e.g. demographics, economics and technical and social-cultural change). In the next phase, goal definition, developers generate and select product ideas. Developers match the company's strengths with the opportunities distinguished in the marketplace, looking at the development of new technologies and studying existing products (Verhaert, 1998). Developing one or a few product ideas into materialized products is the goal of the development phase. Developers first translate the idea in a 'design brief', a list of criteria the future product has to fulfil. Using the results of thorough research of the market share, the lead users and the needs of the potential customers, the developers enhance the design brief in the analytic sub-phase. In the synthesis and materialization sub-phases, human aspect research tests concepts and prototypes regarding their conformity with the skills, norms and ideas of the consumer and user. In the synthesis sub-phase, the idea is materialized in text, drawing, animation, or mock-up form and becomes a concept. The different concepts are screened, and a selection, most of the time by experts, is made. In the materialization sub-phase, developers optimize the concept and produce a prototype. Developers consult potential users. If the prototype can basically function, the company has its first version of the new product. Delaying human aspects research until the prototype testing limits the potential contribution of the research, because the costs of alteration are by then very high. This model, on the other hand, illustrates how different kinds of human aspects research can assist in every phase of the product-development process (Schoormans & De Bont, 1995).

2.16 The most established role for sociological practitioners in this field is that of market researcher. The market researcher assists companies in effective communication with their consumers, by determining on one hand what the customer wants and needs and on the other hand by figuring out how to persuade the customer of a want or a need for the companies' products (Straus, 1991). This is not a role for which sociologists receive explicit academic training. However, sociological theory and methods (Morgan & Krueger, 1998) have already inexplicitly contributed a great deal to the development of market research. One major example is Merton, Fiske and Kendall's methodological contribution (1956) of the focused interview. Originally developed to assess the impact of movies during World War II, it was adopted by market researchers as a popular research tool under the term 'focus group' (a success Merton (1987) himself was for years unaware of). After WWII, the mobility of consumers made the previously used ABCD classification schemes of families based on census data inadequate, because it became clear that income was not the only determinant of social class. Consumers became more mobile in constructing their identities. Class differences were distinguished by goods, behaviours, values and points of view (Easton, 2001; Arvidsson, 2004). Innovative research on the social meaning of products took place within 'Social Research Inc.', which employed many sociologists (e.g. L. Rainwater entered as a graduate student, and co-founder L. Warner, was a sociology professor at the University of Chicago). The firm's innovative interdisciplinary approach, combining insights and techniques from sociology, anthropology and psychology, was crucial in the development of motivational research within marketing, such as lifestyle research. For in-depth insight into consumer decisions, the firm combined several techniques: depth and group interviews, projective techniques, ethnographies, case studies, and life histories (Levy, 2003).

2.17 During the 1950s and early 1960s, the influence was large, but during the 1970s and 1980s, social and cognitive psychology paradigms dominated marketing practices, for example segmentation by lifestyle analysis using universal personality and values schemes to perform cluster analysis (Holt, 1997). Meanwhile, within sociology the subfield of consumption regained research attention, which resulted in new insights (Allen & Anderson, 1995; Holt, 1994). During the 1980s, marketing departments broadened their perspectives by attracting sociologists and anthropologists (Belk, 1995). Powered by the developments of, for example, postmodernism, feminism and critical theory on mass culture, the field of the sociology and anthropology of consumption fully developed during the 1980s and 1990s. Such social scientists see the consumer as a creative person using products symbolically to transform identities and distinguish communities (Campbell, 1995; Miller, 1995; Holt, 1997). By now this new perspective on consumer research (Belk, 1995) has reached commercial market and design research practices (infra).

2.18 Sociological practitioners also have an affinity with ethnographic research within the product-development process, which originated in the field of workplace studies (Anderson 1997; Dourish & Button 1998, Bell, 2001). Besides from a marketing perspective, human aspects are considered from the perspective of ergonomics, or human factors. The practitioners of this discipline mainly concentrate on the development phase. 'Ergonomics' and 'human factors' are equivalent terms.[3] They are considered general terms, applicable when any consideration in design is given to the users of a product or a piece of equipment (Burgess, 1989). Initially developed in the military and aviation after World War II, today human-factors research is done in almost every branch of industry (Meister & O'Brien, 1996). Its aim is not the improvement of quality of life but increased productivity (Burgess, 1989). The central issue for the human-factors approach is to figure out the easiest way to use a product, taking into account the physical (anthropometric) and cognitive abilities of humans. This is why cognitive psychology has a substantial influence on usability studies. In general the embedding of the product in the larger socio-cultural context is often overlooked, but some cognitive psychologists have drawn attention to the problem (e.g. Norman, 1993). Only recently have marketing and human factors or ergonomics discovered (or rediscovered, supra) ethnography as a toolbox to overcome this problem (Wasson, 2000; Mariampolski, 1999).

