I am often asked, “Why does a social scientist work for Monsanto?” That’s a good question. An even better question – and one I am asked even more often – is… What is a social scientist?
A social scientist is interested in relationships; relationships between people and relationships between people and the social environment (think ‘life’, ‘work’, ‘family’, etc). The social sciences cover a wide range of disciplines that including things like anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, language studies, psychology, and sociology. (Check out my background here)
Why the social sciences matter in today’s complex food environment
It’s no secret that there have been hits and misses in Monsanto’s communications history. For the longest time, Monsanto focused its communication efforts on its customers – the farmers, in addition to its shareholders and its employees. During the past several years however, people – consumers – started having new and often heated conversations about food and food production. There is a great deal of misinformation circulating out there about modern agriculture and, more often than not, Monsanto is often the ‘lightening rod’ in some very emotionally charged dialogues.
We realized that our greatest challenge may not be in advancing the technology; rather, in helping people understand the importance of that technology. We needed to engage in these conversations. Traditional communication models – ones that Monsanto relied on for so many years – just don’t work in our information-rich, social-media-driven world. We need to reach consumers in new and unexpected ways; we need to meet people where they are, virtually and in real life.
What does a social scientist – like me – contribute to a company like Monsanto?
My job at Monsanto is to help navigate the murky space of misinformation; to cultivate understanding as to what drives people’s perceptions and beliefs about food and food production. This means digging into the research on public perceptions, behavioral economics, human behavior, sociology of agriculture and food production and other related fields. I am also a resource for my colleagues here at Monsanto to help find new and better ways to reach out to and engage people in conversations that are meaningful.
Humans make decisions or form conclusions in interesting ways. What we think we are talking about isn’t always what we are talking about. Confused? Me too. For example, we might think that we know all about topic “A”, while not even knowing anything about the related and important items of “B” or “C”. Even still, we move on to form conclusions at point “D” – because “D” confirms our biases and “D” reflects the shared understandings of our close, personal networks. Suddenly, though, the dialogue takes a turn! It has moved way, way past “E” and, sadly, “E” may be where the important conversations should take place!
It’s pretty easy to get distracted by the low-hanging fruit of misinformation and our confirmation biases. We all do it. But food production and food security is about more than just GMOs (think ‘food waste and storage’, ‘climate change’, ‘distribution’, etc). We need to work past our biases if we are to resolve some of our most pressing food security problems.We are all consumers. We need to connect with one another in meaningful ways and, more importantly, we at Monsanto need to reach out and collaborate with multiple stakeholders. Science just isn’t enough. If we lead with the science, we quickly lose the ‘social’ so it’s hard for people to relate to us and for us to build trust. We need to broaden our conversations to include our stories; the “why” behind our science. We need to identify what’s missing in our conversations about food and food security because back-and-forth debates that polarize don’t really serve the public good.
In our society, food is so much more than sustenance. I once heard food referred to as a “universe.” There’s no doubt that food is an important part of the social fabric for all societies. It is the gathering place where we connect as human beings and where we share stories. Understanding the complex, fascinating, colorful, ever-changing “food universe” is an important part of my work as a social scientist at Monsanto.
This is why I work for Monsanto and this is why I love my job.
(For more insights into me, my work, check out my virtual chat with Katie Pinke)