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sciences dismal and cheery

Kieran 

Fabio says

By emphasizing social dysfunction, we become associated with dysfunction. A basic finding in the study of the professions is that the prestige of your clients is a big predictor of your prestige. Also, if that’s what the average college student takes away from sociology – that it’s the field of social problems – then that’s the image they’ll have about us for the rest of our lives.   

Quick, which is the dismal science? Of course you know: it’s economics. Economics is of the home of the soulless bean-counters, the people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, the world of the rationers, the people who pull back the veil of everyday life revealing beyond doubt the cold, calculative, dog-eat-dog world underneath, the people whose methods help deny you health coverage, rent control and a living wage — the people, moreover, who have a bizarre picture of human nature and the place of rational calculation within it, who are willing to instrumentalize each an every social relationship into some Benthamite nightmare, turn your marriage into a simple bargain between sex, housework and money, insist that you treat your children as capital goods providing utility now and retirement security later, and wish only that you could buy or sell them for money because it would be more efficient. Depressing.

But wait! That can’t be right, because everyone knows that sociology is the field that’s all about unhappiness, dysfunction, conflict, and failure. Sociology is home to the people who see exploitation in every transaction, who lovingly document every obstacle to mobility and every impediment to equality on every dimension you can imagine, the people who pull back the veil of everyday life revealing beyond doubt the appalling structures of oppression underneath, where a tiny minority to exist in obscene privilege while millions eke out a living in empty jobs if they are lucky or are consigned to some institutional cage if they are not — the people, moreover, who have a bizarre picture of human nature and claim that your ordinary beliefs and choices are alienated, anomic, overdetermined, falsely conscious, the product of patriarchy, a manifestation of the conscience collective (whatever that is), mere cogs in a giant rationalized system, or ritual nonsense disconnected from any sensible justification. Depressing.

Thank God, then, for economics — the science not of civilization, but of the possibility of civilization, discoverer of the capitalist market, the social device responsible for the greatest increase in material well-being, good health, prosperity and cultural richness ever experienced in the history of humanity, harbinger of continued and expanded future prosperity, clarion of personal liberty against the Orwellian tendencies of bureaucracies and the state, bastion of freedom and autonomy, handmaiden of liberation from drudgery both domestic and industrial, promoter of peace and mutual understanding through trade and industry, and tireless designer and defender of sensible policies for the rapid promotion and diffusion of all of these goods for the benefit all humankind. Fantastic!

But wait! That can’t be right, either, because everyone knows that sociology is the field that’s all about liberation from oppression, the destruction of exploitation, the end of want and the transcendence of needs, whose practitioners intoxicate the minds of undergraduates with the possibility of freedom for all, the end of want, and the elimination of invidious distinctions, who hold out the prospect of real equality, meaningful work, harmony with nature and a world without conflict, and whose theorists are saturated with the language of emancipatory social change and utopian visions of future paradises and whose practitioners strive to put the tools to effect such revolutionary change into the hands of their students for the benefit of all humankind. Fantastic!

Wait, now I’m confused. Which field is which again?

Written by Kieran

July 19, 2007 at 2:18 pm

Posted in economics, sociology

11 Responses

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  1. “…clarion of personal liberty against the Orwellian tendencies of bureaucracies and the state, bastion of freedom and autonomy.”

    A little too much coffee this morning? Did lil’ Finbarr keep you up last night?

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    fabiorojas

    July 19, 2007 at 4:38 pm

  2. Being a rational choice sociologist must really suck.

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    brayden

    July 19, 2007 at 4:51 pm

  3. …clarion of personal liberty against the Orwellian tendencies of bureaucracies and the state, bastion of freedom and autonomy.”

    Hey, just read Hayek. Or spend some time at Marginal Revolution.

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    Kieran

    July 19, 2007 at 5:21 pm

  4. “Hey, just read Hayek. Or spend some time at Marginal Revolution.”

    Dude! Just kidding!

    PS. FYI, I was the first MR guest blogger back in ’03.

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    Fabio Rojas

    July 19, 2007 at 6:12 pm

  5. […] really has to offer (thereby I apologize, this is just the abbreviated version of Kieran’s science dismal and cheery) everyone knows that sociology is the field that’s all about liberation from oppression, the […]

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  6. But isn’t it necessary to point out the “unhappiness, dysfunction, conflict and failure” of the current (or previous) world(s) before thoughts of utopias start to make sense and resonate? Seeing in this way, the alleged contradiction of sociology seems to vaporize. After all, the problem with economics is not that it does not promote peace and prosperity. It may well do. The problem is that economics as it currently stands aims to limit human experience and imagination.

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    Ningxi

    July 20, 2007 at 7:09 pm

  7. The problem is that economics as it currently stands aims to limit human experience and imagination.

    Ningxi – Economists would say the same thing about sociologists though. After all, theoretically, we are more oriented to structure as constraint on agency. We talk about the benefits that proceed from collective constraint (sometimes), while economists have strong theoretical assumptions about the agency and autonomy of individuals.

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    brayden

    July 20, 2007 at 9:19 pm

  8. Perhaps we should get on with space exploration so that we could place fertile couples on their own planets, let them develop their own individual utopias, let flying sociologists study the results, and let the economists handle interplanetary trade. But where do the dismal Historians fit in?

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    Doug

    July 21, 2007 at 11:34 am

  9. Ningxi —

    Historians of thought do just that (btw, any Ph.D. worthy of the title should do the same): K. Marx, J. Schumpeter, M. Weber, F. Knight, B. de Joevenel, F. Hayek, R. Nisbet, and many, many others call attention to the misery, degradation, and unhappiness of the “prior world” before pontificating about “solutions.”

    Scholars who truly know their craft are tragi-comic.

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    Brian Pitt

    July 22, 2007 at 1:36 pm

  10. exaggeration drives out communication.

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    Tony

    July 23, 2007 at 7:52 pm

  11. I think it is pointless to argue about what someone in another field might argue (it is always easy to cherry pick the arguments of someone who is not in the room). Neither sociology nor economics are positive or negative in their entirety. I think it depends on what question you are wrestling with – and from what angle you choose to interpret reality. Should we study what works, or should we focus on deficits and dysfunction? Your choice.

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    Greg Krauska

    July 26, 2007 at 2:13 pm


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