2.19 Ethnography is a concept endowed with multiple interpretations. The basic assumption is to understand the meaning people give to their own activities in everyday life. The target of design ethnography is to understand users' patterns of product use and how users understand these patterns. The toolbox consists of observation techniques (including visual aids like videotaping or photography) and interviewing (in-depth and contextual, with different degrees of structure). Archival research and literature reviews on previous studies can also be part of the job. Establishing some social intimacy is crucial for gaining an 'insider's view'. This is necessary not only for the sake of the data quality but also for getting credible results implemented in design (Salvador et al., 1999; Harper, 2000; Bell, 2001; Reese, 2004).

2.20 The demand for the services of market ethnographers was on the rise in 1997 (Heath, 1997), at least in the United States.[4] In the early 1980s, design firms started to test how social sciences could serve them. At the end of the 1990s, the experimental phase developed into a field in which both designers and social scientists learned from each other (Sanders, 1999). Cultural anthropologists in particular are considered appropriate for the role of market/design ethnographer (Wilcox, 1996; Sanders, 1999; Wasson, 2000). Even if we insist today upon the difference between sociology and anthropology, we must notice that ethnography likewise has roots in sociology (Vidich & Lyman, 2000; Button, 2000), so the ethnographic research techniques belong to the sociologists' toolbox as well. This interpretative turn has supported the ongoing development of a participatory design movement (Dourish & Button, 1998), because 'we are dealing with human actors, not cut and dried human factors', to quote J. Greenbaum and M. Kyng (1991). Participatory design considers the user an expert who takes part in the design process in some way.

2.21 Having given some idea about the contributions sociological practitioners make to the development of new products, we will try to summarize the reflections of sociologists and other stakeholders (e.g. designers) who are active in this process, as retrieved from the scientific publication corpus in which they present themselves as sociologists or ethnographers on one hand, and on the other hand as designers or marketers working with sociologists, sociology or ethnography while doing market, consumer, and usability research. We do not mean this to be exhaustive but to serve as a framework for future research in this field.

Mapping the Challenges

3.1 To summarize the experiences of sociological practitioners entering this world of product development, we use the SWOT framework. The SWOT framework - standing for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats - is a tool that was developed in the early 1950s at Harvard Business School and that experienced a revival in strategic planning in the 1990s. Although frequently misused, the model's aim is to formulate advice based on deduction and systematic observation. Today it is frequently used in everyday management practice (Glaister & Falshaw, 1999; Koch, 2001; 2000; Panagiotou, 2003). To communicate sociological practitioners' capabilities to the business world, using a format familiar to the business world can be helpful. By using this model (e.g. Williams, 1982), we attempt to determine how to take advantage of the opportunities for developing sociological practice in the product-development process - employing the strengths of the sociological practitioners, while averting threats by means of avoiding, correcting or compensating for the weaknesses of sociological practice. Together these aspects determine the chance of successfully developing sociological practice within product development.

Opportunities to Develop Sociological Practice in Product Development

3.2 Opportunities are positive external elements that could be important for the future development of sociological practice. The awareness of ethnography as a tool, the adoption of concurrent-development models, the relation between company characteristics and attention given to human aspects are the elements we distinguish as opportunities.

3.3 As previously mentioned, marketers and designers became aware of the usefulness of ethnography, and therefore of the usefulness of anthropologists and sociologists on their teams. The initial relationship was one in which the social scientists served the designer, a relationship which by now has changed into one of mutual learning (supra) (Sanders, 2002; Suchman, 2001). This interest in ethnomethodologically oriented ethnography can be an impulse to bring the whole range of social-research techniques and analytical frameworks onto the design table. Sociologists attending conferences and contributing to publications consulted in product-design circles (e.g. Dodd, 2001; Reese, 2004), while positioning themselves clearly as sociologists, have the possibility to increase the attention given to sociologists working on design and to diversify the image of the social sciences.

