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

4 min readOct 14, 2020
hospitality social science

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

This is the second article in a two-part series on hospitality as a higher education program.

In the first part of this series, we examined how social sciences such as hospitality management are vastly different and less wieldy in practice than their hard science counterparts. However, in spite of this difference, there are many learning theories that lend themselves to effective social science development and which hospitality educators use to drive student learning.

The Double-Loop Learning Theory

One such theory is called Double-Loop Learning (DLL), first proposed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön in 1978. DLL involves working toward a learning goal while simultaneously questioning the goal’s relevance and merit. Through DLL, students develop ambidexterity with their critical thinking skills to both understand the desired outcome and to maximize its realization.

Students in hospitality classes are often grouped and tasked with a project. For example, in a sales and marketing class, students might be asked to create a marketing plan for a hospitality company that improves the business. By leaving the parameters undefined, these type of projects allow students to evaluate the meaning and value of a goal. In this case, students must parse what “improvements in the business” means and how much it matters.

Leaving the method undefined allows students to experiment how best to go about achieving the goal. Here, students must determine how improvement is measured and what marketing tactics would best produce the desired result. In the hospitality industry, factors such as target market size, demographics, and perceptions can be extremely volatile, so DLL helps students to think not just about the ends, but also about the means and how well they relate to the ends.

The Experiential Learning Theory

Another popular theory is Experiential Learning (EL), developed by David Kolb in 1984. In EL, students are exposed to experiences and then directed to reflect upon those experiences, analyze them for lessons that possess future utility and then apply those lessons to new experiences in order to test their efficacy.

An example of how this theory is used in the hospitality context will serve to illustrate. Imagine Allie, a hospitality student enrolled in a culinary class as part of her degree program.

During one of her classes, her chef instructor demonstrates how to prepare Eggs Benedict. Then Allie is given an opportunity to experiment on her own with the steps of the process. When she practices, she overcooks the eggs and realizes that the problem was caused by her setting the heat too high.

After seeing the outcome, Allie makes a mental note that the temperature prescribed in the recipe is very important. Later, at the end of the course, she is asked to cook Eggs Benedict as part of a practical exam. She remembers to adjust the heat, and the end product is perfect.

In the hospitality industry, many professional roles, such as culinary arts, require a great attention to detail. Experiential Learning allows students to master such details by making mistakes and learning from them.

The Meaningful Learning Theory

A third useful theory in hospitality education is Meaningful Learning (ML), a concept proposed on its own by David Ausubel in 1977, but also an integral part of Knowles’s Adult Learning Theory (Andragogy) developed in 1970. ML posits that new knowledge is most effectively introduced when it is tied to the learner’s existing knowledge. Knowles’s Andragogy proposes that adults bring life experiences and knowledge to new learning opportunities, and that further learning is best served when a connection is made between the former and the latter.

In the hospitality industry, many skills build upon one another in a hierarchical fashion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the accounting discipline. Therefore, many university hospitality programs take a tiered approach to the accounting curriculum so as to build upon foundational principles with more advanced concepts.

As just one example, at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, undergraduate hospitality students are required to complete three levels of accounting and finance coursework.

The first course, Hospitality Accounting I, introduces students to the uniform system of accounts for businesses and how to effectively manage them.

The next level course, Hospitality Accounting II, introduces students to such concepts as operating statements, budgets, and analytical tools used by department heads and general management in the industry to monitor business performance. Operating statements such as balance sheets are essentially a compilation of the accounts learned in the first-level course, so we can already see the tiered strategy at work.

The third and last course, Hospitality Finance, exposes students to the world of financial markets, asset valuation, and feasibility and appraisal in the hospitality industry. These learning objectives require the use of the very same accounts and operating statements learned and applied in the first two courses; thus, they build even further on the foundational skills.

The knowledge needs of accounting professionals in the hospitality industry become more varied and complex as professionals climb the career ladder. So the ML approach to hierarchical accounting skills development is well suited for this task.

In summary, education in social sciences such as hospitality is a very different undertaking from education in other fields such as the hard sciences. However, there is a wide variety of robust learning theories, including Double-Loop Learning, Experiential Learning, and Meaningful Learning, that can be taught in hospitality curricula to produce the greatest likelihood of career success for hospitality graduates.

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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