Sociological imagination and disciplinary orientation in applied social research

5 October 2011

Scientific context and motivation.

Research question.

The significance of sociology outside academia has been a recurring concern within the discipline. In our project we will investigate the mutual relevance of sociology and market research as it is currently accomplished in research centers in the cities of Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca – the two largest centers for University education in social sciences in Romania. Starting from practitioners’ accounts of professional expertise and search for quality in market research, we aim to jointly reconstruct the bearing of sociology and sociological imagination in an applied research arena which employs a significant proportion of sociology graduates in a highly competitive field.

In the following sections we shall answer three questions: Why study market research? Why look after disciplinary orientations? Why pursue sociological imagination? Finally, we position our research within the broader field of scholarly investigation of market research.

Scientific context: studies of science in applied and corporate settings.

There is a rich body of social research investigating the production of scientific knowledge. The most heated debates have centered on the contingent social construction of nature sciences in local interaction situations (Collins, 1983; Fine, 1996; K. D. Knorr-Cetina, 1982; Karin D. Knorr-Cetina, 1981; Krohn & van den Daele, 1998; Latour & S. Woolgar, 1986; Shapin, 1995). The detailed descriptions of science-in-the-making advanced by empirical investigations in research sites, especially in laboratory studies, has inspired a sociology of social scientific knowledge that is simultaneously attentive to symmetries of natural, social and other kinds of knowledge, on the one hand, and to assymetries between strands of sociological inquiry (Leahey, 2008; Maynard & Schaeffer, 2000), on the other hand. Sociological research on science, including sociologies of sociology,  are drawn to reflexively discuss the epistemic specificity and legitimacy of sociology itself. Our project takes over the understanding of the heterogeneous, situational and interactional production of scientific knowledge and employs it as a foundation for the investigation of corporate market research in Romania. We thus relate to the research manifesto formulated by Penders, Verbakel, and Nelis (2009) with regards to the social study of corporate science.

Our field of scrutiny, market research in Romania, is a Cinderella of science, displaying manifold signs of weakness: an applied knowledge pursuit of for-profit organizations serving other commercial clients, with a mosaic of instruments and theoretical models crossing academic disciplines, organized in an East-European country. At the same time, the very features that indict market research as problematic from a normative positivist perspective also render it an important subject matter for social inquiries: it produces actionable knowledge about social actions, and it is consequential for corporate business decisions, thus partaking in the creation of our material and organizational environments.

A preliminary inquiry into the professional orientation of present-day Romanian market research institutes, based on a review of their web-sites and several brief discussions with researchers and managers, indicates three relevant organizational features: client diversity (marketing departments that serve a single organization vs. research companies with multiple clients), size, and affiliation to international corporations. Large companies offer a variety of services employing both qualitative and quantitative methods, while some of the smaller ones are specialised in a specific type of methodology. Market research institutes may be part of larger international corporations. In this case, they are significantly oriented towards a shared corporate research approach.

Present day market researchers in Romania have various educational backgrounds. Most of them have graduated marketing, sociology, psychology, and other social sciences. The disciplinary background of the research team is often presented on the company web site, which represents an indicator of its significance, at minimum for public relations.

Why search for sociological imagination and sociological orientations in market research? We understand sociological imagination as a powerful resource that may be deployed in the applied research of human behavior, with non-trivial influences on research results. Although it is influential, sociological imagination is not indispensable; it is actually a contingent orientation of research, in applied as well as academic settings. Granted that it is an available, relevant, forceful but fortuitous property, we set forth to re-define it and observe it empirically in the research setting of current Romanian market research.

Our project searches for sociological orientations in an area of corporate social research. Therefore, we face a double challenge: firstly, to differentiate between sociological and alternative research inclinations, and secondly, to observe disciplinary orientations and sociological imagination in a research field which is arguably even less oriented towards scientific disciplines than academic research itself.

That disciplinary classifications are still part of current academic vocabularies hardly needs to be argued. They are invoked to classify as well as to challenge the possibility of classification, to bring together strands of research or to mark distinctions, to define and to cross borders. At the same time, scientific disciplines, in particular their specificity and effectiveness, have been a topic of social research and, consequently, a matter of controversy. Studies of the relevance of disciplinary classifications in scientific and academic work challenge the ideas that disciplines have a shared theoretical and methodological core, or that they significantly orient research work (Knorr-Cetina 1982; Turner 2000). This strand of literature invites theoretical reflection and empirical investigations into the question of the bearing of disciplines and specialties on actual research work – in academic or applied knowledge.