3.4 The rising adoption, diffusion and awareness of concurrent-development models in industry offers a distinct opportunity. It includes parallel attention to social acceptance and adoption (Schot & Rip, 1997). Concurrent product development is one of the proposed solutions to keep risk of failure as low as possible in an area of increasing time-to-market pressure (infra). To keep all facets of the development - time and cost being the most important - under control and integrated, the models are generally characterized by a process focus instead of a product focus (Gronbaek et al., 1993), iterative procedures (Verhaert, 1998), and interdisciplinary teamwork (Grudin, 1993; Verhaert, 1998; Buijs & Valkenburg, 2000).[5] Here human aspects are given a more equal weight compared with economic and technological aspects, giving the sociological practitioner the opportunity to play an effective role from the start of the process. The risk of being limited to alter a few details at the end of the process, or - worse - only to criticize the results afterwards, is diminished.

3.5 The possibility of employing sociological practitioners depends on the interest the company attaches to human aspects. For example, producers of consumer goods are more sensitive to the broader social context compared with producers of production goods (Smith & van Oost, 1999). As another example, larger companies more often spend absolutely and relatively bigger budgets on usability (Grudin, 1993). On the other hand, larger companies are less likely to adopt disruptive technologies; they tend to let smaller companies do the difficult and risk-taking product development and introduction (Norman, 1993). The higher the need for insights in the human aspects, the more possibilities there are for social scientists to be directly or indirectly contracted to support the product-development process with their research efforts. Some further research is needed about the influence of company characteristics on the centrality of human aspects.

3.6 Having explored the positive external aspects, the next section will look at the positive internal aspects of sociological practice.

Strengths of Sociological Practice in Product Development

3.7 Benefiting from these opportunities to interact in product development requires playing off the strengths of sociological practice. Positive internal aspects of sociological practice include the focus on the influence of context, the versatility of sociological practitioners, the preference for a natural research setting, and the sociological practitioners' role as a proxy of the users' practices and settings.

3.8 We cannot ignore the central role of context in sociology and its influence on human interaction. Consider, for instance, the classical contextual factor 'socio-economic status' as an influential factor on the diversity of human behaviour. Open any introductory textbook on sociology - for instance, Sociology by Giddens (1989) - and find a reference to this central role: 'An understanding of the subtle, yet complex and profound, ways in which our lives reflect the contexts of our social experience is basic to the sociological outlook' (p. 11).

3.9 When C. Nippert-Eng (2002) first entered a joint project with designers as a sociologist, she asked herself what she had to offer them and concluded: 'In short, sociologists are experts on the external influences that encourage people to behave the ways that they do. If that's not useful to a designer, I don't know what is' (p. 219). This extreme sensitivity to social context prompts sociologists to formulate multidimensional explanations of human behaviour (Straus, 1991). We must actively discourage, however, the image that sociology focuses only on the influence of structures on behaviour; this has been replaced by a more current dynamic view on the relation between structure and agency, as developed, for one, by Bourdieu (1984).

3.10 Another strength is the versatility of the sociological practitioners. It is a 'natural' asset within teamwork to be multitalented. Like other social scientists, sociologists are acquainted with both quantitative and qualitative tools. Sociologists can rely on a diverse spectrum of theoretical frameworks, allowing them to approach the problem from different angles. These tools enable sociologists to use their sociological imagination (Mills, 1959; Denzin, 1990) to be critical and reflexive, and sometimes debunk routines. Although breaching commonsense can be disruptive (Garfinkel, 1967), it can be very helpful in a creative innovation process. As previously mentioned, within the product-development process the sociologist is valuable in more than one role. Besides the role of ethnographer and the established activities of market research, the sociological practitioner could - using theoretical and methodological skills - create new ways of researching consumers. On the other hand, this differentiation and fragmentation can also be perceived as a weakness (infra), since it becomes more difficult for sociological practitioners to communicate a specific expertise (Petrus & Adamek, 1985).

3.11 An additional strength linked with the research methods used is the preference for the natural, everyday setting as the research context. The experimental setting, as often used in psychology, human factors and marketing, allows the study of simulation of behaviour. Embedding the danger of imposing the researcher's own vocabulary to describe the behaviour (Viller & Sommerville, 1998b), the sociological practitioner, especially the ethnomethodologically based ethnographer, tries to look as much as possible at human behaviour in its natural setting, while utilizing the vocabulary of the users. In this way, design does not take only the normative cases of behaviour into account but also the deviant. Secondly, research in natural settings can reveal practices that are not obvious to participants because they take them for granted (Dourish & Button, 1998; Viller & Sommerville, 1998b; Brown & Perry, 2000). In examining risk perception of the use of circular saws, for instance, different aspects could be revealed when doing the research in a lab or in the user's own shed in the garden.

