disciplinary rivalry


Two blog posts caught my attention today. Both deal with how economics is treated by its disciplinary neighbors. In the first post, Nicolai Foss comments that management theory has become obsessed with economics bashing. Foss points to a spate of recent articles in the management literature suggesting that economics as a theoretical guide influences behavior directly through language, norms, and institutional designs. This is an obliteration, he argues, of the real intent of economic theorizing, which is to explain and predict. (I could ask, can't it be both? but I'll save that for a later post.)

I look forward to seeing in the print the essay that Nicolai and Teppo drafted in response to this literature. I agree that there is a "lovefest" (their words, not mine) going on among organizational scholars presently that needlessly bashes economics and presents economic assumptions simplistically and naively. Although Nicolai downplays the role of sociology in economics-bashing, I would argue that sociology is in the forefront of this trend. In fact, much of the management literature that Nicolai mentions comes straight out of the economic sociology handbook.

This general feeling of discontent with economics is not shared by everyone. Not everyone in the subdiscipline of economic sociology feels that the best way to establish our burgeoning field is to position ourselves as critics of economics. In fact, many of us see our role as collaborators that may build on the ideas of various forms of economics (as Nicolai says the discipline offers diverse perspectives) or at least engage in the current debates that are raging in the economics discipline. We may offer insights into questions for which economics has failed to find conclusive answers or provide input into areas where we have genuine expertise. But to simply say that we have all of the answers is naive and incredibly arrogant. Ezra Zuckerman offered caution in the pages of ASR a couple of years ago:

Perhaps more than in any other subfield of sociology, researchers in economic sociology tend to justify their work through opposition to a rival discipline…Yet a fixation on the flaws in economics is dangerous for at least two reasons. First, if we focus exclusively on showing how sociological theories are superior to neoclassical models, we risk overlooking our theories' own limits, which often become clearer when applied to new domains…[Second], if we are too eager to find a neighboring discipline's faults, we are more likely to overlook valuable research by that discipline (2004, pg. 458).

Which leads me to the second post that caught my attention. Drek, our sociologist friend blogging at Marginal Utility, comments that science should be cooperative and aggregative. Instead, we often see that competing scientific disciplines pit their perspectives against one another, each failing to realize the faults and strengths of their rival. Economics, I believe, is as guilty of this as sociology. By turning other social scientists into straw men, we fail to realize the collaborative synergy that the two might bring together. Clearly, sociology does not have all of the answers, but then neither does economics. Only by taking one another seriously can we create a more complete view of human behavior.

And this is where organizational theory should step in. I believe the best organizational theory has a cross-disciplinary feel to it. As organizational scholars, we study a concept that is of interest to economists, pscychologists, sociologists, and many other disciplines. We obviously all cannot be experts in every field, but by ignoring key insights from those fields (or by merely passing them off as foolish or naive) we are probably lessening the potential impact of our theories and research. In this post, I'm not suggesting a solution. But I would like to suggest that the solution to the problem is not to simply take an equally hard-line stance against the opposition. Rivalry doesn't have to lead to the creation of new strawmen.

Zuckerman, Ezra.  2004.  "Towards the Social Reconstruction of an Interdisciplinary Turf War."  American Sociological Review  69: 458-65.

Written by brayden king

May 8, 2006 at 9:43 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I generally agree with you Brayden. I have a specialty that is actually quite inter-disciplinary and that’s one of the most exciting parts. That said, it does require an unusually good bullshit-sniffer, but if it weren’t challenging it wouldn’t be any fun!



    May 9, 2006 at 9:03 pm

  2. Here’s a Krugman review of Warsh’s new book of the sociology and politics of economics in the 1990’s. The kind of stuff we should pay attention to. Just as, in due course, someone will write about the sociology of organizational economics – or whatever it is we are trying to do here – in the 2006’s.

    BOOKS / SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW | May 7, 2006
    ‘Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations,’ by David Warsh: The Pin Factory Mystery
    Review by PAUL KRUGMAN
    David Warsh traces the history of an enduring economic puzzle, and the effort to solve it.



    May 10, 2006 at 8:01 am

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