Since Mills (1961) formulated the sociological imagination, which he then defined as the capacity “to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals” (p. 5), the phrase has practically become one of the memorable brands of the sociological profession. It is part of standard readings in the university curriculum, and professors refer to it as a core skill or as a benchmark in presenting the discipline in a critical moral philosophy to potential future members, namely college students (see for example Eckstein, Schoenike, & Delaney, 1995; Haddad & Lieberman, 2002; Kain, 1999). Sociological imagination is invoked to discuss extant sociological authors or approaches  (Bramham, 2001; Edwards, 2002; Reid, 1983; Rose, 1969) and also to propose novel orientations in doing sociology, such as Denzin’s minimalist social texts (Denzin, 1990), Fraser’s quest for a bridge between real and virtual problems (Fraser, 2009), or, in a radical project, Fuller’s anthropo-focused “New Sociological Imagination” (Fuller, 2006). Of most relevance for our project, sociological imagination is used to discuss sociological thinking beyond clear disciplinary borders, for example in earlier centuries (Bayatrizi, 2009) or for authors in other disciplines, such as psychology (Scott & Thorpe, 2006), social psychology (Gecas, 1989) or epidemiology (Eaton, 1994). The heuristic value of the concept derives precisely from its concerted use as a disciplinary lens on knowledge, granted that the resulting perspectives share a family resemblance rather than a common core.

As we argue above, sociological imagination has been theorized and sought after as a disciplinary mark for sociology, while being imputed to authors across a broad disciplinary landscape in social and human research. Sociological imagination does not require an explicit disciplinary affiliation any more than psychological insight or historical perspective taking. Therefore, we will investigate it together with, but analytically independent of the issue of explicit disciplinary orientations towards sociology in market research.

Our questioning tools, the concepts of “sociological disciplinary orientation” and “sociological imagination”, pertain both to the field of academic social research. So does the research team, and the current research project. Therefore, we find ourselves part of a consistent tradition of scholarly reflection on applied social research and, specifically, in the plentiful thread of work that relates academic and practitioner knowledge in market research.

In the intense debate on actual and possible relationships between corporate market research and academic scholarship, authors discuss possibilities and impossibilities of mutual relevance, while charting and explaining differences and similarities (Baines, Brennan, Gill, & Mortimore, 2009; Brannick & Coghlan, 2006; Brennan, 2004; Brinberg & Hirschman, 1986; Calof & Wright, 2008; Catterall, 1998; Cornelissen, 2002; Razzaque, 1998; Shugan, 2004). Comparisons direct attention to differences in the research situations between applied and academic social research, invoking, among others, heterogeneous research questions, strategies, and success criteria, audiences, available resources and constraints, literary genres in reporting results, and ethical risks.

We are particularly interested in the theoretical orientations of applied social research and market research in particular. Previous research on theories in marketing has mainly discussed theory as a prerequisite of research design, looking for example at differences between practitioners and academics in theorizing styles (Cornelissen, 2002), in affinity towards a positivist/empirist or a relativist/constructivist epistemology (Razzaque, 1998), in understanding the value of qualitative research (Catterall, 1998), or in research paths that connect concepts, methods and empirical evidence (Brannick & Coghlan, 2006; Brinberg & Hirschman, 1986). The substantive theories that orient marketing research have been discussed mostly in the context of its disciplinary classification; for example, MacInnis and Folkes  (2010) argue that consumer behavior research is a multidisciplinary subfield of marketing, identifying as its main theoretical strands the behavioral decision theory, information processing psychology and consumer culture theory (p. 910). Hoffman and Holbrook (2007) discuss the disciplinary focus of academic consumer research, distinguishing the “more macro level of sociology or anthropology” from the “more micro level of cognitive psychology” (p. 514). Notably, the so-called micro- or interactionist perspectives of sociology and anthropology are not mentioned in both analyses. Humanistic, hermeneutic or social constructivist approaches are often proposed for marketing research (see for example Arnold & Fischer, 1994; Goulding, 2005; Hirschman, 1986) – but it is not clear how and if they are used in practice, mainly because there is little research on practitioners’ substantive theoretical orientations. Our project aims to fill this gap.