3.12 A final strength is that the sociological practitioner can serve as a proxy for the users' practices and setting (Dourish & Button, 1998; Blomberg et al., 1993). Context influences the users' experiences of the application of a product. When developing consumer goods, target users are an indistinct group. The sociological practitioner can try to assemble a view of different user groups in their settings. Compared with the user, sociological practitioners can maintain a global view - necessary when producing global products - while looking at the particular and local. Additionally, the 'real' users are minimally disturbed. Moreover, in comparison, possible leaks to competitors are diminished, a highly valuable characteristic in business. However, this does not imply that direct participation of users is not important, in situations where resistance to adoption is likely, for instance. Involving users during the whole development process can facilitate the diffusion after introduction (Blomberg et al., 1993).

3.13 The danger hidden in the participative focus is that companies might displace the social scientist with the users, since often ethnography is equated with field-work and is perceived as a technique that can be acquired in a one-day workshop. The companies then neglect the analytical part, the ultimate target of such a research endeavour (Anderson, 1997; Button, 2000). It would be like sociologists who take a course on rapid prototyping and then presume they know enough about design to develop a product without a designer on the team.

3.14 We must complement the previous attention to the positive aspects with attention to the negative aspects. The focus in the next two sections will consequently be on the external and internal negative components of the map.

Threats to Developing Sociological Practice in Product Development

3.15 If sociological practitioners want to contribute to the development of new products, they confront obstructions external to their discipline. The degree of innovation, the control dilemma within product development, the possible reluctance to a new player, and the increased pressure to shorten the time to market are discerned threats that sociological practitioners have to avert to make use of the opportunities and strengths previously discussed.

3.16 First, without innovation, there is no need for product development, and there is less room to try out the extra value of a sociological approach. The degree of innovation, therefore, is not only a precondition for the continuation of the current economic system (supra) but also for the development of sociological practice in this field. Looking at the situation in Europe,[6] relatively few companies (1/5) are able to rely on innovative products. The variability within the European Union is large. In Ireland, 74% of the manufacturing companies are innovators, compared with 26% of the Portuguese manufacturers. Scale effects make it easier for large companies (more than 250 employees) to innovate, and exporting companies are more likely to innovate than non-exporting ones. It is very interesting that innovating companies mention improving the quality of their products as the most important objective of their innovation. Unfortunately, the definition of a product's improvement in quality is not clear in this relationship. Additionally, innovative companies perceive the information they get from their clients and customers as a very important information source.

3.17 The control dilemma is another typical threat within product development. Fundamental decisions must be made at the start of the process when there is the least understanding about, for instance, the impact on the users and the social context. At later stages of development, this information has increased, but fundamental changes are by then very expensive (Grudin, 1993; Smith & van Oost, 1999).

3.18 New design team members, including sociological practitioners, can expect from the current team some reluctance to adopt a new player. The current members of the process, even the ones already involved with consumers and usability, could be reluctant to embrace the changes that the implementation of sociological-practice roles will have on them and the process (Smith & van Oost, 1999; Grudin, 1993). Because of the actual positive reception of ethnographical and interpretative research, we must put the current danger for sociological practitioners into perspective. What is important, in the long term, is to show honestly the added value of the sociologist in the team but also the limitations. Taking sociological insights into account is necessary in design but not the only critical factor (Weinstein, 1997).

3.19 Finally, the increased pressure of time to market is labelled as a threat, although it is not univocally a threat. It was because of the same pressure to shrink the time to market that design teams adopted models of concurrent product development to manage the risk of failure (supra). The increasing time pressure, however, does result in less time for in-depth research, which does not improve the reliability of the results of sociological research. This can be a frustrating experience for the social scientist (Straus, 1991) (infra).

3.20 By avoiding, improving or compensating for the weaknesses of sociological practice, one can try to avert these threats. The next section will therefore take a closer look at these negative internal aspects.

