slummin’ it with the sociologists


What do the following incidents have in common?

  • Freakonomist supreme Steve Levitt studies crime, fertility, and other topics without formal models and vanilla statistics. A legion of imitators follows.
  • The physics crowd reinvents social network analysis and claims it for their own.
  • “Continental” philosophy departs from the analytic mainstream and focuses on people who might be best described as social theorists, like Marx and Foucault.
  • Starting in the 1970s, literary criticism adopts social theory as a way of talking about literature. Some scholars abandon literature and just talk about culture more generally. Talk of class, power, and gender fills the halls of MLA for the next twenty years.

If your answer is “all these folks have appropriated sociological topics for increased status in their own discipline,” then you’d be correct.

Why? Here’s my theory. Academic disciplines make you prove your worth by mastering ever more difficult and complex topics. At a certain point, this becomes a game of diminishing returns and it is hard for upstart academics to gain status by pursuing ever more technical points. One solution is to take the highly refined tools of your discipline and apply them to ideas in sociology where data is hard to get and clean theories are rare. Just being able to recast old ideas in more sophisticated terms can appear a huge contribution to people inside another discipline, even if sociologists have seen the idea before in less glamorous terms. Also, there’s the idea that since sociology, and related areas, are “fuzzy,” you score easy points by “cleaning up” social research.

My take: Certainly, having new people tackle tough problems is good, but we can get the most from cross-disciplinary poaching if research builds on what sociologists do and goes beyond slumming for easy points. Reinventing the wheel by pitching old ideas in a new discipline’s language isn’t that useful in the long run, even if it’s an effective way to get publications.

Written by fabiorojas

November 6, 2007 at 2:48 am

Posted in academia, fabio, sociology

5 Responses

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  1. […] Rojas has a post at orgtheory confirming what I’ve always suspected about academic stardom: apply one discipline’s vocabulary to […]


  2. Are you suggesting that science of association is the mother science and that the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one?



    November 6, 2007 at 9:27 am

  3. I think you are getting at a pretty general process of how “really existing interdisciplinarity” actually works. But it cuts both ways. What do these have in common:

    (1) In the 1960s a group of researchers in organizations takes a bunch of ideas from then developing “open systems” paradigm in physical chemistry and biology. Today we are still trying to figure out what to do next.

    (2) In the 1940s a French anthropologist in exile from the Vichy regime in New York attends a lecture on Linguistics by Roman Jakobson. After he comes back to France he starts a wide ranging inter-disciplinary movement called structuralism that would revolutionize the social sciences for the next two decades (including the literary theorists that would mix his contributions with social theory). He did this primarily by reinterpreting everything under the sun in terms of binary oppositions, just like in the “Prague-circle” phonemics that he had been exposed to.

    (3) In the 1930s, a failed economics student stuck at the Harvard sociology department starts attending a reading group led by the biologist L. J. Henderson. Henderson introduces said ex-economist to the writings of Cannon on homeostasis in living organisms and to the then developing “systems” paradigm in biology. That person goes on to revolutionize the field of sociology in the United States for the next three decades, primarily by adapting these cybernetic ideas to the study of the “social system”. We are still trying to figure out what to do next.

    (4) In the 1970s, a group of organizational sociologists at Berkeley begins to mess around with mathematical models from the ecology of biotic populations. The rest is history.

    (5) In the 1940s and 1950s a young organizational researcher, takes heed of new research coming out of an ill-defined field called cognitive psychology. This research shows that there are strict limits to the capacity of humans to process information (i.e. Miller 1956). This theorist goes on to revolutionize the study of management and organizations by focusing on the notion that executives are “boundedly rational.”



    November 6, 2007 at 12:37 pm

  4. Sometimes it’s “interdisplinarity”; mix sociology and lit crit to get cultural studies. But sometimes it’s just poaching. Six years ago, Joel Best, surveyed the history of sociological ideas that eventually became popular or practical: social work, public opinion polling, criminology, etc. “It seems as though every time sociologists develop something that looks like it could turn a buck, we get rid of it.” The title of the article was “Giving It Away,” though it may be less a case of sociology giving than the others taking.

    The Freakonomics guys and their followers, as Fabio says, are chasing non-economic, social topics. Their methods, while often used in economics, are statistical techniques used generally in social science (e.g., regression). Ditto for the explanatory ideas they are working with.


    Jay Livingston

    November 8, 2007 at 12:09 pm

  5. Sometimes it is interdisciplinary. To some extent, it is just fashionable, particularly among Marxists and neo-Marxist pomos (the latter for whom it is more multi- rather than interdisciplinary) to use models that they think support their socialist world views.

    And then there are the new batch of true interdisciplinarian, like myself, Frederick Turner, J.T. Fraser, Elaine Scarry, et al who use sociology, economics, and especially evolutionary theory, complexity theory, fractal geometry, and emergence. We use sociology and other disciplines because we think things like literature are far too complex to be understood without understanding culture, society, psychology (esp. evolutionary psychology), language, etc.



    November 14, 2007 at 1:36 am

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