This project investigates substantive theoretical orientations in market research, by looking at disciplinary orientations and instances of sociological imagination. We employ two concepts that are systematically used and contested in sociologists’ talk and sociological analyses; both “disciplines” and the “sociological imagination” have been at the forefront of re-constructive debates on the distinctiveness of the profession. Our methodology relies primarily on single occasion and repeated interviews with practitioners, joined by research workshops bringing together practitioners and academics, documentary analysis of research texts and textbooks, and observation in market research organizations – thus following a rich thread of sociological investigation of science via scientists’ accounts (N. Gilbert & Mulkay, 1980; Lee & Roth, 2004; Mitroff, 1974; Mulkay & G. N. Gilbert, 1982){Please_Select_Citation_From_Mendeley_Desktop}, and methodological inquiries into the kinds of knowledge accesible by such methods (such as in Karin D. Knorr-Cetina, 1981; Mulkay & G. Nigel Gilbert, 1983; S. W. Woolgar, 1976; Yearley, 1988).

Therefore, our research has four specific objectives:

1) To generate operational and observable definitions of disciplinary orientation and sociological imagination;

2) To study empirically the sociological orientations observed in the accounts of market research practitioners, thus contributing to a sociological description of the actionable sociological theory employed in this particular field of applied research;

3) To understand and explain the situational relevance of sociology in market research: what are the problems, topics, methods, resources, or other features of the research situation that support or inhibit a sociological orientation?

4) To contribute to social research methodology, in particular to the discussions on studies of scientific research relying on practitioners’ accounts.

This project is an innovative approach to the much-discussed problem of theoretical approaches in market research. It is important because it brings theoretical flesh and details to a debate which has been, until now, mostly centered on the epistemological assumptions and methodological implications of theory, and less on the actual models of the social world called upon in market research. Our project is also important because it refers to a recurrent topic of sociological reflection: what are the theoretical issues at stake in applied social research – a problem discussed by classical sociologists such as Gouldner (1957), Lazarsfeld (1959) or Coleman (1986). Last but not least, the project has applicative value for designing sociology curricula and for developing interactionally-aware research designs in marketing, as discussed in the next section.

We propose a novel concept as analytical tool when researching the sociological orientation of market research: the interactional imagination. As a starting point in our approach, we define the interactional imagination as a researcher’s disposition to attend to the situational and interactional accomplishment of social action. Following the sociological debates on the specificity and autonomy of an interaction order (Goffman, 1983; Warfield Rawls, 1987), we propose the concept of interactional imagination as a sub-type of sociological imagination which may be consequential for understanding the production of scientific knowledge in research sites (K. D. Knorr-Cetina, 1982) and for the daily professional decisions of social researchers, both in qualitative or quantitative investigations, academic or applied.

Sociological imagination, and interactional imagination in particular, may aptly be studied in relation to two core scientific constructs in marketing research: motivation, in the theoretical register, and focus group investigations, in the methodological register. The two constructs have a prominent position in market research, they have been distinctively developed in sociology, as well as in other disciplines, and they confront the practitioner with a wide repertoire of possible interpretations and decisions in research design.

Research on motives has figured prominently in market research since its very beginnings, both in psychologically unsophisticated surveys (Wagner, 1938) and in innovative theoretical developments. The motivational research school of Ernest Dichter has been “the most significant area of consumer research in the 1950s” (Stern, 2004), and research on motives has continued to develop after its decline, in various theoretical frameworks. In the meanwhile, between Wagner’s (1938) critical discussion of reliance of motives in market research and Dichter’s development of motivational research, Mills (1940) published his influential work on “Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive”, which has shaped research on motives across the discipline.  His focus on motives as shared vocabularies, methodically used to render action intelligible to oneself and to others, has later been taken further in arguments that motives are of interest in sociology only as a methodical activity of motive ascription (Blum & McHugh, 1971), and it has been critiqued for initiating an unjustifiable displacement of motives from sociological analyses (Campbell, 1996). Despite their clear potential to serve as an argument against a search for internal, private states that act as resorts for action (see for example Hopper, 2001), vocabularies of motive are also employed in research that relies on a conception of action driven by causally antecedent motives (Corey & Wilson, 1994; Monaghan, 2002). Sociological reflection on motives is relevant for understanding consumer choices (see also the discussion of Campbell, 1998 on the rhetoric of need and want) and for understanding conversations about motives, including interview questions (Bolden & Robinson, 2011)  – with undeniable methodological significance. Therefore, an empirical inquiry into the theoretical and methodological treatment of motives in current market research is a particularly germane approach in searching for disciplinary orientations and sociological imagination.