Weaknesses of Sociological Practice in Product Development

3.21 When asking the question, 'What actually goes wrong in bringing sociological practice into product development?' the main answers must include the status of sociology and the implications of socializing an 'academic' sociologist into a work role. This socialization implies a lower attractiveness for sociological practice as a sub-discipline and the adoption of the attributes of an academic work culture. This culture's attributes include the time-consuming and labour-intensive nature of social research, as well as language and communication practices and ethical concerns.

3.22 The particular status and appeal of sociology as a discipline is often seen as a weakness (Weinstein, 1997). The common image of a sociologist is for most people rather vague, and, indeed, sociology is a house with many rooms. As this fragmentation continues, coherence is lost for the outside world. This fragmentation, though, is perhaps not that unusual. Studies of the psychological and demographic disciplines show the same patterns (Cappell & Guterbock, 1992). Because psychologists have successfully established an accepted place in consumer and user research, it seems this weakness is not a sufficient factor to diminish sociology's appeal. Besides, the methodological and theoretical diversity within sociology could be perceived as an asset, even though differences are treated as ammunition in internal conflicts (Delruelle-Vosswinkel, 1988). The acceptance of triangulation and 'bricolage' (e.g. Denzin & Lincoln, 1998) as a research attitude are hopeful signs for the future. A related problem is politics. According to some sociologists (e.g. Horowitz, 1993), the status of sociology was subverted by a perception of sociology as 'left'-oriented (Knottnerus & Maguire, 1995; Kantrowitz, 1992), which caused the separation of the more application-oriented sub-branches (Horowitz, 1993). Others, on the contrary, conclude that it is exactly the pursuit of scientific acceptance of sociology and the successful student enrolment in the 1960s and 1970s that deflected attention from the application-oriented sub-disciplines, which then separated from their mother discipline. Industrial sociology and marketing, for example, settled in business schools because sociology had no interest (Akers, 1992).

3.23 The most common way of becoming someone who is called a sociologist is by accomplishing a formal university education in sociology. These educational programs prepare their students to be good academic sociologists, by providing them with the theories and the tools to be an academic researcher. Although most of them do not pursue this career track - because of the limited resources, it would not be possible - their educations mould their ideal of a 'sociologist' (Piriou, 1999). This socialization in doing 'academic' sociology has the following implications.

3.24 The attractiveness of sociological practice within sociology is low. The emphasis during sociology training is mainly on the academic role, implying a lower status for non-academic jobs (Gollin, 1990). Only a minority within sociology identify themselves as sociological practitioners, and many practice-oriented sociologists have moved into applied disciplines. Within sociology a lower status is assigned to sociological practice (Berry, 1999). These problems are rooted in a complex system of factors.

3.25 One important factor is the struggle for scientific recognition (supra) and the thereby necessary emphasis on value freedom. Is it possible to develop applicable sociological knowledge? Take, for instance, the 'ecological fallacy' problem, applying a statistical association between groups to a specific case. A related problem for intervention is the problem of causality. Certainty about the direction of the relation seems important to tackle anything more than symptoms. Comparing sociological practice and clinical psychology, the latter did not much encounter these problems. Because of the centrality of the individual in the research context, the applicability of the detected relations did not seem to be a problem. The causality seemed controlled as well by using the experimental methodology. Finally, because of the affinity with medicine and biology, the acceptance of clinical psychology as a legitimate part of psychology as a science was easier (Franklin, 1979).

3.26 Within sociology as a discipline, attention has turned to non-academic employment only during a shortage on the academic labour market (surplus of sociologists, economic recession, political climate, etc.) (Gollin, 1990). Furthermore, sociological associations rarely lobby for sociological practitioners. As a consequence, sociological practitioners withdraw from these associations and join non-sociological associations that satisfy their specific needs, such as certification (Perlstadt, 1988).

3.27 There is no agreement on the issue of certification (Fleischer 1998: 42). On one side are the purists, who see sociological practice as a little sister of sociology as an academic discipline and do not favour formal certification programs (e.g. Eckert and Foster, 1989; Lyson & Squires, 1984). On the other side are the reformers, for whom sociology in se is an applied science and who want to support the expansion of the practice (e.g. Freeman & Rossi, 1984; Clark & Fritz, 1986). In the meantime, non-sociological associations in the United States try to close their fields to sociological practitioners by licensing certain fields of specialization, in particular health care and social services (Salem, 1997). The pros and cons of certification require further critical examination, but companies obviously like to have certainty and a sense of legitimization about the person they employ.

