mackenzie seminar – the millieu of economics and sociology


There’s a lot to be discussed about Not a Camera, and we’ll probably discuss this book throughout November. My first comment concerns the intellectual atmosphere of economics. MacKenzie’s history of financial economics shows that the field was in direct engagement with “old” financial economics, Herb Simon/Carnegie school org theory, probability theory and operations research. MacKenzie’s history nicely illustrates how pathbreaking work often comes out of “crossing streams.” I was struck by how truly open the financial economics specialty was, mainly because it was seen as a low status speciality in the 1960s.

In contrast, I am struck by how little interaction many modern social scientists have with each other and those in the physical sciences. In sociology, with the exception of network analysis, I see little interaction with the physical sciences. As Omar pointed out last month, the most sophisticated quantitative sociologists seem to be obsessed with ever more refined statistical models, rather than explore more interesting mathematical alternatives. Even in qualitative social science, you don’t see the interactions with adjacent fields like philosophy, except on topical grounds (e.g., people who specialize in a specific region). Contemporary economics isn’t much better – freakonomic empiricism is all about a-theoretical searches of natural experiments and the rest of economics acknowledges other fields only with the token footnote. You really don’t see the kind of path breaking interdisciplinary meeting of minds described by MacKenzie. So here’s a few questions:

Am I right? Are we now in hermetically sealed disciplinary chambers? If not, what social science areas are making great strides through the borrowing of ideas from other areas?

If I am right, what explains the strength of intellectual boundaries in contemporary social science?

What area in sociology or management is most in need of fresh ideas from other fields?

Written by fabiorojas

November 9, 2006 at 8:10 pm

Posted in economics, fabio

4 Responses

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  1. In theory, I am all for interdisciplinary work, but I recognize that in practice its difficult to do. In the comments section of this post Peter and I got into a discussion about this. I believe that interdisciplinary work can improve the perspective of any discipline by forcing it to tighten its arguments and to improve its theory and methods. However, Peter made the good point that in reality interdisciplinary work is rare because people play in different sandboxes. We use different tools, speak different languages, make different assumptions, etc. Anyone who tries to do interdisciplinary work has a huge legitimacy hurdle to overcome. You have to be good at both, which is rare.

    My work is probably more interdisciplinary than most. My published work (especially the articles in AJS and SF) borrows a lot from and speaks to political science. I’ve presented some of it to political scientists and we can carry on good conversations (although they don’t understand why I’m so concerned about social movements). But the key to getting published was to sell the research to sociologists. Although the work may have been more satisfying to me had I been able to carry on multiple conversations at once, the publishing game forces us to narrow our conversation to a sub-field audience. Not a bad thing, I suppose, if you’re interested in cumulative science.

    Lately though, I’ve been moving more toward organizational studies. I like org studies because it is naturally an interdisciplinary place. In org studies you are free to talk about economics and sociology in the same page, although you have to be careful about your assumptions. Org studies does not seem to have the same prohibition on meshing theories as does some parts of sociology. This release from constraints feels liberating to me. But that’s just my experience.



    November 10, 2006 at 2:50 pm

  2. I think the different modeling cultures (or “epistemic cultures” in Knorr-Cetina‘s terms) are an important barrier to inter-disciplinarity. A lot of discourse of “why can’t we all just get along?” tends to focus on explicit beliefs and theoretical commitments (i.e. rational actor, versus social constructionist models) but I think a lot of the barriers are below the radar, tied to practical habits related to the everyday conduct of research. Even within the “quantitative” umbrella, as we have already discussed, there are different ways of going about things like modeling and measurement that might as well serve as chasms between disciplines.



    November 10, 2006 at 3:32 pm

  3. I need to get McKenzie’s book, of course; McKenzie offered a glimse into this interesting project behind with a speech at MPIfG (Cologne) which I was lucky enough to attend; in that speech he set the focus on the article he had written together with Yuval Millo in 2003. Since Brayden mentioned the economist-on-sociologist-post, I wish to put in the tiny footnote, that much of that and the economist-bashing was about creating connectivity and enhancing discourse across blogs. This brings me to the question: how dead is luhmann really in the light of social software producing connectivity? subtitle: about the constructionist soul of sociologists.



    November 13, 2006 at 1:54 am

  4. Just to expand of what brayden said,

    I think that as the amount of base knowledge in a particular field expands, it becomes increasingly difficult to to master enough concepts in more than one field to make that kind of investment worthwhile. Not only that, but within a single field, sub-disciplines are becoming more fractures and isolated from each other. For more on this, look up Vernor Vinge’s Technological Singularity.



    November 19, 2006 at 3:56 am

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