Doing Sociology – Funding, Teaching & Opportunities

Why (Not) to Commercialise Sociological Research Kathrin Komp-Leukkunen
In Simple Words About Your Complicated Research, or How to Present Yourself and Your Research to the Public(s) Katrin Tiidenberg

Why (Not) to Commercialise Sociological Research

Issue 43: Sociology Beyond Europe Mon 15 Jul 2019

Kathrin Komp-Leukkunen, University of Helsinki, Finland

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Sociological research is under pressure. Budget cuts at universities create the need to tap new funding sources. Many policymakers and university administrators suggest that a solution would be to raise funding through research commercialisation, meaning by turning research findings into goods and services that can be sold on the market. Such a practice is already established in the sciences, where it often takes on the form of cooperation with established companies, and the creation of spin-off companies. Now this practice is supposed to be spread to the other disciplines – among them sociology.

At first glance, it seems impossible to commercialise sociological research. After all, many sociological studies deal with topics such as social inequalities, poverty and social exclusion. These topics do not easily lend themselves to commercialisation. In fact, they describe the results of market failure. Therefore, it is no surprise that many sociologists consider their research impossible to commercialise. However, there are three cases in which sociological research can in fact lead to commercialisation. First, sociologists could study products or services. This approach usually means doing applied research on consumer acceptance or user friendliness. It brings sociologists into direct competition with consumer researchers and economists, and with the Research and Development divisions of established companies. Second, sociologists can study companies. This already happens in the sociology of work, for example. The difference now is that it would be mainly the companies who define the research questions. Third, sociologists can participate in multidisciplinary research projects that have the commercialisation of research findings as one of their aims. This constellation becomes increasingly common under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, which cut the budget explicitly designated to the social sciences and instead encourages research projects with economic impact that include social scientists. Here, sociologists would not necessarily be directly involved in the development of products or services. However, if they are, then they typically contribute to studying consumer acceptance and user friendliness.

While possibilities to commercialise sociological research exist, opinions on whether or not to utilise these possibilities differ. The proponents of commercialising are policymakers, university administrators, and consultants. They argue that commercialisation would generate revenues, thereby solving the funding dilemma that many universities currently face. Additionally, they stress that research commercialisation would give research more societal impact. It would let all of us benefit from better products, services, and workplaces. While these arguments are valid, many sociologists nevertheless take a critical stance towards the commercialisation of their research. A recent study [1] found that many sociologists feel that their research should draw attention to social problems and help to solve them. Moreover, they feel that the expansion of market forces is one of the root causes of current social problems. This perspective puts their research at odds with market interests - and therewith at odds with research commercialisation. Furthermore, most sociologists feel that the commercialisation of their research would take up too much time, leading them to neglect their academic duties. In times of “publish or perish” and regular evaluations, such a development could end academic careers.

These contradictory perspectives show that the commercialisation of sociological research has its pros and cons. It would solve the financial difficulties that academia is currently facing. However, it would also challenge the identity and self-understanding of sociologists and interfere with career progressions. Thereby, it transforms a structural problem into a problem of scientific content and staff. Due to this mechanism, the commercialisation of sociological research cannot be handled as a simple administrative matter. Instead, it needs to be accompanied by fundamental discussions about what sociology is and what role it should play in academia and society. Without such discussions, efforts to commercialise sociological research may appear illogical and incomprehensible, and they may create conflict.

[1] Komp, K. (2018). The commercialization of sociological research: On the how and why (not). European Societies, 20(4), 644-664.