3.28 Whether the work is done internally for a company developing a new consumer good, or for a market research or design firm selling its research capacities to other producers, there are differences in research expectations of the capabilities of the non-social scientist and the social scientist. Straus (1991) states that a sociologist can do no more than add a sociological touch to the market research. If conformism to the picture of a 'good' sociologist - doing academically valued research - is not possible, sociological practitioners sometimes dismiss a professional identity as a sociologist (Piriou, 1999). That lack of sociological identity is no problem for them, because they are valued in their job by their own criteria: the change their work initiated (Weinstein, 1997). But it is a great loss for the discipline, because it prevents an important source of feedback between theory and empirical findings.

3.29 Socialization into an academic occupational role implies the adoption of the attributes of the academic work culture. This work culture includes, for example, its rhythm, eye for details, specific language, ways of internal and external communication, autonomy, and ethics.

3.30 Since the time of development has to be as short as possible, some companies do not look favourably on integrating social research, which is necessarily labour-intensive and time-consuming and can take from a few months to years. Social-scientific research also seems too expensive for companies (Dourish & Button, 1998; Sommerville et al., 1992; Viller & Sommerville, 1998b), a weakness it has in common with other consumer and user research. The scientific work model implies more or less the development of a theoretical framework, unless a pure 'grounded theory' approach is adopted. The quality of results also depends on preparation, which takes some time, whether in quantitative or qualitative methods. The research ideal requires that the research method be a consequence of the research question. Advanced statistical techniques or full transcription of field notes is not a common practice, because it is too expensive (Straus, 1991). This time- and labour-consuming aspect of research is part of sociologists' work culture and can prove a difficult fit within a company's framework.

3.31 Because we are part of society - our research subject - social scientists need to use an abstract meta- language to describe and analyse societies. When we compare the language of the actual actors in the product-development process, primarily designers, and the language of social scientists, they differ totally in purpose. Designers use a language that tries to design an object to support human behaviour. Social scientists use language to enlarge their understanding of human behaviour. An account of Lucy Suchman (2001) in the early days of collaboration illustrates the cultural difference between designers and social scientists. Designers expected that the social scientists would formulate the requirements. Sociologists and anthropologists found this impossible. The different conceptions of scientific knowledge production inhibited the possibility that the sociologists could hand 'results' to the designers. An additional problem is that the same terminology often has a different meaning in the different disciplines. For instance, the word 'system' means something different to a sociologist and a software designer. This different use increases the image of the non-applicability of sociology (Anderson, 1997).

3.32 Academic sociologists address most of their communication to peers, social-scientist colleagues. The pressure to publish in highly ranked journals does not stimulate an improvement in this attitude. Why commit precious time to vulgarize research results (Petrus & Adamek, 1988)? At the same time, non-academic sociologists, for example in marketing research, communicate their conclusions on a very specific research topic mainly to their client, who owns the research. They write down conclusions in very short, internal reports, most of the time accompanied by an oral presentation. Because of the limited scope and ownership of this research, there is almost no feedback to the discipline (Straus, 1991).

3.33 All these aspects amplify the difficulty one has in translating the detailed findings that are embedded in a particular situation into design principles (Dourish & Button, 1998; Sommerville et al., 1992; Viller & Sommerville, 1998b). In a preliminary response to how to handle this problem, within 'workplace studies' adapted techniques have developed to narrow the culture gap. As concurrent engineering gains popularity in product development in general, a concurrent ethnography model has developed. Within system design was found the approach of one preceding ethnographic research project. Several short explorative studies are completed at the start of the development process (quick and dirty ethnography). With these preliminary results as a foundation, the team decides in the 'debriefing meetings' on the research fields that will be considered for in-depth research. In these chosen fields, research continues parallel with the other aspects of the product-development process (concurrent ethnography). To evaluate the design, evaluative ethnography developed (Viller & Sommerville, 1998b; Rouncefield, 2000). This kind of labour organization produced some space for mutual learning and partial translations (Suchman, 2001). This approach need not be limited to ethnography; any research plan could adopt it. In addition, the researchers try to present the research results in a form and language designers are used to, for example, Unified Modelling Language (UML), a standard language for exchanging models in system design (Viller & Sommerville, 1998a). Since UML is limited to system design, analysing design languages of other design branches could prove interesting. The language problem is perhaps not so difficult to solve, though, because those who are surrounded by it spontaneously master the new language or discourse.

