Man, By Nature, is a Social Animal

How social science may help develop the future of understanding clients

Aristotle can be a thinker for business too. His wise words have stuck with us for more than 2000 years. Why? Because we should try to understand our clients as they understand themselves … as human beings. Social Science may be the future of KYC and business development.

The value of the social thinker, the liberal arts major, and the social scientist have been understated in many arenas and for many years. The private sector employers, often giving favour to business thinkers and proponents of the scientific method (the chemists, biologists, physicists, medical physiologists, etc.), understate the importance of really, authentically understanding their client’s needs and the power of social scientific methods to do so.

Just recently, progressive marketing, design, and consulting firms are beginning to understand that their clients are not just consumers, they are humans, people, family-members, and products of years of cultural, social, and familial interactions. Firms like ReD Associates are beginning to develop powerful business models that take advantage of the expertise of anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists. These thinkers employ philosophical methodologies developed over hundreds of years to best understand the social world, motivations and constraints of the people within it, and relative importances of each motivation or constraint in making typically unpredictable behaviour increasingly more predictable. Isn’t this what businesses who care about KYC (know your client), and understanding consumers at their most authentic levels care about? It doesn’t seem to be catching on — at least not now. In fact, the movement toward better practices for understanding client (human) needs seems to be snagging on traditional marketing and business development mindsets that reject the real utility of the human sciences, or social sciences, to understand the human. Here it seems logical, but a paradigm shift takes time and better understanding of the power of insights from social/human science.

In many ways, traditional methodology for gathering information and understanding client needs relies on data, market research, and competitive analysis — methods that use similar philosophies of ‘what can we know’ and ‘how we can know it’ as science and the scientific method. That is, we ask a question, we analyze the data for trends, and we determine that one thing either causes or correlates to another (much simplified). This approach is helpful and gets at answers to questions that hold to certain circumstances. However, the world is much more complex than that, human lives and motivations — which, if understood, greatly increase opportunity for producers — are part of a complex set of relationships understood not by these ‘traditional’ methods tailored to consumers but by a set of new and more diverse methods tailored to humans.

Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill Restaurant in New York City and author of New York Times Bestseller The Third Plate, puts the benefits clearly. He writes, “Science teaches us that the answer to understanding the complexity of something is to break it into component parts. Like classical cooking, it insists that things need to be precisely measured and weighed. But interactions and relationships … cannot be measured or weighed. I found, for example, that the health of an aquaculture farm in southern Spain is connected to how we treat our soil, and that how we treat our soil determines, to a considerable extent, how we grow our grain, especially wheat, which is impossible to separate from how we choose our bread.” While Barber describes a set of relationships within agriculture and food, this may lead you to believe it has nothing to do with people, business, or clients. In reality, the lesson is the same made with a different example. the social world, what governs how people feel, think, act, and identify themselves as, is a set of complex relationships and interactions, as Barber describes. These relationships stretch beyond the bounds of scientific, corelationsal, bi-, or even multi-variable analysis. Understanding these relationships as a picture of behaviour and expectation requires what firms like ReD Associates are doing — employing those who know how to observe, learn about, and draw insights from human behaviours.

To use an example, Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen’s piece in the Harvard Business Review, An Anthropologist Walks into a Bar…, illustrates just one occasion when a group of social anthropologists, social scientists who study meaningful cultural practices, norms, commonalities through philosophical emphasis on observation as information-gathering, relative meaning as opposed to absolute meaning of data, and interpretivism as epistemology. That means that what information is gathered must be subject to interpretation. A wink in one culture may not mean the same as a wink in another. In fact, they may mean two very different things. This is just an abstract, theoretical take on the philosophical methods of the anthropologist the authors present. In this case, they are tasked with understanding why a beer company was observing falling bar and pub sales despite favour of products and increased store sales.

Where market research, competitive analysis and so on failed to reveal any coherent answer, the social scientists gathered data in the form of raw footage. They observed bar-goers as though they were members of a foreign tribe with an unknown culture. What they found was amply helpful for the beer company in understanding how its beer brand interacted with the system of the bar itself. The authors explain, “In time, patterns emerged. Although BeerCo had thought that bar owners valued its promotional materials — coasters, stickers, T-shirts, and so on — in fact those items were at best underused, at worst treated with derision (in one bar, a researcher found them crammed inside a cupboard and labeled “box of crap”). The team also discovered that female servers felt trapped in their jobs and resented having to be flirtatious, an experience they referred to as being “hot pantsed.” What’s more, they knew very little about BeerCo’s products and didn’t want to know any more — and yet they were a primary channel for sales.”

A deeper, ‘cultural’ understanding of the social world of the bar led to a beneficial understanding of how a brand fits into it.

To put more clearly what social science research is: it is a set of paradigms or frameworks that allow a researcher to understand the seemingly indeterminate nature of the social world; why people act how they act individually, in groups, when representing various things, in various positions. Unlike scientific research, social scientists have a choice of a diverse set of frameworks that emphasize various beliefs about the nature of the social world. Here they are listed:

  1. Positivism — the social world determined much like the natural world. What we can see exists and what we cannot does not. Using data to represent the social world is preferable and beneficial. Reality exists independent of the observer meaning two people observe the same world.
  2. Social Realism — the social world is made up of observable and unobservable things because those that are not observable have observable affects (for example, nations, cultures etc. much like gravity or physical forces).
  3. Interpretivism — the social world is not like the natural world. It means different things to different observers based on the point of view of that observer. Qualities are more important that quantities.
  4. Post-modernism — the social world is not like the natural world. Reality is dependent on who is observing meaning two people have different conceptions of reality and the world. People and their beliefs are products not of rational choice but of discourse, what is communicated, the environment, and the external social world.

The further we go in this list, the less determinate the world seems. Many brush this off as philosophical nonsense that has no bearing on the real world. However, all four of these frameworks yield undeniably helpful understandings of how people feel and act. The 4th in the list, post-modernism is the umbrella by which standpoint feminism was created. In our example with the beer sales, an acknowledgement that the world is not experienced in the same way for everyone led to the conclusion that the waitresses felt subjugated by their jobs and the roles they were forced to play. It is not unreasonable to conceive of this standpoint as having important implications for the marketing and the sale of the beer in pubs. How is the standpoint of waitresses, as distinct from those of the bartenders or managers, to be represented in the data? Insight into this avenue requires a framework that is less positivistic and determinate because different people live different lives.

This short piece has offered some insight into how social science can offer utility to those looking to develop better understandings of consumers — since those consumers are people with human concerns and tendencies. This task requires a well-educated social scientist. The firms of the future will come out of traditional market research methodologies and recognize that the social scientist can make money through insights into complex relationships and interactions between people and their preferences.

In the future that I envision, social science students will be coveted experts of the most important thing in the world of business — people. Their skills in understanding at a deep level the things that make us, social animals, think, act, move, and want what we do will be in high demand. They will connect beer producers to those who drink, serve, talk, and love beer. They will develop relationships between artistic visions and those who develop web software. They will connect the hockey player with the designer of a sedan producer. Diluting people to consumers is just not where we are heading.

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