Hospitality Is a Social Science: What Does That Mean? (Part I)

hospitality social science

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

This is the first of a two-part article on hospitality as a social science.

Hospitality education differs from other disciplines such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) in that hospitality is a social science, a discipline that studies the interactions of people. STEM programs, on the other hand, study what are commonly referred to as “hard sciences” that deal mainly with the dynamics of other phenomena such as the workings of matter, numbers theories, artificial intelligence and the like.

This distinction is important, because social sciences and hard sciences are vastly different. Hard sciences in many cases have established solid theoretical foundations, so solid in fact that they are referred to as laws.

Take physics, for example, where one finds that heat transfer is governed by the laws of thermodynamics, planetary motion is governed by Newton’s laws of motion, and even the volume of matter is bound by the more than 2,000-year-old Archimedes Principle. This is due to the nature of the phenomena being studied — variables that are changeable at will in the sense that you can make something larger, smaller, hotter, or cooler. Yet they remain identifiable and consistent, and thus predictable.

Variables Can’t Always Be Controlled When It Comes to Humans

Consider an experiment investigating the characteristics of a rock. We can learn much about a rock from initial observation. We can weigh it and determine its mass. We can measure the dimensions of the rock and determine its volume. We can use a spectrometer to determine its molecular composition. We can use a thermometer to determine the rock’s temperature.

Second, we can also change a number of variables. We could heat the rock or cool it by changing its temperature. We could break the rock into smaller pieces, changing its physical structure and shape. We could even throw the rock in any direction, altering its vector, velocity, acceleration and momentum. Thus, there is indeed a multitude of variables with respect to the rock.

However, the revealing thing about our rock experiment is that, if we make a concerted effort to control all outside stimuli (heat, force and others), we can predict with a reasonable degree of certainty that the rock’s physical characteristics will remain constant. In other words, if we hold the environment constant, then — ignoring radioactive decay and quantum uncertainty—the rock will be the same rock tomorrow in every respect.

The same can hardly be said for humans. Consider a social scientist’s experiment to investigate the perceptions of guests about a new restaurant in their hotel. To be sure, we can certainly make great efforts to control all the variables, as geologists do with rocks. However, how can we measure the effects of the given stimuli of the new restaurant?

By Observing Human Interactions from Afar, We Can Infer Certain Perceptions

We could observe patrons’ interactions with the restaurant from a distance, and infer certain perceptions. But often such inferences are speculative at best, as body language and other visual and verbal cues can mask true thoughts and feelings. So instead, perhaps we could simply ask our subjects about their perceptions.

Every good social scientist knows that a virtually endless list of biases threatens the integrity of human responses:

· Do the subjects understand what we are asking?

· Do they understand why we are asking?

· Do they have any reason to be dishonest with their response?

· Do they have any reason to believe that we are being dishonest about the purpose of our research?

We know that human comprehension and reasoning can affect the reliability, accuracy and honesty of responses. Rocks, on the other hand, are incapable of comprehension, let alone ulterior motives.

Let’s assume the subjects understand our question, trust the integrity of our research and choose to answer the questions honestly. But what is “honesty” in the social science context? Perhaps one of our subjects had a bad experience in a restaurant with similar ambience, name, logo and aromas. Perhaps another of our subjects is displeased with the hotel in which the new restaurant is located, and by virtue of association, judges the eatery harshly. Perhaps yet another subject is a member of a loyalty program with the company that operates the restaurant, and uses this relationship as a factor in his or her opinion.

The Unique History of Humankind Will Inevitably Diminish the Objectivity of Any Perception

Social scientists know without question that the unique history of human beings — their experiences and what they take away from them — will inevitably diminish the objectivity of any given perception. This change in objectivity occurs whether or not we want it to or whether we even know when and where it’s happening.

Finally, let’s assume that our subjects are somehow able to understand the question, and they answer both honestly and objectively. What about the circumstances under which the question is asked? Are there other subjects around? Are they answering as a group? What if the opinion of one subject or a group affects the perceptions of others? Social science group dynamics research tells us that responses can change considerably as a result of factors such as peer pressure.

Compared to the hard sciences, it should be of no surprise, of course, to hear social sciences generally described as a less than exact discipline. The noted difficult-to-control variables, along with a multitude of others such as age, gender, education, location and social status, make social sciences immeasurably more challenging to “pin down.”

However, social science education programs are not without hope. In the second part of this series, we’ll look at how hospitality teachers leverage scientific theory to help cultivate meaningful learning for hospitality students.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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