3.34 Within social science and sociology, ethics is a pressing question. It is at the core of the problem of the applicability of sociology (supra). Product development is ruled by making profit and by promoting consumption. Certainly, not all this consumption of products improves our quality of life, and it is the responsibility of the sociological practitioners to choose the company for which they want to work (Wasson, 2000). Working in a company context, it is the company's needs that primarily define the objectives. But whose interests should be given priority: the broader society, the customer or the company (Anderson, 1997)? A univocal answer is difficult to formulate. The sociological practitioner must evaluate case by case. One of the possible problem-solving strategies of a humanistic-oriented researcher is showing that the interests of the different parties in the long term do not have to contradict each other. Sociological practice takes into account the client's problem definition, but the sociological practitioners always construct their own definition after analysing the situation (supra). The one does not exclude the other (Suchman, 2001). How sociological practitioners will handle this problem depends on their organizational position. Are they linked to a scientific institution (e.g. a university) consulted for a specific project, working as a consultant for a different organization, working freelance, or employed by the company commissioning the research? The implications of different organizational positions require elaboration in further research.


4.1 Driven by the need to innovate to stay profitable, companies in our industrialized societies invest in extensive research on product development. The design team, including sociologists, integrates research on human aspects throughout the process. Besides the 'classic' market research role, user research has rediscovered ethnography as an innovative approach. Because the impact of a product on our quality of life is partially determined when constructed, sociological practitioners who desire to use their skills and knowledge to contribute to social change cannot avoid this issue.

4.2 This paper has made a provisional map, or a framework for future research, of the different reflections of sociologists and other stakeholders (e.g. designers and marketers) who are active in this process. We used the SWOT framework as an analytical tool.

4.3 The employment of social scientists by design and marketing firms for ethnographic field-work can be a good opportunity to show, for example, that sociologists are multi-talented, have a wide range of methodological and theoretical stock-in-trade, and are trained to look for multi-causal explanations, to give attention to the practices of different user groups, and to critically gaze at 'everyday life', preferably in its natural, everyday setting.

4.4 The attention given to human aspects can vary according to company characteristics (scale, kind of products, etc.), so more research on these characteristics could be useful. The attention to human aspects has increased with the rising adoption and awareness of concurrent-development models as a good product-development practice, a result of increasing pressure on time to market and the control dilemma.

4.5 The adoption of this model results in several other opportunities. Concurrent development promotes, for instance, multidisciplinary teamwork, a way of working in which a social scientist could be a close part of the development process from the earliest stages.

4.6 Secondly, the iterative procedures induced a new way of thinking about doing ethnographic research and in the long term about doing other social-scientific research in a more iterative way, with more room for intermediary dialogue, partial translations and evaluation based on results of work in progress. This is a way in which, especially within the field of system design and work-place studies, researchers have tried to overcome some weaknesses of academic-oriented social-scientific research: time and labour intensiveness, the different conceptions of knowledge creation, and the gap in language and communication practices.

4.7 Sociologists learn the attributes of the academic work culture during their academic training. This academic socialization implies a lower status for non-academic jobs. Because they cannot live up to the ideal, practitioners often prefer not to identify themselves as sociologists and instead take another professional identity. This is unfortunate for the discipline, because it loses an important source of feedback between theory and practice. The ethical considerations of sociologists working in a company setting, where the priority is making profit, are not limited to sociological practice. An excellent example of a recurring theme in this analysis is that the problems sociologists confront in this field are not limited to their discipline but often are concerns shared with the other social sciences in applying their knowledge and methods.


1 Historical overviews of the different labels and interpretations can be found in e.g. Clark (1990), Enriquez (1997), Fritz (1989; 1991) and Robinette (1992).

2 In this paper a sociologist is someone with a formal degree in sociology. However, other definitions could be used (e.g. Lemert, 2002)

3 'Ergonomics' is the term most commonly used in Europe, and 'human factors' is the concept usually applied in North America (Bannon, 1991).

4 All retrieved literature originated in the United States. Further research is needed to show how this type of work develops in other regions.

5 Of course product development stays 'a world of messy practice' (Henderson, 1998); these models are, after all, ideal types that originated in design theory.

6 This insight is based on the most recently available information from Eurostat on innovation for the period 1994-1996. Eurostat considers a company innovative if it launched a product or production process within the last three years that is new to the enterprise. Innovations are limited to technological innovations. Eurostat has taken into account only technological objective performance of the product, product process or method of delivery (DWTC, 2001; European Commission, 2001).


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