If motives have constituted a theoretical benchmark for market research, focus groups have been at the core of its methodological repertoire, in particular in the qualitative approaches. There is a wealth of theoretically-laden methodological discussion of this research method, which comes in a variety of designs, purposes, and interpretations (Boddy, 2005; Morgan, 1996). Focus groups may be used as a “quick and cheap” way of gathering opinions or attitudes (Catterall, 1998, p. 72) or as a delicately balanced method for understanding interactional dynamics and situationally generated orders (Kitzinger, 1994). Consequently, the method is often discussed, also in consumer research, with reference to misuse and misinterpretation (Threlfall, 1999). As a research tool with sociological tradition and rich interactional relevance, focus groups offer an opportunity for understanding the sociological and interactional imagination at work in market research.

Method and approach.

Our project consists of a sociological research on disciplinary orientations and sociological imagination in market research, in the cities of Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca. We will rely mostly on practitioners’ accounts of their research work, in individual and group discussions. Whenever possible, given constraints of confidentiality in corporate market research, we shall also engage in observation of research sites and activities, and documentary analysis of research reports and handbooks.

The project makes use of recent developments in the field of qualitative data analysis (QDA), by employing dedicated software (such as NVivo) to highlight structures in practitioners’ accounts, change patterns in repeated interviews, and shared vocabularies of research practice (Bazeley, 2007). We integrate QDA techniques with a theoretical understanding of interview interactions and account analysis, in order to take full advantage of this research technique without reifying its results (Bourdon, 2002; Johnston, 2006).

In order to define and observe sociological orientations and to understand their situational variability, the research project includes several activities:

1. Literature review: the exploratory phase creates a shared team background for initial research design, while continuous literature analysis supports instrument design and data analysis and interpretation;

2. Definition of the research universe and respondent selection: the research universe is specified in the first research semester, and respondents are selected in accordance with theoretical criteria; the sample is adjusted in the first two months of each following year, on the basis of interview information. We will interview 40-60 practitioners in market research, with a minimum work experience of two years. Approximately 15 interviews will be repeated after one year, in order to jointly assess the team’s interpretation of data and to follow changes in the respondents’ professional orientation;

3. Instrument development and revision: interview guide, discussion guide for research workshops;

4. Empirical inquiry and data collection:

a) Individual, face-to-face interviews: interviews include an unstructured, open discussion on research orientation and practices, and a second stage of structured discussion following the interview guide; a subsample of respondents will be selectd for a second interview, within the next 18 months;

b) Organization of visits to research centers, in order to observe market research activities and environments;

c) Collection of practitioners’ research reports for documentary analysis;

5. Data organization and archival, using qualitative data analysis software;

6. Data analysis and interpretation, based on regular team meetings and individual reflection;

7. Organization of research workshops that provide dissemination and feed-back on project results and an occasion for in-depth dialogical exploration of core ideas and concepts. In each project year we will organize two workshops, including several stages: the ellaboration of a Call for contributions, dissemination, participant recruiting and selection, workshop discussions, and a post-event analysis meeting;

8. Elaboration of research reports and scientific publications: we will ellaborate and submit for publication a review article on the use of the sociological imagination as a disciplinary tool, and two articles based on the project’s empirical inquiry. The articles will be finalized in a first version and submitted for publication in the first twelve months of the project, and they will be revised taking into account subsequent project developments and empirical evidence, in addition to journal peer review reports. We will also ellaborate a Guide for teaching sociological imagination for marketing researchers, as a support for curriculum development in Sociology and Anthropology departments.

9. Project management: monitoring and coordinating research activities, financial management, reporting;

10. Communication and dissemination: a) online, via the web site; b) in research workshops; c) in conferences and seminars (at least 6 national presentations and 6 international presenations); d) in scientific publications (at least 3 research articles and 1 curriculum guide).

 Impact, relevance, applications.

The main scientific impact of this project consists in developing a sociological understanding of theory use and theoretical orientation in market research – as regards disciplinary distinctions and sociological imagination. The project will ellaborate the concept of interactional imagination, and it will assess its theoretical value. Our research will also support the ellaboration of a methodological reflection and report on analyzing interviews with practitioners, including repeated interviews, in order to understand applied social research.

Based on our inquiry, we will propose a curriculum module for sociology departments aimed at market researchers and other applied research practitioners. This contribution to curriculum development will support students’ understanding and meaningful use of sociological imagination in applied social research.


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