Photo by Mark Morgan, Flickr CC.
Photo by Mark Morgan, Flickr CC.

In the literary world, New York Times Bestseller is a coveted and sought-after label. When that gold sticker is slapped on the cover of a book, authors and publishers alike are likely to be happy campers, and there are few surefire ways to create buzz about a particular work than Bestseller status.

Brandeis sociology professor Laura Miller weighs in on a piece in Hopes&Fears where the stickiness of the New York Times Bestseller label is discussed. Miller states “People assume that if everyone else is reading a book then it ought to be good.”

Indeed, this peer-pressure style marketing is what makes the Bestseller label so desired. It’s basically an endorsement from a huge number of everyday people—but the formula isn’t that simple. As explained in the article, the New York Times Bestseller label was created in 1931, when editors would take random samples of book sales from undisclosed vendors to gauge the popularity of particular manuscripts. In the modern era, the process has become murkier. Discussing the process in determining Bestseller status today, Miller explains:

Once you got online bookselling, anyone and everyone was selling a book… you can’t have millions of retail establishments giving data to the Times. That means they have to ask for a sample of the different kinds of places that are selling books… While the actual reporting of sales from those particular places might be more accurate than in the past, the ability to get an accurate sample is actually more difficult.

In the past, while the accuracy of the data from book vendors was imperfect, gathering a representative sample of book market transactions was easier—there were fewer potential vendors. Today, though, selection process of specific vendors for Bestseller sampling purposes is tightly controlled, so that publishers and authors can’t artificially inflate their book sales at particular stores or retailers in order to boost their likelihood of Bestseller status. Whatever the process, however, it will have to further contend with new forms of book purchases, such as e-book and Kindle sales. Either way, authors and publishers will still wait with bated breath: Is it a Bestseller?

You've got to know how your product is used. Photo by FourTwentyTwo via
You’ve got to know how your product is used. Photo by FourTwentyTwo via

The era of bothersome consumer surveys and robo-calls may be coming to a close, as these shallow techniques of data collection just don’t cut it in the information age. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood describes a growing trend in market research: big business hiring social scientists to do fieldwork. Corporations have long researched the quantitative aspects of their sales, but qualitative knowledge about the use of the products has been somewhat limited. Social scientists and those business researchers known as “consumer behavior” (vs. “quantitative”) economists—long since part of the business discussions within academia—are now being hired to uncover how products are used, as well as who uses them and how those users feel about the products.

After realizing that they new little about the home consumption of their product, for instance, Absolut Vodka commissioned ReD, a forerunner in what we might think of as anthropological market research, to study the home party scene and the rituals and norms of drinking. One consultant on the project, former Yale anthropology Ph.D. student Min Lieskovsky, noted some party trends that Absolut quickly applied to their marketing:

‘One after another, you see the same thing,’ Lieskovsky told me. ‘Someone comes with a bottle. She gives it to the host, then the host puts it in the freezer and listens to the story of where the bottle came from, and why it’s important.’ And then, when the bottle is served, it goes right out onto the table with all the other booze, the premium spirits and the bottom-shelf hooch mixed together.’

The quality and status of the liquor seemed to be much less important to the consumer than their personal association with it. Despite years of market research, without this use of social science, the social significance and human connection of the product might have gone overlooked—and fewer bottles of Absolut might have gotten sold.

Catalog image via and

The moment they are born (and even before), children are shaped by gendered expectations: boys today are born into a world of blue and girls in pink. Boys are expected to go outside and be rough, playing war games and cops and robbers, where girls play house or tend to dolls. Even toy stores are segregated, with “girl aisles” strewn in pink and bursting with dolls, wholly separate from those for boys, which are stocked with weapons and action figures. more...