notes from the sociological underground
There is a great, funny story in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground that has been on my mind lately (bear with me—there is a point to this, although maybe not a good one). In the story, the narrator of the book—an unnamed, isolated, and self-loathing man—becomes enraged with a large military officer who, in a crowded bar, physically moves the narrator out of the way as he (the officer) negotiates the crowd, doing so without in any way acknowledging the narrator. The narrator, unable to work up the courage to confront the officer at the time, fixates on the officer: he watches for him around the city (“staring at him with hate and malice”), figures out his routines, and starts following him from a distance; he writes a satirical essay about him but doesn’t publish it; he contemplates challenging the officer to a duel—tellingly imagining how this might lead the two to become good friends in the end—but shrinks from doing so. This goes on for several years.
At last he decides upon the perfect solution. He has noticed that on his daily walks the officer never steps aside when those of lower social status meet him on the path—he just bulls ahead, pretending like they don’t exist, and they invariably move aside. The narrator’s plan is that he will walk towards the officer on the path and will hold his ground; the officer, then, will be forced to acknowledge him and recognize his worth. The narrator plans for a long time. He decides that he will have to be well dressed in case there is a scandal afterwards, so he gets an advance on his salary to buy a new hat and new gloves; resolving that this is not enough, he begrudgingly borrows a large sum of money—several months worth of salary—from a colleague he doesn’t like so to replace his beaver overcoat collar with one made of raccoon. (I can relate!)
Thus attired, he attempts to carry out his plan several times, but on each occasion moves out of the way at the last instant. Hating himself, he finally works up the nerve to hold his ground, and the two run into each other, shoulder against shoulder: “[The officer] did not even glance back and pretended he hadn’t noticed anything; but he was only pretending, I am convinced of that! I am convinced of it to this day. Naturally, I got the worst of the collision, for he was stronger, but that was not the point. The point was that I had achieved my goal, I had sustained my dignity, I had not yielded a step and had publicly set myself on equal footing with him. I came home fully avenged for everything. I was jubilant. I was ecstatic and sang Italian arias.”
The story has been on my mind because I realized a few months ago that I think of it often when people start discussing sociology’s relationship to economics. Admittedly, this may just be a quirk on my part and no one else may see it—and I should also say that I make the comparison in a self-deprecating spirit. Even so, the fact that it keeps coming to mind makes me think that, however unflattering, such a comparison (not being noticed by a high status counterpart, dwelling on what they think of us when we are far from their mind, putting on our best models in an attempt to be acknowledged, celebrating victories in battles that they didn’t even know took place) must have some truth to it. It must represent one real position, even if an extreme one, that sociology has taken toward economics.
What to make of this? Hell, I don’t know. A couple of random thoughts:
1) Maybe we are moving past the worst manifestations of this. You don’t need to look any further than this blog to see that there is some great dialogue between economic folks, sociology folks, and all of those in between. Maybe—much like the qualitative/quantitative split in sociology seems to produce much less animosity than 20 years ago—there this borderline is becoming less contentious, and a more constructive dialogue is taking place now.
2) Less optimistically, I don’t think mainstream economics is going to start recognizing the contributions of sociology anytime soon. This can certainly be frustrating (for example, I have been reading Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge and I’m enjoying it quite a bit, but in it they discuss how instead of treating all money as fungible, people tend to earmark certain money for particular purposes—and who do they cite? No one, of course; they just provide some anecdotal examples and imply that it is common sense). But, even if this is true, it seems much better for sociologists to go about their own work with confidence in its value than to try to “nudge” economists on the sidewalk just so they will acknowledge our existence. I know, I know, this is obvious and probably doesn’t need to be said—really, most of the people I know who are working in the borderland between the two disciplines are doing this already—but, again, there must be a reason why this story keeps coming back to me . . .
P.S. Coincidentally, there is also a very amusing critique of rational action in the first section of the book.